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Oklahoma Journeys

Babbs Switch Revisted

2009-12-19

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Grace Reynolds grew up in Southern California, but in 1957 she decided she was a survivor of the Babbs Switch School fire in 1924 in Oklahoma. In 1957 the newspaper in Hobart had conclusive proof that she was an imposter, but withheld that story until 1999, the 75th anniversary of the fire. That's our story on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I'm Michael Dean.

It was Christmas Eve 1924, Mrs. Florence Hill, the teacher at the tiny school at Babbs Switch in Kiowa County, South of Hobart, greeted her students and their families for the school's annual special Christmas Eve program. A tree in the rear corner of the room was decorated with paper cut outs and candles while wall-mounted kerosene lamps provided the main source of light. As the program was winding down and Santa was passing out his gifts to the kids, tragedy struck. The paper decorations on the tree caught fire from the candles and the entire tree, a dry cedar, burst into flame. People near the door hurriedly ran outside to open windows trying to provide another means of escape, but heavy security screens were bolted on and locked from the inside. As the fire spread, the kerosene lamps exploded engulfing the entire structure in flames. The entire process took only seconds to unfold and before it was over 36 people, mostly children, lost their lives.

Local news reports were that 37 were counted as missing, but only 36 bodies were recovered. Three-year-old Mary Edens was missing, but her body was never found. In 1956 The Oklahoman ran a story titled "Is Mary Edens Still Living?" In San Bernardino, California, an accountant who was also a member of the local Lions Club somehow saw that article. He contacted the president of the Hobart Lions Club and told him that one of his clients, a young woman, believed that she might be the missing girl. The apparent happy end to this part of the story is that Mary Edens Grossnickle wrote a book of her life story titled Mary, A Child of Tragedy. She and her parents were reunited on the Art Linkletter House Party TV Show in 1957.

But at the same time, the newspaper in Stockton, California, contact the newspaper in Hobart, the Democrat Chief, with information that Mary Edens was in fact Grace Reynolds, and she was an imposter. The two newspapers conducted an extensive investigation, concluding that Mary's story was a hoax. As the Hobart newspaper was preparing to publish the story, Louis Edens begged the publisher not to run it. His wife was absolutely convinced that little Mary Edens, her long lost daughter, had returned. To learn she was an imposter would truly break her heart. Ransom Hancock the publisher of the newspaper agreed to withhold the story, and he did until Christmas Eve 1999, the 75th anniversary of the Babbs Switch fire. It was then that The Hobart Democrat Chief and The Oklahoman ran the true story. Joe Hancock said he was proud of the decision his father made back in 1957 to spare Mrs. Edens the agony of twice losing the daughter she had so desperately believed had survived the fire. Now on the 85th anniversary of the fire we know the whole story.

The newspaper collection in the research library of the Oklahoma History Center contains these and many other stories. The Oklahoma History Center is just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.