It’s been 30 years since Tarkio was changed forever following a devastating fire that took the historical and cultural heart of this small town – the Mule Barn/Mule Barn Theatre. The flames destroyed the building at 1:00 a.m. Sunday, February 19, and though it was a frigid, 7 degree night, the event seared the memories of all near and far. The Tarkio Volunteer Fire Department gave a valiant effort to save the structure, but ultimately it was a total loss.
A local passerby saw the fire and stopped at the Tarkio Pizza Hut, alerting the manager, Cherie Beason, of what he had seen. In the February 23, 1989, Tarkio Avalanche, it was reported, “A young man between the ages of 20-25 years came to the door and said the Mule Barn’s on fire. I asked him if he was serious. He said yes. But still thinking it might be a prank, I called the police department.” The police department dispatcher then alerted the fire department and Ted Nixon, head of security at Tarkio College. Nixon said, “I grabbed the fire extinguisher and went as fast as I could to the barn, but the fire was out of control. The fire department arrived within three or four minutes after me.” By the time they arrived, the second floor on the north end of the building was totally involved in the fire. The second floor housed the dressing rooms and a clothes dryer, which was left running that night. The production of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” had just ended and the last of the production crew had left the building somewhere between 12 and 12:30 a.m. Fifteen firemen and four trucks, including the rescue and equipment van, responded to the call, as well as Tarkio Police Chief, officers, and an Atchison County deputy. The Missouri State Fire Marshal was also called to investigate as the Mule Barn was a state and national historical building and it was a complete loss. Even though the firemen realized the building couldn’t be saved, they continued to fight the fire. Walls collapsed in front of them and sparks and debris carried for blocks all around the west side of town. The firemen battled the fire for six hours before turning authority over to Tarkio College officials.
As news spread of the destruction, the loss punctured a deep hole into the heart of the town. Those who heard about the fire began to drive by to see if the horror was actually true. The 140 students who were part of the theatre held in the building likened the loss to losing a loved one. The thespians put their heart and soul into that place and it was a home-away-from-home for them, and suddenly it was nothing but smoldering debris, blackened bricks, and ashes. And it wasn’t just an emotional loss, but also a financial one for the college, the individuals who worked there, and for the Mule Barn Theatre Guild. Besides all the theatre equipment inside the building at the time of the fire, the guild also had concession stand/shirts at the theatre to sell totalling $500. Jo Peters, Tarkio College faculty member and costume designer for the barn, also lost her own personal sewing machine, books, her portfolio, and antiques, not to mention the thousands of dollars worth of costumes that were lost, some of which had been rented from another theatre. And on top of the emotional and financial loss was the historical loss. The Mule Barn was like the Eiffel Tower of Tarkio, having stood tall and shined its proverbial light for almost 100 years (it was three years away from celebrating its centennial birthday). The Mule Barn was constructed in 1892 by David Rankin, a prominent businessman in Tarkio. Originally the mule barn was a four-story building with a tall pointed cupola, housing Rankin’s 250 mules on the ground floor. A fire destroyed that mule barn on Tuesday, May 28, 1907. After the fire, the building was reconstructed into a three story building and in 1965, Tarkio College bought the barn and adjacent land. Tarkio College, along with the community, began a restor-ation of the mule barn at a cost of $180,000. In 1968, the David Rankin mule barn was converted to the Mule Barn Theatre. The Mule Barn was added to the list of the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Despite the devastation to the building, no one was injured in the fire, except for the resident Mule Barn cat, Gus. Though Gus made it out of the fire alive, he was badly injured and it was reported that he was unable to be caught. The Missouri State Fire Marshal ruled the fire as accidental and of undetermined origin. The remains of the building were finally knocked down a couple of months later on April 10 and on April 21, the first Tarkio College theatre production since the fire was held at the Walnut Inn in Tarkio. By September 21, $12,000 had been raised to allow the students to purchase tools and equipment necessary to renovate the Walnut Inn into a 58 seat theatre. Though plans were to build a new Mule Barn, Tarkio College fell into financial ruin and the possibility of using the insurance money from the fire directly to rebuild the barn was no longer a possibility by the end of that same year.
We asked our readers and local citizens about their memories of the Mule Barn and the fire. Responses follow:
Shirley Lisle – “I remember Sharon Jones and I taking water and hot coffee up to the firemen fighting to save the Mule Barn… Hank [Smith] was Fire Chief at the time and the next day our phone kept ringing off the wall from news media from all over…radio and t.v. and major t.v. stations carrying the story and wanting to speak with the Fire Chief who was by that time (and all the other firemen) home and exhausted and most of them in bed sound asleep….was a horrible night and such a horrible loss for the town of Tarkio and for Atchison County.”
Bob Austin – “We watched it from our apartment at the Pond.”
Janice (Brown) Rothganger – “Mrs. Schmidt took our senior English class to see ‘The Merchant of Venice’ on that Friday, which would have been February 17. I remember thinking how lucky we were to have such a cool place in our town.”
Tim Turnbull – “I used to play in it before it was a theater.”
Patti (Austin) Griffith – “So did the Austin kids; of course we weren’t supposed to be in there! I remember the old wagons and harnesses on the ground floor. I remember when the Tarkio band had a part in the finale of the ‘Music Man’ and an actor with an amazing deep voice who sang Old Man River when they did ‘Showboat.’”
Jane Walter – “Before and after moving to Tarkio I remember going to see the amazing musical productions and then felt so devastated when it burned down. I can’t believe it has already been 30 years ago.”
Tim Gibler – “I did many shows at the barn and did my apprenticeship there also.”
Margaret (McAdams) Keenan – “I remember rummaging around in the basement looking for props; and painting the floor for different shows; and climbing in the rafters to hang lights; and set building for summer stock the year I apprenticed. I think I apprenticed with you, Tim.”
Frederick Squires – “We used to go in there when we went to the hayrides the Walkups held every year. Good Times!!!”
Janie Gianotsos – “I first went to the Mule Barn as a little kid, visiting my relatives over the summer. It was 1976 and we saw ‘1776.’ One of the stars of a soap opera played Benjamin Franklin. I loved the performance and knew I wanted to come back and participate in the theater camp when I got into high school. I was cast as Beauty in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for the children’s theater, summer of 1979 and summer of 1980, I apprenticed and was cast as a daughter in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ I remember helping dye Ronald DeBeck’s hair black for ‘West Side Story’ in 1979, too. I got to wear a brunette wig in ‘Fiddler’ since I was going to have my senior pictures taken when I got back home to Denver and I had long, natural blonde hair I really didn’t want to dye. As an apprentice, one of my jobs was to iron costumes alone in the barn before each show. Supposedly the barn was haunted, but I never had any issues with the ghosts. Lots of fun memories there. So sad it burned and hard to believe I was there 40 years ago.”
Ronald DeBeck – “Well…as long as we’re talking Mule Barn, I recall ‘West Side Story’ when my black pants ripped in the crotch and my white shirt tail was sticking out of the hole . . . two feet from the audience! Met a lot of interesting people in my two summers at Tarkio! Good times!”
Terry (Brooks) Mason – “I performed in ‘Carnival.’ I saw several productions there. I really liked ‘The Pep Boys and the Dinettes!’ I was in ‘Carnival’ during the year George was in Vietnam – 1967-1968. I lived in Tarkio in a converted two-car garage with my German shepherd which was behind the McCoy’s house. I worked in the TC business office during that year. I was also a nun in ‘The Sound of Music’ in the high school during that time. I had someone take a picture of me in my habit and sent it to George so he could show people a picture of his wife!”
Paul Jones – “Five shows performed there from age five through 7th Grade (when Mr. Catanzareti brought the entire class to see me perform). It was a fantastic experience, especially for a small rural community; ‘Oliver,’ ‘The King & I,’ ‘Carousel,’ ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ and ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
Becky Christy – “I joined the Mule Barn troupe after I graduated high school in 1970, prior to my freshman year in college. I was in my first production that summer, ‘The Pajama Game.’ Following that were years of school-year and summer productions, on stage and on the costuming crew . . . lesson learned: don’t tell anyone you can sew. My work-study the summer I took theater for credit was to frame production pictures, label and hang them behind the risers. Those, as well as the costumes, were among the losses I deeply felt when I heard the beloved theater with which I’d been associated 1970 to 1976 had burned. (My husband Mark and I were in summer stock and worked at the Walnut Inn a couple summers. Ginny Prather became a friend of mine when I student taught at Tarkio Junior High with Mrs. Schmidt and Jim Prather retrieved a brick from the Mule Barn for me.”
Sharon Jones – “I remember my mother, Mildred Price, being honored for her 25 years at the Fairfax Hospital, with first a tea party at the Walnut Inn and then we were taken to the production of ‘South Pacific’ at the Mule Barn. She was announced and presented a silver bowl, which I still have, at the intermission. We dressed in formal gowns as that is what you wore back in those days to a show at the Mule Barn! Such an honor!”
Peggy Mabb – “I was part of sorority at Tarkio College that helped clean out the Mule Barn in mid 60s so that it could be converted into the theater!”
Bob Koch – “My mom, Mary Koch, played the violin in the orchestra pit. I also remember hauling straw from the barn in the old hayrack.”
Lauri Judson – “My mom, Janice Burke, was Miss Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls’ when we were little. My cousin and I said we had to go to the restroom during the play and went exploring, only to end up on stage! That was a shocker!!”
Norm Siegel – “My first production there was ‘110 in the Shade.’ One of the lead players, Richard ‘Guppy’ Pugh, one of my future fraternity brothers, played the Sheriff in the play, and became a person I dearly miss as a friend and a brother. The next fall production in 1972 was Brenda Behan’s ‘The Hostage,’ in which I was privileged to play the male lead. Steve Ballough, Nina Meek, and Bob Weise were also in the cast. Great memories!”
Tatiana Bush Holmgren – “I can’t believe that it has been 30 years!! I have so many memories of The Barn. I came to Tarkio in 1986. My life there revolved around the barn – auditions, rehearsals, work study, that amazing costume shop with Jo Peters holding court, with her ever present cigarette, painting sets in the basement, especially using aniline dye to turn sheets of blue styrofoam into gorgeous woodwork for the set of ‘1776.’ I remember frantically studying for finals in the green room between scenes. I remember the energy of a packed audience and the butterflies in the stomach when the lights came up. I remember doing ‘A Christmas Carol’ multiple years, with two shows every day for weeks. We used Mannheim Steamroller Christmas for all of the incidental music and every time I hear it, I’m instantly back onstage 30 years ago in a moment! We all complained of the workload, Christmas overload, and having finals at the same time. Then one year we did ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ instead of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we all said it didn’t feel like Christmas! Ha! I was Kate Keller in ‘The Miracle Worker’ at the barn and won Best Supporting Actress that year! I was Hodle in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in summer stock with Charlie Leader as Perchick. I stage managed some one act plays. I remember locking my keys in my red Mustang at the barn while we were loading something in the trunk in the middle of a summer downpour and getting DRENCHED… so very many memories.
I was playing Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, opposite Dan Workman in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ the last show at the barn. The company had left for the night and convened across town at someone’s house for a 60s themed party. Lara Kirksey, who was stage managing, was the last person to arrive. She burst in the door and screamed that the barn was on fire. We ran back to the barn and found it engulfed in flame. There very several explosions after we got there; one when the fire got to the cabinets of paint and solvent in the basement, another when the cabinet of pyrotechnics back stage burned. I remember shivering in the snow in the silly moccasins I wore to the party. I vaguely remember someone putting a blanket around my shoulders. We all cried for Gus, the orange tabby theatre cat, hoping, praying that he escaped. So much of the magic died that day.
Being creative people, we turned the Walnut Inn into the main performance space, with a cabaret in the basement. I was in a few shows there. But it was never the same.
The Mule Barn Theatre was iconic, unique, rustic, sophisticated, versatile . . . magic.
I can’t believe it’s been 30 years.”