BOYERTOWN — Since 2014, the Boyertown Area Historical Society has been remembering the victims of the Jan. 13, 1908, Rhoads Opera House Fire with an annual wreath-laying event at the grave of the unidentified at Fairview Cemetery.
The devastating 1908 fire took the lives of 170 people and helped change fire safety laws.
“Today we remember the 170 people who died and the hundreds of others whose lives were changed by their deaths. Each of these people had a family. They had a home. They had a life that would be cut short because of an unfortunate accident,” said Luann Zambanini, Memorial Wreath Laying Event Chairperson and Boyertown Area Historical Society board member to open the ceremony.
Opening night, with an audience of more than 300, the religious stage play, "The Scottish Reformation" by Harriet Earhart Monroe, never made it to the final act.
A stage lighting kerosene lamp was knocked over, starting the fire and beginning a series of tragic circumstances that led to the death of almost a tenth of Boyertown’s then population.
Twenty-five of the Opera House fire victims were unidentifiable. Their bodies were placed in individual caskets and separate graves. Their names appear on the stone marked "In memory of The Unidentified in the Boyertown Catastrophe Jan. 13, 1908.”
“This event is to remember all the victims of the fire. We hold the wreath- laying at the grave of the unidentified and we highlight one or more of the unidentified victims,” said Zambanini.
Describing a victim who was related to no one in Boyertown, she said, “I wonder if her grave was ever visited after she was buried here. This victim was Della Mayers. Della came to town as the lecturer at the entertainment of the play.”
Mayers, sister to the "The Scottish Reformation" author Harriet Earhart Monroe (and aunt to Amelia Earhart) traveled to Boyertown with the costumes, props, and photos for the play.
This year, John Fritz and his daughter Ida Cora Fritz were remembered.
Lindsay Dierolf told their story:
“John Fritz, born in 1846 ran his family farm and was the director of the Boyertown Canning factory. He and his wife Sara had seven children. John Fritz was in attendance, at the church-sponsored play, to see three of his children; Ida Cora, James, and Emma perform.
Ida Cora was 34 years old. She worked at a knitting mill and served as a Sunday School teacher and secretary of the Ladies’ Aid Society and the Berks County Luther League.
After the fire, it was reported that Ida Cora was one of the first out of the building, perhaps even escorting her siblings down the back stairs from the stage. She then went back into the building to search for their father. John Fritz and his daughter, Ida Cora Fritz both perished in the fire and neither could be identified. They are buried here along with 23 other unidentified people.”
Steven Grill, firefighter John Graver’s great-grandson, placed a wreath at the grave of The Unidentified. Keystone firefighter John Graver died in the line of duty when a fire hose cart crushed Graver and damaged the cart on their way to the Opera House Fire. Graver’s sister Lottie was attending the play. Lottie later died from injuries she received during her second-story fall from a window as she was escaping the fire.
Boyertown Alumni Marching Band’s Christian Allmendinger and Timothy Arcuri played the “Taps” bugle call at the cemetery.
Asking everyone to bow their heads, Pastor Heidi Sillman of St. Andrew UMC offered prayers, “Lord God, we pray for all of our ancestors, the victims of the Rhoads Opera House Fire. The fire that raged the night of Jan. 13, 1908.”
After an invitation to share their stories, firefighter John Graver’s granddaughter, Joanne (Graver) Grill of West Reading, displayed a photo of John Graver. Grill recalled the story of how Graver also fell victim to the tragedy and mentioned that the firefighter didn’t die until the next day.
Christian Allmendinger also recounted, “My wife’s great grandmother was one of four sisters who lived in Barto. All four sisters were supposed to go to the Opera House that night. They, all four, got in trouble. All four were grounded from going that night. Had they gone, they may have died with all of the others.”
Select members of the Boyertown Alumni Marching Band, Christian Allmendinger, Timothy Arcuri, Phillip Arcuri, George McBlane, and Greg Mest, played “Amazing Grace.” The Alumni band has played at each Memorial Wreath Laying Ceremony.
Before inviting those in attendance to search for Della E. Mayers’ grave, Zambanini concluded the ceremony.
“As we leave here today, may we remember that 112 years ago, many people would climb the stairs of the Rhodes Opera House to watch a play "The Scottish Reformation." They would see the first half of the play. Then, the nightmare would happen. 170 would die as a result of this fire. Families would be torn apart. Some families would never return home. Life would never be the same for this community. This nightmare would create a blanket of sadness over Boyertown that would last for many years.”
About 10 of those in attendance accompanied Zambanini in a search for Della E. Mayers grave - section D-1, Row 14.
One of Mayers’ brothers, either Edwin or Charles, is reported to have said, “I can imagine no spot on earth where I would rather be buried than Fairview Cemetery in Boyertown. The view from the point where we buried my sister is sublime. I never saw a prettier prospect anywhere. The location is ideal and the people are kind, sympathizing and hospitable.”