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Cortland Normal School

Location #1: Courthouse Park at Church Street, Cortland NY
(42.599954, -76.177865)

“The tower on the main building burst rapidly and carried part of the roof with it when toppled to the north and fell with a crash, the bell that for half a century that had summoned students to the Normal and which before that for two generations had rung from the tower of the old Cortlandville Academy, sound for the last time as the tower toppled over.”

Cortland Standard (Feb. 27, 1919)

The Normal School of Cortland, just four days shy of its 50th anniversary, burned spectacularly and entirely to the ground. The behemoth of a brick building totaled in length 350 feet and was at its widest, 130 feet. Its four floors comprised nearly two acres of halls, classrooms, offices, and libraries.

All of this was under the care of custodian Fred Seeber. Beginning his rounds at 5 a.m., Fred checked the boiler room; finding nothing amiss, he proceeded to walk the length of campus on his morning rounds. At no point was fire or smoke detected by Fred between five and six that morning.

Mrs. Howard Burtch, of 3 State Street, spotted smoke just a few minutes past 6 a.m. She sounded the alarm posthaste. The firemen were on the scene almost immediately. Within moments the blaze punched from the center of the building, billowing through the roof. Almost simultaneously, the west end of the school was engulfed in seething flames. Less than an hour later, the fire Chief declared the building lost. Highly flammable and fanned by a stiff breeze, even the four lines of hoses could not save the beloved school.

Crowds of macabrely curious spectators gathered, three deep, to watch the ruins of the once stately school begin to crumble. “The entire structure from end to end was doomed” the local Friday morning edition reported the day after one of the most devastating fires in all of Cortland County History. The fire Chief declared the inception of the fire a mystery, perhaps, he suggested, caused by spontaneous combustion.

Location #2: Corner Stone in Old Main at SUNY Cortland, Graham Avenue, Cortland, NY
(42.607137, -76.191649)

The source of the fire remained a mystery and swirled with rumors and allegations.

It was common knowledge that Dr. DeGroat, president of the Normal School, had been aggressively petitioning to move the campus. According to the Cortland Standard, “Plans have been underway for some time for the erection of a new school at Cortland, and controversy over the site has existed in the city.” Conveniently, Dr. DeGroat was in Chicago at the time. Coincidence or alibi? The fact that the insurance claim covered 100 percent of the cost of building a new campus also left locals suspicious. Especially when Dr. DeGroat was placed at the head of the newly created committee to determine the school’s future location.

At a board meeting several days after the fire, custodian Fred Seeber was brought forward, at their request, to recant the events leading up to the devastating blaze. Fred stated that the evening prior, he had locked up the entire building, as was normal- except for the main entrance. A group of young men were to use the school’s gymnasium for military training. The Commander had a key and was expected to lock the door when finished. However, that night the commander was ill, and his lieutenant, Horatio Burnham, was filling in. Lieutenant Burnham assured the board that he had locked up and returned the key to Captain Norris. No witnesses were reported to have verified this. Was there perhaps an accidental oversite, leaving the school vulnerable to vandals?

Fred then stated that he never carried matches, nor did he allow the use of them around the building. He did not even tolerate cigarettes and had never seen one on campus. Fred went on to reveal that in a conversation with C. Vernon Peck, who had been amongst the first on the scene, it was confided to him that Vernon had noticed the door to the basement smashed in. Fred was sure that this door, which led to the paper room, was secure the night before.

In response to this, the board immediately telephoned Vernon, who willingly recalled the tail. He confirmed Fred’s statement by further explaining that three of the upper windows on the door had also been broken. Through the ajar door, it was apparent the sash had been busted apart, implying someone had broken into the room from the exterior and not the reverse. Vernon suspected that someone had thrown in a lit match to instigate the inferno.

In the end, the burning of the Normal School was to remain unsolved. The Cortland Standard suggested that “…the cause of the fire will probably never be known.”

The arguments surrounding the new location of the school were just as heated and dangerous as the fire that destroyed it.

“Sentiment favors rebuilding the Normal on the sight of the big blaze,” reported the Cortland Standard (Feb. 27, 1919). Some individuals were in favor of the Randal Flats location. Nonetheless, Dr. DeGroat persevered, and the school was moved to “the hill.”

In 1923, at the crest of Graham Ave., Old Main opened its doors, welcoming the school to its permanent location. Within the lobby sits the original cornerstone, salvaged from the Normal School blaze, in a visible place of honor.

Location #3: The Dragon at 17 Lankler Drive, Cortland NY
(42.590615, -76.202364)

We may never know how the fire started that blustery February morning in 1919. Was it simply an oversite, exploited by enterprising ne’er-do-wells? Maybe the Fire Chief’s theory about a rouge ember drifting through the paper shoot or spontaneous combustion in the paper room is correct. Did Vernon truly witness the back door broken in, to commit nefarious deeds? Perhaps deeds were inspired by the persistent president, Dr. DeGroat, who, in the end, did get his way, after all.

What we don’t believe is a coincidence is SUNY Cortland’s mascot, a Dragon, aptly named Blaze.

1. “Preparations Made for Beginning School Work on Monday.” Cortland Standard, 1 Mar. 1919.
2. Ralston, Leonard, and Illustrated Throughout. Cortland College : An Illustrated History. First Edition, Alumni Association of Cortland College, 1991.
3. “State Normal School Wholly Destroyed by Fire Near Semi-Centennial of Its Opening, March 3, 1869.” Cortland Standard, 27 Feb. 1919, p. 1-2.