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Michigan

Son of Couple Who Survived the Bath School Disaster Says We Can Learn from the Past

The deadliest school attack in U.S. history happened in Michigan 96 years ago today

The last day of the school year at Bath Consolidated School on May 18, 1927, turned tragic after an explosion rocked the school, killing 38 students and three adults and injuring 50. The attack was perpetrated by school board member Andrew Kehoe, who was displeased by the rising taxes brought on by the new school, and sour over losing a public election.

Almost 100 years later, the Bath School disaster remains the deadliest school attack in United States history. The son of two people who survived the dynamite attack talked about what happened that day, and what we can learn from it.

The day of the explosion

George Robson grew up in Bath, a small town northwest of Lansing. His parents, Byron and Arlene, were students at Bath Consolidated School at the time of the disaster. Byron Robson was the senior class president and valedictorian anxious for his graduation ceremony later that week. Arlene Dreyer was nearing the end of her sophomore year.

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“They’d had two dates up until that point. My mother was very excited because she was going to be his special date at commencement the upcoming Saturday,” George Robson said.

“They had a budding relationship at that point. That day accentuated everything they were going through.”

Just before the explosion, Byron was walking down the second floor hallway of the school. He passed Arlene’s classroom and waved through the glass door. Arlene was working on a paper, and Byron was headed to the church next door where the graduation ceremony was set to take place.

“She turns back to write her paper, and there’s a sudden shudder, and the lights start swinging from the ceiling and the air fills with dust. She looks out the doors where my dad had just walked down the hallway, and there’s blue sky, and there’s no school there,” Robson said.

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Her teacher that day was Supt. Emroy E. Huyck. After the explosion, Huyck instructed students not to panic or attempt to jump from the second-story windows. They complied and were rescued when Consumers Energy - which was doing work in town that week - arrived with ladders to help the students escape.

“My mother was able to get out, climb down and walk around the other side of the school. She finds that her sister is okay. She was in part of the school that was not affected,” Robson said.

She decided to walk home, which was about three blocks from the school. As she started to cross the road, she saw Andrew Kehoe approaching the school in his Model T.

“She thought he’s coming in to help because he’s on the school board. He knew all about electricity and plumbing and building and everything. So she waits for him to turn and she crosses the road,” Robson said.

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As she did, she could see the Kehoe farm on fire about a mile down the road. She then thought Kehoe could be coming to town for help.

“She goes to open the door for her house right there. There’s another shudder, and a piece of steel came through the picture window. That’s when (Kehoe) had driven up to school and blown up his car,” Robson said.

The creation of Bath Consolidated School

Bath Consolidated School opened in November 1922. The school replaced a collection of one-room schoolhouses in the area, and educated K-12 students. The 1926 Census counted 314 scholars at the school. For a community the size of Bath, creating a consolidated school was quite the big deal at the time. The school provided transportation and organized education, unlike the small country one-room schoolhouses of the age.

Taxes paid by the community helped build and keep the school functioning. In 1922, they were $12.26 on a thousand dollar valuation; by 1926, they reached $19.80.

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Who is Andrew Kehoe?

Andrew P. Kehoe was born Feb. 1, 1872, near Tecumseh, Michigan. One of 13 children, his mother died when he was young. In time his father remarried. Kehoe was not fond of his stepmother, and her fate was a prelude of what would come to those close to Kehoe.

One day when Kehoe was about 14, his stepmother returned home from running errands and proceeded to light their oil stove in the kitchen. The stove had been tampered with, and it exploded, saturating her with oil and setting her ablaze. At first Andrew just stared at her, watching her burn. Then he grabbed a pail of water and threw it on her, exacerbating the situation. She later died from her injuries. Though there was never any trouble made about it, neighbors familiar with the family were of the belief that Andrew knew something was awry with the stove.

Kehoe gradated from Tecumseh High School, then took an electrical engineering course at Michigan State College. While in college he met his future wife, Nellie Price.

Later Kehoe purchased the Price family farm in Bath. Though he was technically a farmer, Kehoe chronically mismanaged his land. He did not follow the traditional practices of the time but rather tried to do every ounce of work with a tractor.

The book titled “The Bath School Disaster” by M.J. Ellsworth covers the story of Andrew Kehoe, the Bath community and the victims’ lives in great detail.

“No matter how much Kehoe worked on machinery, he was never seen dirty or greasy. If he got greasy, he would go to the house and clean up,” Ellsworth wrote.

At the time, farmers often used dynamite to move stumps and boulders from their fields. Kehoe was known for his frequent use of the explosive for stump blasting.

After moving to Bath in the spring of 1919, Kehoe and his neighbors - the Hartes - had a friendly relationship. Mrs. Harte often took Nellie on errands since the Kehoes were without a car in those years. But that friendliness didn’t last long.

“Mrs. Harte had a little fox terrier dog of which she thought a great deal, but it had a habit of running out on the lawn and barking. It never went into the road. It came up missing in March, 1920, and they looked all over the farm for it, but they couldn’t find it. She went over and asked Mr. Kehoe if he had seen anything of her dog. He said that it was burying a bone beside his road fence and he shot the d- nuisance. The dog never went into Kehoe’s yard, but it must have annoyed him by barking on the lawn,” wrote M.J. Ellsworth.

In 1922, Kehoe began to complain about taxes being too high. In 1923, the school board bought five acres for an athletic field and electricity purposes. Taxes went up to $18.80 for that year. This enraged Kehoe. He told neighbors if he were to join the school board, he would cut down the taxes. At an annual school meeting in 1924, Kehoe was nominated and elected to act as trustee for a term of three years. He was appointed treasurer for a one-year period.

During this time, he had considerable trouble with the rest of the school board, as he refused to give or take on any subject. He wanted his way, and if there were disagreements, he would make a motion to adjourn the sessions. He very rarely voted the same as other members on the school board.

He felt serious animosity toward Supt. Huyck. Many times he tried to have him fired, dismissed him from meetings and even attempted to refuse him any vacation time.

In the spring of 1925, the elected township clerk died. The township board appointed Kehoe to act as clerk until the election the following spring. At that election, Kehoe ran for the position and was defeated, likely due to his behavior on the school board.

Losing the election - coupled with his disdain for the school taxes - proved to be the last straw, and he soon forged a plan to destroy all he could.

The explosions

On the day of the disaster, Kehoe set off almost concurrent explosions at his farm and at Bath Consolidated School. His devices destroyed the farm’s buildings and the north wing of the school building.

“He was going to have his way at any cost,” Ellsworth wrote. “He cut wire fences on the farm and put dynamite in his tractor so that it blew all to pieces while the tool shed was burning. All the stock he had at this time was two horses. They were tied in the barn and their feet were wired together so that rescuing them during the fire would be impossible.”

During the summer of 1926, Kehoe did repair work at the school, allowing him unsupervised extended access to the premises, and affording him knowledge of the building. Kehoe was able to hide dynamite in the lower floors of the school.

The last board meeting he attended was May 5, 1927, just 13 days before the tragedy.

As rescuers began working at the school after the first explosion, Kehoe drove up to the schoolyard. He had filled his car with dynamite as well as farming tools, metal and nails to act as shrapnel. He shot at the pile, triggering an explosion that killed Kehoe plus four others, including Huyck.

During the rescue and recovery efforts, searchers discovered an additional 500 pounds of unexploded dynamite in the south wing of the school.

The aftermath

Many families lost children that day. In a tragedy of this magnitude, moving on looks different for everyone involved. For George Robson’s parents, silence was the easiest way.

“You can imagine how traumatic it was. Thirty-eight small children are killed in this school, on the last day of school, and it could have been the entire school because they ended up taking out over 500 pounds of dynamite that did not go off. But they never talked about it,” Robson said. “They moved on to their careers. My mother became a very successful teacher for the rest of her life. My dad had various other jobs. I’m sure it affected them emotionally, tremendously. But boy, it didn’t stop them from doing what they were intending to do with their lives.”

Robson speculates his parents never talked about the incident because they - and the country at large - had experienced a lot of turmoil in their childhood. World War I, the Spanish Flu and then the school disaster were events that affected them deeply and that became opportunities to become stronger.

Today, Robson gives presentations at libraries, universities and community events to tell the story of the Bath School disaster in hopes that people won’t forget the resiliency of the small Michigan town. The violence experienced in schools today is frequently mentioned by patrons.

“There was a distinct and concrete effort to move on, and to never talk about it after,” Robson said about the Bath School Disaster.

“What comes up sometimes in these presentations is, ‘How can we talk about the gun violence in schools now?’ ” Robson said. “The main thing I concentrate on is the fact that he had a psychopathic personality, and he never should have had access to deadly materials.

“We have that in our current culture, and we can address that, like we did with that subject, we could have great success with it. There certainly are comparisons that we can learn from, that’s for sure.”

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