Lois Dixon Rush

Lois Dixon Rush (shown in a photograph from the 1950s) survived the 1923 Cleveland School fire at 2-1/2. Her father and sister were killed in the fire.

Note: This article appeared in the

Chronicle-Independent Camden, S.C. on 10-2-06

Late Charlotte Thompson Community Woman

In a folder in the Camden Archives and Museum, there is a small, paper book called "The Terrible Cleveland Fire: Its Victims and Survivors." The name Kate Dixon is hand-written in the cover's upper right corner. Eleven members of the Dixon family died in that fire.

Earl and Buster Rush also have a copy of the undated book written by J. O. Moseley, who lived in the area at the time. There isn't anything written on the cover, but on page 30, in the middle of Chapter 27, is a hand-written note: "Wrong. Lois. 2-1/2. I was the daughter that was left."

The note was written by Lois Dixon Rush, Earl and Buster's mother, who died Sept. 5. She was the daughter of the late George Lucas Dixon and Alice Hinson Dixon. Her father, and her sister, Clara, died in the Cleveland School Fire.

Moseley had written that with George and Clara Dixon's deaths, Alice Dixon was "left without a girl child and without her devoted husband, and we sorrow with her as we do also with the three dear boys who lost their only sister and the father of them all."

When the Cleveland School Fire memorial was rededicated 75 years later in 2002, Lois Rush was not among those named as survivors. Three were on hand that day: Lela Hinson Cassidy, Margaret Ford and Rush Dabney. A fourth survivor, Clara Woodsen was mentioned, but not Lois Rush.

"It always bothered Momma that she wasn't in those," said Earl of both Moseley's book and the memorial service.

At the time of their mother's death, the family thought she might have been the last survivor. Dabney, one of Lois' cousins, died May 17. At press time, it was unclear as to whether Cassidy was alive, but Margaret Holland Ford, the late Sen. Donald Holland's sister, is still living, a resident at Kershaw County Medical Center's Karesh Wing.

"I knew of her," Ford, 87, said of Lois. "She was working with the Sunshine group at First Baptist Church. We talked on the phone, and she asked about a card they had sent me."

While Ford was five years old at the time of the fire and remembers some details, Lois Rush was 3-1/2 years younger. According to Earl and Buster, however, a lot of people filled her with details over the years. Details she passed on to her boys.

"Our Uncle Dave {also escaped the fire and stayed on the scene to help others}. In fact, he caught one woman who came up to him years later and told him he'd saved her," said Earl. "Clara came running and said that they couldn't find her mom or Lois."

From what the brothers understand, their grandmother and mother were upstairs in the balcony.

"Grandma Alice got her hair burned. A man named McLeod noticed her laying on the floor, but she didn't want to leave granddaddy there, so McLeod jumped," said Buster.

Somehow, though, mother and one daughter made it out while father and another daughter didn't. On the plaque affixed to the memorial on Cleveland School Road, George and Clara are the first of the Dixons listed. He was 42, she was 12.

Aside from Moseley's book, the family has another memento of the fire -- and of their grandfather, George, who was Kershaw County's coroner at the time.

"There had been a hearing about a man with a liquor still who had shot a constable who found the still," Buster said. "Grandaddy Dixon was at the hearing and he was given the pistol used in the shooting. He went straight to the play after the hearing."

The fire broke out after a kerosene lamp fell onto the stage during what was possibly the third act of "Topsy Turvy," slated as the school's last play, as Cleveland and Charlotte Thompson schools were being consolidated.

"Uncle Dave found the gun after the fire and kept it. Earl and Buster's cousin, Donnie, said the gun was one of the last things his Grandfather talked about before he passed away in 1976.

In his book, Moseley wrote that "Coroner Dixon" was "known all over Kershaw County and though stooped by the drawing of muscular rheumatism, was always pleasant to meet, and he always exercised cool judgment in emergencies."

Moseley then goes on to write about an episode where a man accused of murdering a woman on a nearby farm got away from an officer and made a break for a swamp about a half-mile away.

"But he was captured and brought back, the guilt placed at this door and finally convicted and electrocuted," wrote Moseley. "The coroner was as calm as if nothing was happening."

Moseley described Clara as "a bright, sweet girl ... who at the time of her death was blossoming into young womanhood with every promise of a bright future before her."

In an interview two days after the fire, Cleveland School principal Ina Mae Phillips said she spoke to George Dixon before being rescued.

"Coroner Dixon was close to me as we started down the steps," she told the Seneca Factory News. "As we got near the bottom, we ran into the jam and could not move. The fire was gaining and I told Tom Humphries and Coroner Dixon that I could not understand why the crowd did not go out of the door."

According to Phillips, Humphries caught her by the feet, raised her on top of the crowd and someone pulled her out to the yard. Humphries, Moseley wrote in his book, died trying to rescue his parents.

At the Karesh Wing, Ford said she remembers her mother holding her as they sat near the back.

"She would do that so that she could take me (if) I was 'bad,'" said Ford. "The lamp fell, I saw it, and she took me downstairs. She told me she never dreamed the school would burn down. Daddy found me, put me with Mom, then he went back (in). She was crying and praying."

Ford said she will always remember the sound of people screaming as the building burned to ashes. She lost an aunt in the fire, Lola Branham Croft, and her two children.

Donnie Dixon, who maintains a Web site about the fire, said while he and other families lost loved ones or even relatives they never got to know, their deaths were not in vain.

"The fire led to better fire codes in South Carolina, which have saved thousands and thousand of lives," he said.

According to the May 25, 1923, edition of The Camden Chronicle, a fund was set up to assist the 42 orphans and four widows who lost parents or husbands in the fire. Other accounts indicate a total of $100,000 was raised, a fortune at the time.

At Buster's house on Rush Lane near Black River and Precipice roads, he and Earl said they will continue to tell the story of the fire. But they will also tell the story of their mother, Lois Dixon Rush. Despite the loss of her mother and older sister, the brothers said she was never bitter. Instead -- unlike their father, who they said was pretty serious -- she was the family joker, bringing laughter wherever she went. Her sense of humor was steady throughout a life of loss that went beyond the Cleveland School fire.

"She grew up in a log cabin across the street," said Earl. "We would climb trees and swing from ropes. We always had a project, and Momma had to holler to get us in. She wanted us to grow up in the same environment she did."

As the years rolled on, and as recorded in a section called "Our Family History" in a large Bible, Lois Rush lost her brother Luther Lewis Dixon; another brother, Lonnie, died in a cave-in, leaving five girls and {two} boys behind. Her mother, Alice, who had survived the fire with her, had a stroke in 1953; Lois took care of her for years. Yet another brother, Lewis Carl Dixon, died at the age of 23. One of her daughters died of cancer in 1968; another, Myrtle Jean, would pass away years later. Her husband died in 1999.

"And yet, after five minutes in a room -- she had a gift to make people laugh. She had a knee operation in 1997 or 1998. She told the doctors it was her 'football knee. She had the entire operating room laughing," said Earl. "She was a real special lady," said Buster.

Earl said he will always have some special memories of her mother. Lois, for example, was passionate about politics on television.

"I had my own, little building on her property and I worked up an intercom system. She'd buzz me every now and then and say 'Did you see that?' and I knew she'd seen something on TV," said Earl.

Another of Earl's memories is linked to one of his passions: flying.

"I decided to buzz Colonial Lake to get Momma out of the house," he said. "I dropped down real low -- about 100 feet off the water -- and she came out and I could see her shaking her fist at me. She called me later and said 'Are you trying to give me a heart attack? Are you trying to kill yourself? Don't you kill yourself in front of me!'"

Earl said he can still see, and still laughs at, her shaking her fist at him.

She was also a great storyteller, especially of ghost stories, said Buster.

"We got our storytelling ability from her," Buster said.

Both of Lois' boys have been to the memorial on occasion. Earl remembers visiting it when it was still under construction.

"I went to see Aunt Clara's name," Earl said. While their grandfather and aunt are not, many of the victims of the Cleveland School fire are buried in a mass grave at nearby Beulah Methodist Church. The Cleveland School fire that took 77 lives was the third worst school fire in American history. In 1908, 175 people were killed when a school in Collingwood, Ohio, burned down; 95 lives were lost in a 1958 school fire in Chicago.

As many lives that ended on May 17, 1923, many survived, including Lois Dixon Rush.

"We're going to miss her," said Earl.

They will miss her presence. They will miss her laughter. Most of all, they'll miss their mom.

Artice By: MARTIN CAHN, C-I (Camden, S.C.) editor