WILLIAMSBURG - Elsie Gunnett will never forget Aug. 2, 1975 - the day the Blair County Children's Home was gutted by fire.
"That was terrible; it was the worst experience I ever had in my life," said Gunnett, who was working as a house parent at the time.
"I was bathing some young boys. I had four in the bathtub. I saw through the window toward the road a fire truck coming around the turn, then the alarm went off. There I was with four boys in the tub. One of the older girls helped me wrap them in blankets and take them outside," Gunnett said while sitting on the back porch of her Williamsburg home. "We didn't know how bad the fire would be. I went back to close the fire door, and a fireman said to get out of the building."
(Mirror photo illustration by Gary M. Baranec and Tom Worthington II)
George Settle (left) of Birmingham, Bruce Gwin of Williamsburg and Tom Eckard of Altoona tell stories from their time at the Blair County Children’s Home (above) during a reunion at DelGrosso's Amusement Park. Settle and Eckard were residents, and Gwin was the director there for a time.
The fire destroyed the original side of the building that opened in 1902, leaving officials with the task of finding homes for about 45 children who were in the home at the time.
The story of the home began in 1891. At that time, an act was passed by the state Legislature requiring any child under 16 who was dependent or neglected to be committed to some suitable institution or to some training school.
A Children's Aid Society was established to secure homes for the children.
By 1897, the society and the Blair County commissioners leased the Juniata Collegiate Institute buildings in Martinsburg from P.H. Bridenbaugh.
However, a fire destroyed that facility, so a plot of ground was purchased in Williamsburg in 1900, and a new home was completed in 1902.
All the children who were wards of the county were taken to the home, and Sarah Murray was appointed as superintendent. At that time, the home accommodated about 30 children.
In 1939, an addition was built to the home, which added 35 beds. A large indoor gymnasium and an outdoor playground and swimming pool also were added.
Throughout the years, the home provided housing and care for hundreds of neglected and abused children, many from broken homes, some whose parents could not care for them and others who were orphaned.
The home was designed for children ages 5 through 18. Many of the children were in and out of the home as well as foster homes. They attended Williamsburg schools while they were residents of the home.
Gunnett and Robert Merritts, who served as superintendent from 1972 until the home closed, said the children were good kids for the most part.
"The kids we got were not delinquents - they were abused and neglected. They wanted attention so bad. They just died for your attention. What made me feel bad was it was the parents that needed rehabilitated, not the children," Gunnett said. "We were told not to get close to anyone. [But] you can't work with children and not get close to them. I really loved those kids - a lot of them called me grandma and mom. If you showed them a little bit of love, that was all they needed."
Merritts said many people in the community thought the kids were "bad" because they were in the home, but that wasn't the case.
"They were not bad kids; they just came from bad family situations," Merritts said. "They were dependent and often times neglected. They needed a place where they were offered food, clothing and medical attention."
Some of those who lived or worked at the home have fond memories of their days there. For the past four years, former residents and workers have gotten together for a summertime reunion at DelGrosso's Amusement Park, where they reminisce about their experiences.
Some say the positive experience they had at the home kept them out of trouble - and possibly out of jail.
Pat Prough of Williamsburg was 6 years old when he became a resident of the home, where he stayed from Nov. 21, 1964, until January 1975. He was joined by older brothers Bob and John.
"I can remember feeling sad, but the first night we got there, I got into a clean bed. I believe from that point on, at least for me, we never looked back," said Prough, now 51, and owner of Prough's Masonry, Williamsburg. "It was a much better environment than we were used to."
Prough, who said his parents were alcoholics, said he enjoyed his stay at the home.
"If you wanted to play ball, there was always a group of kids that you could play with. There were always at least 25 boys there," Prough said. "I really enjoyed it there because of the structure."
Prough called his stay at the home a positive experience.
"I tell other people if not for what I learned there [discipline], I would not be what I am today," said Prough, who has become a successful business owner.
Rodney Steinbeiser was a resident of the home from August 1964 until June 1967. His parents had divorced, and an aunt, who became his legal guardian, had to work full-time, so he was sent to the home.
Steinbeiser said his experience was a good one for the most part.
"We celebrated all the holidays just like any family. We went to movies, to Lakemont Park. We were allowed to go fishing, hiking and sledding in the winter time. We had our own pool. How many kids had their own pool in their back yard?" asked Steinbeiser, 60, now of Hopkinton, Mass.
Steinbeiser, who spent 25 years in the purchasing field and is now semi-retired, said the stay at the home was important in his life.
"The home and the people who ran it had a great influence with me, even though it did not show up until later in life," Steinbeiser said. "I do believe if I grew up in a one-parent family with little or no guidance I would have landed in jail, if not worse."
Randy Douglass of Altoona was sent to the home in 1960 at the age of 8 and stayed there for three years. Five of his brothers and sisters also spent time at the home because he said their parents couldn't take care of them.
"It did good for us. I learned a lot. You knew there was someone there that would take care of you," said Douglass, now 57, owner of R Tires, 2119 Ninth Ave., Altoona. "It taught me about life, how to take care of yourself."
Randy's brother Floyd lived at the home from 1960 to 1966, when he graduated from Williamsburg High School.
"At first, I didn't like it, but it was probably the best thing that happened to us," said Floyd Douglass, 63, Dayton, Ohio, who has been a postal carrier for the past 39 years. "I was the first in my family to graduate from high school. If I hadn't stayed there, I never would have graduated."
Steinbeiser credits Mr. and Mrs. William Corboy, who served as home superintendents from 1961 to 1968, for making major improvements at the home.
"The Corboys were the best people who could have come to that home. They did things for the kids that were not being done before," Steinbeiser said. "When I first went there, they had cots like in the service. Six months to a year later, the Corboys got all new beds for the kids to make them more comfortable. They took us camping, to the movies in Altoona and to parks. They tried to make your life easier and make it a home atmosphere."
Not everyone saw their time at the home as a positive, though.
"There were good times and there were bad times. A lot of us ran away," said George Settle, 70, Birmingham, who lived at the home on and off between 1946 and 1956.
"If you were caught swearing or smoking or you brought home real bad grades, you were put on restriction. That meant you couldn't go to the dances, the football, basketball games, go out on Saturdays," Steinbeiser said. "Sometimes it seemed I would just get off restriction, then I would go back on for doing something else."
After the fire in 1975, the children living there were placed in foster homes and in group homes.
Merritts said he came up with the idea to set up group homes in two large houses, one in Williamsburg near the Big Spring and the other next to the Westvaco envelope plant.
"We had to move swiftly. We had one home near the envelope company that had six or seven rooms. We could house about 15 kids in that and the one up by the Big Spring. We were able to provide for a number of kids," Merritts said. "We kept less than 30 here."
Shirley Force, director of the county Children's Service Agency, said she could not justify rebuilding the home - Merritts said it would have cost about $1 million to renovate it.
Four months after the fire, the commissioners decided to phase out the home.
Merritts said the decision left him depressed.
"I wasn't worried for myself for employment. I had been offered work by a food distribution service. All of my career had been associated with children. We [he and wife, Annette] were more concerned about the kids. We became close to these kids," Merritts said.
Gunnett and others disagreed with the decision to close and not renovate the children's home.
"We knew it was a big mistake. A place like that was needed. Of all the children we had there, there were as many on the street that needed a place like that," Gunnett said. "We felt so bad when the home closed."
"The biggest mistake Blair County ever made was closing it. Why would they shut it down when they had such a good place to put kids like me?" McKinney said.
Force said the decision not to renovate the home was based on philosophy, and the home probably would have been closed, fire or not.
"It closed because the philosophy of child care had changed. It was better not to put them in an institution; there was a change to a more home-like setting," Force said.
In 1977, Williamsburg Church of God officials decided to make a church educational center out of the former Blair County Children's Home, which the church purchased for $75,000.
The church remains on the site today.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.