Former Abbott House resident donates painting
Artwork depicts rescue of children from burning home in 1945
It’s been nearly 76 years since Abbott House , then located in a home at 508 E. 5th Street in Mitchell, burned down.
Three quarters of a century later, one of the children rescued during that fire made an appearance at the current Abbott House on Court Merrill Wednesday to donate a painting of the Dec. 18, 1945, fire, the children and firefighters who participated in the rescue.
Bill Williams and his siblings Bob and Wavelene were all residents at Abbott House the night of the fire. It’s a night that is still fresh in Bill’s mind, and one he is unlikely to forget.
“It was 10 below. We were barefooted, and we couldn’t find my sister. She was on the second floor trying to get my little brother out of a crib. He wouldn’t let go of the bars. I was on the third floor with a couple kids,” Williams said.
As can be common with fires, there was some confusion. In fact, Williams did not realize exactly what was happening when firefighters first crashed through the third-floor window where he and some other children were. It was a startling experience for a five-year-old, he said.
“And that’s when they broke that window and were coming through. And we didn’t know what they were, if they were intruders or whatever they were. It just scared the heck out of us,” Williams said.
All 13 children at Abbott House were rescued, along with Williams and his two siblings. He recalled how grateful he was for the efforts of the firefighters and the neighbors who took in the children that night as their foster home burned to the ground.
“They took us across the street, and eventually Bob went to a house and I went to another. It was bitter cold. We didn't have any clothes, we just had scanty clothes. And they carried us across the street,” Williams said. “When we got into the house, we looked backwards drinking hot chocolate — I’d never had that before — watching Abbott House burn down.”
The painting, by artist Karen Bakke, is based on a newspaper clipping from the time of the fire. It depicts the house on fire with a firefighter carrying a young boy to safety. That boy is Williams.
The donation was held in conjunction with Ernie Peters Day, a regular celebration in honor of the longtime executive director of Abbott House who served the facility from 1973 to his death in 2004.
The original Abbott House was completely destroyed. It was moved to a temporary location at 421 N. Lawler, also known as the “Old Scallin Home.” Shortly before Christmas 1950, Abbott House children were moved into a new state-of-the-art center located at 1111 W. University Ave., which is now on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus. Abbot House operated from that building until 1993 when the agency acquired the old Eugene Field Elementary School and remodeled it to serve its needs.
The 1945 fire is a harrowing story from early in the history of Abbott House, but it also speaks to the dedication of the facility's personnel and the importance of its mission.
“Like many Abbott House alums from that era, Bill’s story is one of perseverance, determination and success,” said Eric Klooz, executive director of Abbott House. “Through the years, the focus on the safety and the healing of traumatized children has remained constant at Abbott House. Bill’s story is truly empowering.”
Williams and his two siblings were all eventually adopted by Everett and Aura Williams of Cresbard. He ended up graduating from Miller High School, served in the Merchant Marines, graduated from West Valley College and San Jose University, became a pilot, married his wife Beverlee and settled in California for 25 years. The couple returned to South Dakota in 1987 and operated the Victory Lane restaurant in Sioux Falls. They currently own Brown and Williams Properties, LLC and continue to live in Sioux Falls.
The painting itself will find a special place on the walls inside the current Abbott House.
“We’re looking at redoing the front area of Abbott House, so this may end being one of our newest pieces of (featured) artwork,” said Virginia Wishard Lambert, director of development at Abbott House.
Abbott House is a private charity that provides residential treatment, therapeutic foster care and independent living programming for young people between the ages of seven and 23. Located in Mitchell and Rapid City, the agency was founded in 1939 as a memorial to renowned social activist Grace Abbott.