Blaze of Glory: Memories of Old Main

By admin  |  March 20, 2009  | 

Tales of the legendary Old Main Dormitory on the Mississippi State University campus upon the 50th anniversary of its ultimate demise

by Mark H. Stowers

A late night crammed with studying for finals had mostly come to an end. The majority of residents remaining on the Mississippi State campus that Friday night were held captive by semester exams scheduled for Saturday morning. But the sleep many had planned was quickly pierced by frantic and desperate cries and screams of fire slicing through the frigid Starkville campus. Old Main was on fire.

Windows were thrown open and belongings frantically tossed out. Residents grabbed valuables and hit the hot, smoldering floor running. Smoke and heat permeated the structure. Staircases were strewn with belongings and undergrads scampering for safety. Meagerly clad boys were wide-eyed as they viewed the Romanesque, seemingly indestructible building burning out of control.

Nearly 80 years of history, secrets and organized bedlam came to rest in the ashes of Old Main that smoldered for several days, but nothing can destroy the memories of this prized college dormitory as it lives on through its residents, their children and grandchildren.

Not An Ordinary Dorm

More than 40,000 boys passed through the incarnations of Old Main and came out men. When Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College opened its doors to students in 1880, the expected class of 250 boys was actually 354—more than the “still under construction” institution could house. The overflow of students poured into the community and were taken in by generous townspeople. Over the next 42 years, Old Main Dormitory continued to take shape.

Delays pushed back the opening but 250 students moved into 115 rooms in March of 1881. The building also included classrooms, drafting rooms, oil and coal storage, as well as a post office, guardroom and armory. The rest of the college sprang up around Old Main like irrigated beans, cotton and corn. Old Main brought new life to the barren fields of a starkly populated county.

The dorm would morph and grow as housing needs increased and students came by the hundreds from across the nation. The hodge-podge dormitory was finally completed in 1922 and had become a four-sided structure with a quadrangle of grass in the middle the size of a football field. Though not an engineering marvel, it was fashioned together much like Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” ode to building a car by stealing parts over many years.

Boys and GI Bill men filled Old Main over the years, each one procuring an education far beyond what their classrooms could ever offer.

A Small Town was Built There

At one time, Old Main was the largest dormitory in the nation with space available for 1,500 residents. As it was built, different sections acquired names. New Dorm and Front Section and Band Hall were a few. But along the southwest wing was the most famous. Polecat Alley, dearly named after skunks had used a passageway under that section to move around the campus, dates back to at least 1911 when a resident lost his battle to evict a skunk and had to bury his clothes.

Old Main became a city and town all of its own. Its population outweighed that of most towns from which its residents hailed. Here they learned the lessons of life, made friends for the ages and attempted to sleep and study.

Many famous Mississippians experienced Old Main. Senator John Stennis, entertainer Jerry Clower, Chef Craig Claiborne and Red Sox/Delta State Legend Dave “Boo” Ferriss “did their time” in Old Main as all incoming freshman had to live in Old Main.

Ferriss lived in part of the early formation of Old Main and forsook the athletic dorm to live with his best friend, Nino Bologna. “We had a great time. I wouldn’t take anything for spending a year there with Nino,” Ferriss says. “I also got to be close friends with Sonny Montgomery.”

Belzoni native and former Interim President Roy Ruby, was an undergrad from 1957 to 1961. Ruby’s father played baseball under Dudy Noble at State. “All I had ever known and loved was Mississippi State,” he says. “My mother, father and grandmother took me to Starkville on a Sunday afternoon and I moved into Old Main. I was taken back at the first sight of it.”

Oil soaked floors greeted each resident and the rooms were bare bones in amenities. “There was one light cord hanging from the ceiling with one light bulb,” Ruby says. “Under that was a World War II army surplus table and three metal chairs. There were three bunks, two stacked with one down, all army surplus cots. There were no closets just chifforobe-type things. In 1957, I thought that’s how college students were supposed to live.”

 A Day in the Life of Old Main

Tales of cards, booze, water fights, small fires and fireworks were pretty much the order of the day. “It was a pretty raucous place,” Ruby says, “a place where freshmen lived together and did all of those wild things, but at the same time it was civilized.

“If someone was really studying in his room, a fellow would shoot lighter fluid under the door and then light it. That was thought to be very humorous at the time.”

Many residents remember that if the janitors didn’t pick up the trash, students would gather newspapers and set the cans on fire.

Many a GPA suffered due to bourré, a card game similar to spades. Even though the “penny per hand pots” sound insignificant, many freshmen soon learned a few life lessons. “We played all the time, though gambling was against school policy,” Ruby says.

The games could “clean-out” the losers. “I saw a thirty-dollar pot one night in penny-ante bourré,” retired farmer Turner Arant of Indianola says.

A freshman in 1950, Bill Stowers of Inverness learned quickly that a card-playing career was not “in the cards” for him. “They broke me from gambling,” Stowers says. “I got $20 a week and my gambling wasn’t covered in that.”

Robert Smith of Cleveland, a freshman in 1940, recalls plenty of “craps games” being held on the roof. “A security guard came up there one night,” Smith says. “Usually everybody would get away but he caught one fella by the leg and drug him down two or three flights of stairs. Some of the boys called out, ‘Don’t kill the old son-of-a-bitch!’”

Scott Poindexter and Bruce Brumfield, both of Inverness, were roommates in the fall of 1956. “There was a card game in our room 24 hours a day,” Poindexter says. “The lights never shut off. Now I didn’t know how to play cards but Bruce did.”

Brumfield recalls quite a few folks coming through their little corner of paradise. “Sometimes Scott and I would go to sleep and when we’d wake up the next morning, they’d still be playing cards.”

Jim Corder, formally of Indianola, a freshman in 1958, recalls his father helping him learn some “important financial lessons” via mail. “I was introduced to bourré,” he says. “I sent a letter home asking for money. My father sent a letter back written on toilet paper that said, ‘Dear Mr. Rockefeller, you now have $2.02 in your bank account with 14 days left in the month. Good luck. Love, Pop.’”

Corder’s sister, Camille Towery, says their father fondly told stories of Old Main. “He said that the engineering students wired the urinal and when folks would go to the bathroom, they would get shocked,” she says. “And back in 1928, they didn’t come home for Thanksgiving. So my grandmother would put a box on the train around 5:00 a.m. filled with turkey and everything.” The train would arrive with its aromatic boxes around 2:00 p.m. “Guys would be hanging out the windows waiting for the boys with boxes,” she says. “The boys would gather round and all share.”

Music and Mischief

Poindexter’s room was the place to be as records were always spinning with Fats Domino, Elvis and other hot sounds of the ‘50s. “I had a record player and that thing ran all the time,” Poindexter says. “We played certain songs on certain days. On Mondays we played ‘Blue Monday’ by Fats Domino.”

Along with the cards and music, came notorious pranks. From locking in students with a coat hanger wired to the doorknob and a nail in the floor to water hoses run through transoms (details not exactly fit to print), there was rarely a dull moment.

Malcolm Gray was the Dean of Students during Poindexter’s time at Old Main and the boys took great strides to stay on the right side of the feared disciplinarian. “He was a tough old coot,” he says. We called him ‘Talcolm.’ He was a stocky-built rough son of a gun but he had his hands full.”

With so many boys in one place, natural rivalries broke out. At all hours you could hear residents shouting disparaging remarks about other towns. One of the favorite rants was when the East and West side of the dormitory would trade insults out the windows. “At night they’d yell, ‘East side go to hell!’ and worse than that and ‘East side bite a hog’s behind’ and back and forth,” Ruby says. “One guy from Belzoni didn’t understand and thought they said ‘Esau.’ The next morning at breakfast he said, ‘This Esau must be a sorry scoundrel. Everybody is down on Esau.’”

There’s one legendary tale of a 1950 anonymous freshman (from the Delta), who had enough of the noise and took matters into his own hands. At that time, dynamite was a handy farm tool and easily attainable. “I had had enough of those firecracker shootings going on,” Mr. Anonymous says. “I came home and got three sticks of dynamite, put it in a shoebox and went out in the quadrangle and put it under a bush so nobody would see it. Boy, it rattled everything. It didn’t break anything but it made a racket.”

The next morning, Mr. Anonymous made his way to the cafeteria to hear the news. “One boy said he had worked with dynamite all his life and that it must have been at least a case. But it was only three sticks and they were weak,” he says. “We didn’t have fireworks anymore for awhile.”

More than fifty years later, Arant remembers the blast like it was yesterday. “The vibration almost knocked everybody out of bed,” he says. “But we never knew who did it.”

The Legendary Fire

Smoke and crackling and screams pierced the night air on January 23, 1959. But what brought this famous institution to ashes? “I read a report while working at State that they believe it was a hot plate in the 100 section,” Ruby says.

Firewalls had been added but they didn’t go all the way through the attic. The fire leapt the safety feature, got into the attic, and worked its way around the entire dormitory. Fire hoses built in for such an occasion had either been removed or shut off due to misuse in so many pranks. Fire trucks came in droves but were useless against the raging fire. They turned their attention to protecting surrounding buildings as Old Main came down in a blaze of glory. “You could see the reflection of the fire in the sky from 40 miles away,” Ruby says.

Corder was studying on the first floor when he heard the commotion. “We heard this loud stomping and thought somebody was fighting,” he says. “We ran up to the third floor and saw the fire. I ran back in the room and grabbed sheets and started throwing in books and pictures. But when I grabbed it, I only had three corners of the four and all my stuff spilled on the floor.”

When Corder turned around, the hallway was engulfed in flames. “I figured it was pretty much time to make my run.”

It seems every resident who ever lived there, saw plenty of foolish prank fires but never thought the place could ever burn down. “It was an indestructible dormitory,” says Poindexter. “How it ever caught fire and burned, I don’t know because I saw some unbelievable things happen and it never seemed to faze it one bit.”

Joe Woods, a freshman in 1958 from Anguilla, was also in Old Main that fateful night. He was one of the last people to see Henry Allen, the only student who died in the fire.

“Henry and I became friends in algebra class and he had unofficially moved in with me,” Woods recalls. “He was tutoring me for an exam the next morning so around 2:00 a.m. we decided to go to bed.”

Less than 30 minutes later, the yells of “fire” rang through the hallway. Woods turned on his light and could barely see the floor due to the smoke. “By the time I jumped down, the floor was red hot,” he says. “I pulled on a pair of pants and ran out. We had four flights of stairs to get down and everyone was just jumping from one flight to the next. Kids were knocking each other down. It’s a real miracle that a lot more didn’t burn up.”

Others had seen his friend out on the drill field but he ran back in to get something. “His parents had just bought him a new 1959 Chevrolet for Christmas,” Woods says, “and my theory is that he went back in to get his car keys.”

Even with the gloom of the fire permeating, a little humor was found. Elwood Bright of Indianola adds, “When I went to school there you had to take two years of ROTC. I saw this one guy who went over to his pile of stuff and came out with his ROTC uniform. He rolled it up and threw it right back in, turned around and said, ‘Good riddance!’”

Bob Bailey, a freshman in 1958 from Meridian, says the fire helped his grades a little. “I had a chemistry exam the next day and I was not a good chemistry student,” he says. “Dr. Clyde Q. Sheely used to separate the men from the boys. He was about to separate me but the dormitory burned down. I’m convinced he gave a little grace to those of us who lived in Old Main because there’s no way I could of gotten a C.”

Cleveland native Noel Funchess, a freshman in 1958, remembers, “There was obviously some bootlegging going on because my roommate helped one guy carry a trunk out of his room. When he opened it, it was full of whiskey. He gave him a pint for helping him.”

Ramon Callahan, originally from Starkville, was on his way to Old Main to pick up some friends to go duck hunting. “I lived west of town, and when I got up, I could see the whole sky lit up,” he says.

A Place in Our Hearts

It was a mish mash of construction but one of the most special places to experience. “It was a fun place to live and I wouldn’t take anything for my time there,” says Poindexter.

“Common experience lead to an uncommon education,” Ruby says. “Democracy was taught there. Social give and take was taught there.”

Old Main lives on in the hearts of its residents, but would it be as popular had it not met its demise? Ruby believes Old Main would be alive and well today had it not burned. “We’d be pouring millions of dollars into it to make it livable due to the affection that the alumni had for it,” Ruby says.

Though diminished to ashes over 50 years ago, the tales from the crypt remain.

Delta Magazine March/April 2009

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