We built this city. But it came together in a circuitous way, and a disaster 70 years ago today may have helped spur the case for metropolitan government in Nashville and Davidson County.
Metro Nashville was created in 1963, after the separately governed city and county voted in favor of consolidation in 1962. A previous referendum, in 1958, had failed to produce a winning margin, but the momentum grew. Six years earlier, on Halloween morning in 1952, 12-year-old Hillsboro High School — the county’s second-largest school, built at a cost of roughly $1 million (more than $10 million in today’s dollars) and featuring an as-yet-unoccupied new wing that had cost some $180,000 to build — burned to the ground.
“The closest fireplug with high pressure was down at Hillsboro and Hobbs,” remembers Stephen F. Wood Sr., 86 (father of the author of this article). The hydrant stood some 3,000 feet from the school. Judge Beverly Briley, chief executive of the part of Davidson County outside of Nashville’s city limits, led an inquiry into what went wrong with the response. Briley would eventually serve as the first mayor of metropolitan Nashville.
The fire broke out around 2 a.m. on October 31, 1952. Various suburban firefighting units, volunteer and otherwise, responded swiftly to the alarm but were unable to get adequate pressure from hoses hooked to the Hobbs hydrant. Newspaper reports say that flames leapt 200 feet into the air and that the entire school, opened in 1940, was lost by 4:30 in the morning.
Patsy Bradley, daughter of famed music producer Owen Bradley, was an eighth grader in the fall of 1952. She remembers that her father stopped to watch the fire on his way home from a late-night recording session. When she saw him the next morning, he told her, “Well, you won’t be going to Hillsboro next year.”
Classes to Remember
The student body at HHS, 768 strong, included memorable personalities. The late Bill Cochran was a star athlete who would go on to a distinguished career leading Northwestern Mutual Insurance’s Nashville office. Walter Knestrick built a successful construction firm but is best-known as a leading collector of the work of classmate Red Grooms, an artist who built an international following.
Lannie Neal, age 16, would go on to a prominent career as an interior decorator in Nashville. He appeared in a photo accompanying a Tennessean article on the fire by reporter John Seigenthaler. “He wrings his hands in helpless anguish,” the caption reads, “and chokes back the sobs.”
“I loved that school,” football player Milton Komisar told Seigenthaler at the smoldering site. “I never realized that before. I actually loved that school.” Standing with him, football coach Billy Mac Jones nodded. “We all did, son. We all did.”
Even though all its football equipment had been destroyed, the Hillsboro team went ahead with its scheduled game at Montgomery Bell Academy the night after the fire. Father Ryan High School provided its uniforms and other equipment for the Burros to use. “MBA usually beat Hillsboro in those days,” remembers Steve Wood, who was then an MBA student, “but Hillsboro absolutely clobbered MBA that night.” Under the leadership of quarterback Nick Coutras — who later won a state championship as the coach of Overton High — Hillsboro won by a score of 19-0.
Soon after the fire, the Southern Baptist Convention offered the school system an opportunity to rent unused classroom space at the newly established Belmont College, on the site that had hosted the Ward-Belmont girls’ school for decades. Patsy Bradley remembers that in addition to Belmont College, classes also met at what is now Belmont United Methodist Church.
‘The Price of Disunity’
As the county’s postwar suburbs grew, they developed a patchwork, privatized approach to fire protection. Two World War II veterans created a subscription-based Donelson Fire Department in 1949. Other such departments functioned in the Inglewood-Madison, Richland and Woodbine neighborhoods. These small firefighting teams either imposed heavy charges to tend to blazes at the homes of non-subscribers or simply refused to fight those fires at all.
The city-county Community Services Commission, created under state law in 1951, had issued a report earlier in 1952 that concluded: “Fire hydrants are almost non-existent outside Nashville’s city limits. Water lines are too small in most of the suburban area. The private fire ‘departments’ are under-manned and under-trained. Relations between suburban fire ‘departments’ are not conducive to co-operation and teamwork.” The commission called for the creation of “an integrated metropolitan fire protection system.”
The day after Hillsboro burned, the Tennessean ran an editorial with the headline “The Price of Disunity.”
Of all the facets of the Hillsboro disaster, none stands out more plainly than the inadequacy of the fire protection upon which a public investment of more than one million dollars depended.
Had the proper facilities and equipment been readily available, it has been pointed out, the fire in all probability could have been checked with a comparatively light loss. But such equipment and facilities were not readily available—because Hillsboro High stood on “the other side” of the city limits.
The rebuilt Hillsboro High opened for the 1954-55 school year, after construction that cost more than $1.3 million. Insurance covered only $395,000 of that amount.
In 2022, HHS completed a campus renovation at a cost of $98 million.
For this article, author E. Thomas Wood drew on pages from a scrapbook left by his mother, Nancy Bowers Wood (1937-2002), who was a Hillsboro student at the time of the fire. Tom’s aunt, wife, brother-in-law and daughter also eventually attended HHS. Throughout his journalistic career, the author has used the byline “E. Thomas Wood” to differentiate from his former Tennessean colleague Tom Wood, who is not related.