The bustling Tagert gristmill in Gilbertsville was unusually still on the morning of Jan. 14, 1908.

The night before, miller Robert Tagert, 73; his wife, Ellen, 61; and their unmarried daughter, Rosa Ellen, 42, a teacher, had gone to a religious play at the Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown.

All three, along with 166 others, were killed when fire swept through the theater at the start of the third act.

The death of firefighter John Graver the next day brought the toll to 170.

Many were burned beyond recognition.

The members of the Tagert family were among the 25 whose remains were unidentifiable, including five children, to be buried in a common grave in Boyertown’s Fairview Cemetery during two ceremonies on Jan. 19, 1908.

“Parents were gone, children were gone, teachers were gone, and students were gone,” Luann Zambanini said Sunday, Jan. 17, during a memorial service for the opera house fire victims. “Friends were gone, family members were gone.”

Church pews were left empty; factories were missing workers, she said, continuing, “Life had changed, just as our lives have changed with this COVID.”

Zambanini is coordinator of the annual memorial presented at the cemetery by the Boyertown Area Historical Society.

More than 25 people braved a chilling wind to attend the service, which focuses on the lives of different victims each year.

The memorial included a wreath laying on the grave of the unidentified, a musical tribute by a brass ensemble and a prayer by the Rev. Mary Ann Ann Siefke of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Gilbertsville, along with reflections from those attending.

“I think this virus has opened up our eyes to the value of our family and our friends, the value of those we know through our business relationships, the value of everyone’s life,” Zambani said, noting she was quarantining at home, when she wrote her speech.

“It made me think of how after the tragic fire, the folks that were left to pick up the pieces, probably wanted to go home, go to bed, stay in bed for a week or more and hope they could wake up and find it had been just a nightmare.”

And though some likely had nightmares about the horrific fire and devastating loss of life, the tragedy, like the pandemic, was all too real to the family and friends left behind, she said.

The Tagerts had reared three children on their Gilbertsville mill tract, Zambanini said, sharing their story. Two had moved away and did not attend the play with the rest of the family. Married daughter Lilly was living in Philadelphia; and only son Charles, in Pennsburg.

He returned to the family farm to care for the animals until they and the 35-acre farm and mill were sold in a two-day auction near the end of March, 1908. By the time the last hammer pounded the auctioneer’s podium, everything, including the household goods and faithful horse, Old Billy, had been sold, Zambanini said.

At the time of the fire, Rosa Ellen Tagert was teaching at the Middle Creek School in Douglass Township, Montgomery County.

Beloved by her students, she was eulogized in a poem by one of them, Genevieve M. Erb of Gilbertsville. The poem was preserved in a scrapbook, now in a private collection, Zambinini said.

“Our dear teacher we can ne’er forget, Although she passed death’s gloomy river; She lives within our memory yet, And in our love must live forever,” said Zambini, reading the five-stanza poem aloud.

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