McKinley Weems missed school March 21, 1932 because of a broken nose, the same day the Thach Hotel burned down, but he saw the fire. He watched from the comfort of his tree house in a big oak on Magnetic Mountain as strong winds spread the flames. From his high vantage point, he could see sparks shooting into the sky and rolling smoke so thick it was impossible to know which direction the fire would go.
The fire is thought to have originated in the hotel attic, possibly due to faulty wiring. With 100 rooms, the rambling Thach Hotel was the largest in town and was known for its home-style food. Otto Ernest Rayburn said it was popular with Texans.
Fire Chief Sam Riley, an expert carpenter when not fighting fire, arrived on the scene and quickly called for help from neighboring towns. Located on the ridge top at the corner of Ridgeway and Prospect Avenues, the Thach Hotel was unsheltered from the driving wind. In later years, after the rubble had been removed, some considered it the best spot in town to fly a kite.
At the old Red Brick School senior class boys stood on the roof knocking off burning debris, while younger children watched the fire until they were sent home carrying all their books in case the school burned down.
Fire trucks arrived first from Berryville, and then Fayetteville and Harrison. The fire was brought under control but not until the fire had spread enough to burn down the First Christian Church, an apartment building, and damage or destroy several houses.
At the time, there was a baseball field located on what would now be Passion Play Road. It was a popular place, especially on Sundays, with crowds of people walking up from Mill Hollow or up Magnetic Road. The day before the fire, McKinley Weems, a fifth grader, had played baseball with the grownups and was hit square in the nose by a ball.
He doesn’t remember the name of his teacher that year, but he remembers she paddled the backs of your calves if you misbehaved. And the Thach Hotel fire is the type of thing a fifth grade boy with a broken nose remembers, too.