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In 1953, a tragic fire at Stafford Courthouse stunned county residents and caused the death of the well-liked 72-year-old owner of the building. "STAFFORD Courthouse has never seen anything like it--before or since," said longtime county resident Buck Knight.
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By LEE WOOLF
He was speaking about the explosion and fire of 1953, which passed its 50th anniversary last week on July 23.
The early morning fire destroyed a large building beside U.S. 1 across from the present-day Stafford Administrative Center. Known as the Clay Motor Co., the building had been a Ford dealership during the 1930s. At the time of the fire, the site was a combination 24-hour gas station and garage operated by A.B. Clay and an apartment house.
Fueled by gasoline and motor oil, the fire roared through the garage and apartments, blistered paint on nearby buildings and shot flames into the night sky.
"I've been told people saw flames from Eskimo Hill, which is several miles away," Knight said. "If it had been a windy night, all of Stafford Courthouse could have gone up in flames."
The building was owned by Knight's grandmother, 72-year-old Carrie Knight, who lived alone in one of the apartments and died from injuries suffered in the fire.
"The county was completely rural back then," Knight said. "Everybody knew everybody and people helped each other. The fire was a very devastating thing."
Carrie Knight was the widow of Clarence Newman Knight Sr., a well-known county political figure who had been Stafford sheriff in the early 1900s and later served on the Board of Supervisors. He died in 1945.
Buck Knight was 12 years old at the time of the fire. He was spending part of his summer vacation from school staying with several relatives in the Courthouse area.
"I was alternating the nights at different family homes and that night I was supposed to sleep at my grandmother's apartment," Knight recalled.
"But there was a heavy rain sometime that day and there was a leak in the roof at her house. So, it was decided that I'd spend the night with another relative. Otherwise, I could have been caught up in the fire, too."
As it was, the only other residents of the building were Robert W. Knight and his wife, Joan. Robert Knight was a cousin of Carrie Knight's late husband and rented the upstairs apartment above the gas station's office.
"I was only 19 at the time and we had been living there just about a month," recalled Robert Knight, a lifelong resident of Stafford who now lives on Rockdale Road.