BY KATHLEEN WEST ROBBINS
The coal mines at Helenwood had long since closed down along with their Commissary but in the top story above the Commissary was the Masonic 11811, the meeting place of Helenwood Lodge 570 F & AM. Along side this building was a large warehouse that had also been used by the mining company. Next to this warehouse stood a small dwelling occupied by the BURDETT KEETON family.
The explosion that rocked Helenwood, Tennessee on April 5, 1935 caused widespread destruction, as is evident by this photograph of a home in the aftermath of the blast. Despite the damage, no deaths resulted from the explosion as the community was evacuated before the fire reached the "bootleg" powder and dynamite storage warehouse. Kathleen West Robbins recalls that fateful day in Scott County history.
Most of the people living in this small town knew that the above mentioned warehouse was being used for storing "bootleg" powder and dynamite. Some of the townspeople had brought charges against the man, GEORGE T. WEBB, who had been selling this powder and dynamite and he had been ordered to move it out of town on several occasions. But the ones who lived nearby had seen and heard him unloading more of it into the building at night sometime in the early part of the Spring of 1935. They knew it now contained more of this material. They were aware that it was a dangerous situation but they had not gotten around to doing anything about it.
I lived with my parents, LAWRENCE and FLORENCE WEST, and my brother KENNETH in a house approximately 150 yards back of this warehouse. On the morning of April 5, 1935, my father left for work at the rock quarry in Glenmary, my brother and I left for school and my mother was home alone. She heard several shots fired from a gun, some loud hollering, etc., and when she went to the window to see what was happening she saw the smoke. She was afraid of what was going to take place. A merchant, REASON CECIL, who had a store upon the corner above us had seen the smoke and had fired the warning shots and was hollering for everyone to get as far out of town as possible. He knew it was impossible to put out the fire because there was no water nearby and of course, no fire department. It was later learned that one of the small KEETON children, who lived in the little house adjacent to the warehouse, had climbed onto a cabinet and pulled it over. It fell onto the wood-burning stove, knocking the pipe down, thus catching the kitchen afire. The children’s mother had left them alone for a short time and they were so excited they didn’t know how to handle the situation. By the time it was noticed by an adult, it was past being "put out." Fire leaped from the KEETON house to the warehouse.
In the meantime, my mother and other neighbors had gotten as far away as they had time to do. Then it happened! The debris could be seen in the air for miles around — and such a loud noise and concussion! After everything had settled down and an inventory taken, it was found that no one was killed, a few were injured but lots of damage was done to surrounding buildings. The heaviest hit were the buildings within 1/2 miles of the scene. At least eight buildings were beyond repair, including, of course, the Masonic Hall.
The Red Cross was called in to help the people who had lost all their possessions. The house in which we lived was repaired as well as several others in the town. In my bedroom one of the walls had fallen on the head of my bed and completely folded it up to meet the foot. Had it happened in the night and not been discovered in time, I probably wouldn’t have been here to write this story. It was several weeks before everything was cleaned up and the people were settled back into their repaired houses or were located elsewhere. The Red Cross certainly was a blessing to all of us. It has been more than fifty-four years since this happened but the memories are still vivid to some of us that are still living; two large craters that have been slowly filled up by Mother Nature remain as reminders. Down through the years it has been referred to as "The Webb Explosion."
FNB Chronicle, Vol. 1, No. 1 – Summer 1989
First National Bank
P.O. Box 4699
Oneida, TN 37841
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