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Book burning here 105 years ago

Involving 40 Bluffton High School students during the noon hour

Can you imagine a book burning frenzy in Bluffton? That happened exactly 105 years ago on the banks of the Big Riley, according to an account in the Bluffton News.

The story from April 1918 Bluffton News:

The German text books used by the German classes in the high school were burned by a party of about 40 students Thursday afternoon.


During the noon hour the students collected all of the available books, notebooks and papers used by the classes studying the subject and burned them on the bank of Big Riley Creek near the College Avenue bridge.


Classes in German will probably be discontinued next year.

32 years later

There may have been follow-up stories and if so, we will post those. We do know that The Bluffton News published a brief notice of the book burning 32 years later.


Bluffton High School in 1918


That news item, published in February, 1950, referenced the death of Bess C. Walther, the BHS German teacher in 1918. Miss Walther lived in Tacoma, Washington, at the time of her death. Although the News did not publish her obituary, it recalled the school days in Bluffton when she was instructor in German at Bluffton High School.


The News item stated at the time of the outbreak of the first World War “hysterical sentiment ran high against anything German – all of which set the stage for a group of students to burn a number of valuable German text and references books, which were part of her (Bess Walther’s) private library.”


Unanswered questions

Both accounts leave many unanswered questions.


To picture the book burning event, readers need to know that the high school in 1918 was in a building no longer standing. In its place today is the new wing of Bluffton High School.


Imagining 40 students involved means that about one-fourth of the student body participated. How did the book burning develop? Was it planned, or spontaneous? Was it encouraged by parents? What was the school’s response? What was the community’s response?

Was anyone disciplined following the book burning?


1950 Bluffton News clipping


Beyond that, the follow-up story indicated the books belonged to the teacher. Was she reimbursed for the loss? Probably not. Was the teacher threatened? No one today knows.


The original story fails to mention it was the teacher’s collection that was burned. That fact must have been revealed 32 years later from someone who in 1918 knew this.


Ted Biery was the News editor in 1918 and in 1950. Was he the person who knew most of this back story, or did a former student reveal that to him?


So many interesting questions remain from this episode. We do know that Miss Walther was born in 1890 and died at age 60, in Tacoma, Washington. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Lima.

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