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NATIVE KENTUCKY BALLADS / 009
The Combs Hotel Fire


combs hotel fire

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The Combs Hotel Fire
Hazard, Kentucky, December 13, 1928
composed by Banjo Bill Cornett, Carrie, Kentucky

On the North Fork of the Kentucky River in a beautiful mining town,
On the North Fork of the Kentucky River in a beautiful mining town,
There was a sad disaster when a great Hotel burned down.

It was on the 13th of December, 1928,
It was on the 13th of December, 1928,
When five dear loving people met their awful fate.

It was on one Saturday evening, about six o’clock that day,
It was on one Saturday evening, about six o’clock at day,
When the mighty flames of the Combs Hotel crept upon their way.

The hotel it was crowded and no one was aware,
The hotel it was crowded and no one was aware,
Until they heard the warning screams that the building was on fire.

The elevator refused to work, and the lights they all were out,
The elevator refused to work, and the lights they all were out,
And in them smoky, flaming halls, for help how they did shout.

The awful screams of the suffering was heard all over town,
The awful screams of the suffering was heard all over town,
And death claimed its five victims as the great hotel went down.

The firemen they fought bravely and done many a daring deed,
The firemen they fought bravely and done many a daring deed,
But the flames had gained such headway that they could not stop their speed.

Until three men and a woman and one poor orphan girl,
Until three men and a woman and one poor orphan girl,
Had suffered untold misery while departing from this world.

There was Mr. Pirtle and his wife who were numbered with the dead,
There was Mr. Pirtle and his wife who were numbered with the dead,
And also Mr. Wooters, who perished in his bed.

There was one poor railroad man (Mr. Taylor was his name)
There was one poor railroad man (Mr. Taylor was his name)
While rushing through the smoky hall was brought down by the flames.

Also the little Sizemore girl, whose name is on Death’s page,
Also the little Sizemore girl, whose name is on Death’s page,
She was a poor orphan girl, only 18 years of age.

The news of this disaster throughout the country spread,
The news of this disaster throughout the country spread,
While the crowded streets of Hazard were weeping for the dead.


Here's a biographical sketch of Banjo Bill Cornett from Ray Lawless' Folksingers and Folksongs in America (pp. 68-69).

Banjo Bill Cornett

Bill Cornett–banjoist, folksinger, farmer, and country storekeeper–was born in Hindman, Kentucky, July 2, 1890. His formal education ended with the eighth grade. But his folk music activity, which began when he was a very small boy, has continued for about sixty years. He learned folk songs from his mother and his grandfather. His first performance was at Christmastime in 1895, in the courthouse at Hindman, Kentucky.

Besides knowing an almost indeterminable number of old ballads, he has himself composed and sung a goodly number on local subjects: one about a double murder in a neighboring county, another about a disastrous hotel fire in Hazard, Kentucky, and another–one of his favorites–about a drunken driver who ran over and killed his own small son. Bill Cornett has sung and played in 14 states, has been on many radio and other programs, including the National Folk Festival in St. Louis. Known widely as Banjo Bill, he also plays the guitar and fiddle.

Bill Cornett was married to Malissa Combs on October 25, 1913. They have 10 children, all born in Hindman and all grown now. Six of the children are graduates of Morehead (Kentucky) State Teachers College. One daughter, Mrs. Lake Cornett Cooper, has taught mathematics at the University of Kentucky and is completing a doctorate in mathematics. Bill would like to get more of his songs on records, or perhaps someday publish a book of ballads he has collected. But, he reports, “it took all my earnings to raise and school my children.”

During the summer of 1955 Bill Cornett made a successful venture into politics: he was elected to the state legislature from his district, winning by 589 votes. (Once earlier he had been defeated for the same post). He has sung and played folk music for so many years that a session in the legislature will not greatly change his musical life.



Newspaper clippings compiled and transcribed by Steve Green

Helena Independent (MT) ~ December 16, 1928

THREE DEAD, 2 MISSING, BIG BLAZE IN HOTEL IN KENTUCKY

Hazard, KY., Dec. 15.—(AP)—Three persons were burned to death and two others were missing tonight when fire destroyed the Combs hotel here, a five-story frame building.

The dead are Mr. and Mrs. Ed Pirtle, of Hazard, and Emma Sizemore, Monroe Taylor, and W. A. Wooters, were reported missing. About 35 persons were in the building.

The fire started in the kitchen at the rear of the hotel.

Firefighting equipment was summoned from Lexington.

Town Threatened

A number of structures on the main street of the city, which is one of the centers of the eastern Kentucky coal fields, were threatened by the flames.
Cause of the fire is undetermined.


Laredo Times (TX) ~ December 16, 1928

FOUR ARE BURNED TO DEATH IN HOTEL FIRE

BLAZES SWEEP THRU STREET OF SMALL KENTUCKY TOWN

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 15. (AP)—Four persons met death here tonight when the Hotel Combs was destroyed by fire. Bodies of the four have been recovered and six or more persons are missing, it was reported.

A number of structures on the main street of the city, one of the centers of the eastern Kentucky coalfields, were threatened by the flames.

Two Identified

Two of the bodies were identified as those of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Pirtle, and the others as of men named Wooster and Taylor. A bellboy said ten or more persons were in the hotel when the fire started. The cause of the fire is undetermined.

DEAD ARE IDENTIFIED

Two persons burned to death and three others were missing tonight when fire destroyed the Combs Hotel here, a three-story frame building.

The dead are Mr. and Mrs. Ed Pirtle, of Hazard; Monroe Taylor, W. A. Wooters and Emma Sizemore, of Hazard, were reported missing. About thirty-five persons were in the building.

The fire started in a kitchen at the rear of the hotel.


Port Arthur News (TX) ~ December 16, 1928

TWO DIE, THREE STILL MISSING IN HOTEL FIRE

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 15 (A).—Two persons burned to death and three others were missing tonight when fire destroyed the Combs hotel here, a three-storey frame building.

The dead are Mr. and Mrs. Ed Pirtle of Hazard. Monroe Taylor, W. A. Wooters and Emma Sizemore of Hazard were reported missing. About 35 persons were in the building.


Sandusky Register (OH) ~ December 16, 1928

3 DIE AS BLAZE LEVELS HOTEL

Hazard, Ky., Structure Gutted; Lexington Aids

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 15 (AP)—Three persons were burned to death and two others were missing tonight, when fire destroyed the Combs Hotel here, a five-story frame building.

The dead are Mr. and Mrs. Ed Pirtle and Emma Sizemore, a chambermaid of Hazard. Monroe Taylor and W. A. Wooters, of Hazard, were reported missing. About 35 persons were in the building.

The fire started in a kitchen at the rear of the hotel.

Fire-fighting equipment was summoned from Lexington and a special train started over the L. and N. Railroad.


Anniston Star (AL) ~ December 17, 1928

FIVE LOSE LIVES IN HOTEL FIRE

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 17. (U.P.)—Charred bodies of five in the Combs hotel fire Saturday night have been found. The body of Emma Sizemore, waitress, and H. A. Wooters of Wooters Maytag company were the last recovered. Others were Finley Taylor, Louisville and Nashville yardman, and Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Pirtle, the latter a clerk in the First National Bank, found early Sunday. These five were trapped in rooms on the fifth floor of the hotel and could not be rescued.

Combs hotel was one of the best in eastern Kentucky. The loss is about $400,000 including furnishings partly covered by insurance.


Bradford Era (PA) ~ December 17, 1928

RECOVER 2 MORE BODIES

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 16. (AP)—With recovery of two additional bodies late this afternoon, five persons are known to have lost their lives in the fire which destroyed the Combs hotel here last night, causing property damage of approximately $500,000. One person still was missing while half a dozen were under treatment for burns today.


Butte Standard (MT) ~ December 17, 1928

HOTEL FIRE DEAD NOW TOTAL FIVE

Two Additional Bodies Are Taken From Ruins of Kentucky Hostelry

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 16.—(AP)—With recovery of additional bodies today, five persons are known to have lost their loves to the fire which destroyed the five-story brick Combs hotel here last night, causing property damage of approximately $500,000. One other person still was missing, while half a dozen were under treatment for burns at a local hospital today.

The known dead:

J. E. Pirtle, 33, Hazard bank clerk.

Mrs. Mayme Pirtle, 29, his wife.

W. A. Wooters, president Wooters Maytag company.

Emma Sizemore, 18, hotel maid.

Findley Taylor, Louisville and Nashville railway yardman.

H. F. Rainey of Lancaster, Ky., was the only one of more than 50 persons known to have been in the building at the time the fire broke out not accounted for today. It was considered probable that he also lost his life.
The blaze which started in the rear of the ground floor, swept up a wooden stairway and quickly enveloped the building. The five whose bodies have been recovered all were trapped on the top floor.

Firemen were able to rescue 25 guests from upper windows of the hotel before the heat and smoke and danger of falling walls made further efforts impossible. For a time the fire threatened to spread to nearby buildings in the heart of the business district of this Eastern Kentucky mining center.


Centralia Daily Chronicle (WA) ~ December 17, 1928

SEVEN MISSING IN HOTEL BLAZE

Search Being Made for Victims in Ruins of Structure at Hazard, Kentucky

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 17—(AP)—Search for the seven persons missing in the Combs Hotel fire on Saturday night, from which three bodies have been recovered, was renewed today with a detachment of Kentucky national guard on duty. The property loss was estimated at $260,000. It was feared that several of those unaccounted for might be dead.

The known dead are: J. Edward Pirtle, 30,; his wife, Mrs. Mayme Watson PIrtle, 26; Miss Emily A. Sizemore, 18, chambermaid. The bodies, badly burned, were taken from the ruins and identified by keys and rings.

Guests of the hotel unaccounted for are: W. A. Wooters, 52, president of the Wooters-Maytag Company of Hazard; Finley Taylor, 52, a railroad yardmaster; H. F. Rainey, of Lancaster; Scott Stone, Roy Baker, Miss A. D. Melbin [sic] and R. S. Walden.


Charleston Daily Mail (WV) ~ December 17, 1928

FIVE LIVES LOST IN HAZARD HOTEL FIRE

One Other Missing; Damage Is Placed at $500,000

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 17.— With recovery of two additional bodies yesterday, five persons are known to have lost their lives in the fire which destroyed the five-story brick Combs hotel here Saturday night, causing property damage of approximately $500,000. One person still was missing, and half a dozen were under treatment for burns at a local hospital.

The known dead:

J. E. Pirtle, 33, Hazard bank clerk.

Mrs. Mayme Pirtle, 29, his wife.

W. A. Wooters, president Wooters Maytag company.

Emma Sizemore, 18, hotel maid.

Findley Taylor, Louisville and Nashville Railway yardman.

H. F. Rainey of Lancaster, Ky., was the only one of more than 50 persons known to have been in the building at the time the fire broke out not accounted for. It was considered probable that he also lost his life.


Elyria Chronicle Telegram (OH) ~ December 17, 1928

FIVE KNOWN DEAD IN KENTUCKY HOTEL FIRE

25 PERSONS ARE CARRIED TO SAFETY

Property Damage Will Aggregate Half Million Dollars, Firemen Are Searching Debris For Bodies.

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 17.—Firemen continued digging in the debris of the Combs hotel today in search of persons reported missing after the fire destroyed the hotel Saturday night.

Two bodies were recovered yesterday, bringing the death toll to five.

The known dead are:

J. E. Hoirtle [sic], 33, Hazard bank clerk; Mrs. Pirtle, 29; H. A. Wooters, president of the Wooters Maytag Company; Emma Sizemore, 18, hotel maid, and Finlay Taylor, Louisville & Nashville yardman.

The hotel was a five-story brick structure. The blaze broke out on the first floor, from an undetermined cause, and quickly enveloped the building.

Those whose bodies were recovered were trapped on the fifth floor.

Twenty-five other guests were carried to safety by firemen and volunteers.
Property damage will aggregate $500,000, fire department officials said today.


Hagerstown Daily Mail (MD) ~ December 17, 1928

RENEW SEARCH FOR 7 BODIES

Missing in Hotel Fire Which Claimed Three Victims At Hazard, Ky.

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 17 (AP).—Search for the seven persons missing in the Combs hotel fire of Saturday night from which three bodies have been recovered, was renewed today with a detachment of Kentucky national guard on duty. The property loss was estimated at $260,000. It was feared that several of those unaccounted for might be dead.

The known dead are: J. Edward Pirtle, 30; his wife, Mayme Watson Pirtle, 28; Miss Emily A. Sibemore [sic], 18, chambermaid. The bodies badly burned were taken from the ruins and identified by keys and rings.


Miami News Record (FL) ~ December 17, 1928

Five Bodies Found in Fire-Swept Hotel

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 17—(AP)— Search for the seven persons missing in the Combs hotel fire of Saturday night from which three bodies have been recovered, was renewed today with a detachment of Kentucky national guard on duty. The property loss was estimated at $260,000. It was feared that several of those unaccounted for might be dead.

The known dead are: J. Edward Pirtle, 30; his wife, Mrs. Mayme Watson Pirtle, 28; Miss Emily A. Sizemore, 18, chambermaid; Finley Taylor and W. A. Wooters.

Reports that [an] incendiarian was responsible for the fire led authorities to be considered ordering a grand jury investigation.

Two bodies were taken from the ruins today and identified as those of Finley Taylor and W. A. Wooters.


New York Times ~ December 17, 1928

FIVE KNOWN DEAD IN FIRE.

One Missing. Six Others Burned in Loss of Hazard (Ky.) Hotel.

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 16 (AP).— With recovery of two additional bodies late this afternoon, five persons are known to have lost their lives in the fire which destroyed the five-[storey] brick Combs Hotel here last night, causing property damage of about $500,000. One other person was still missing, while half a dozen were under treatment for burns at a local hospital today.

The known dead are: J. E. Pirtle, 33, Hazard bank clerk; Mrs. Mayme Pirtle, 29, his wife; W. A. Wooters, president of Wooters Maytag Company; Emma Sizemore, 18, hotel maid; Findley Taylor, Louisville & Nashville Railway yardman.

H. F. Rainey of Lancaster, Ky., was the only one of more than fifty persons known to have been in the building at the time the fire broke out who is not accounted for. It was considered probable that he also lost his life.

The blaze, which started in the rear of the ground floor, swept up a wooden stairway and quickly enveloped the building. The five whose bodies have been recovered were trapped on the top floor. Firemen were able to rescue twenty-five guests from upper windows before the heat and smoke and danger of falling walls made further efforts impossible.


Piqua Daily Call (OH) ~ December 17, 1928

SEARCH FOR BODIES
(By the United Press)

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 17.—Firemen continued digging in the debris of the Combs hotel today in search of persons reported missing after fire destroyed the hotel Saturday night.

Two bodies were recovered yesterday, bringing the death toll to five.


Reno Evening Gazette (NV) ~ December 17, 1928

SEVEN MISSING IN HOTEL FIRE

[Same as Hagerstown Daily Mail, December 17, 1928…. not copied]


San Antonio Express (TX) ~ December 17, 1928

KENTUCKY HOTEL FIRE TOLL FIVE

Two More Bodies Removed; One Other Believed Still In Ruins

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 16.—With recovery of two additional bodies late this afternoon, five persons are known to have lost their lives in the fire which destroyed the five-story brick Combs Hotel here last night, causing property damage of approximately $500,000. One other person still was missing while half a dozen were under treatment for burns at a local hospital today.

The known dead are:

J. E. PIRTLE, 33, Hazard bank clerk.

MRS. MAYME PIRTLE, 29, wife of J. E. Pirtle.

W. A. WOOTERS, president Wooters Maytag [Company].

EMMA SIZEMORE, 18, hotel maid.

FINDLEY TAYLOR, Louisville and Nashville yard man.

H. P. Rainey of Lancaster, Ky., was the only one of more that 50 persons known to have been in the building at the time the fire broke out not accounted for today. It was considered probable that he also lost his life.
The blaze, which started in the rear of the ground floor, swept up a wooden stairway and quickly enveloped the building. The five whose bodies have been recovered all were trapped on the top floor.

Firemen were able to rescue 25 guests from upper windows of the hotel before the heat and smoke and danger of falling walls made further efforts impossible. For a time the fire threatened to spread to nearby buildings in the heart of the business district.


Sandusky Star Journal (OH) ~ December 17, 1928

FIVE KNOWN DEAD IN COMBS HOTEL

Fire Trapped Guests On Fifth Floor At Hazard, Ky.—Hunt More Bodies

[Same as Elyria Telegram (OH), December 17, 1928…  not copied]


Sioux City Journal (IA) ~ December 17, 1928

DEATH TOLL IN KENTUCKY HOTEL FIRE TOTALS 5

[Nearly the same as San Antonio Express, December 17, 1928…  not copied]


Zanesville Signal (OH) ~ December 17, 1928

FIVE KNOWN DEAD AND OTHERS ARE REPORTED MISSING

Hazard, Ky., Dec. 17.—With at least five persons known to be dead in the spectacular fire which swept and destroyed the Combs hotel here Saturday, police and fire officials today combed the charred debris seeking bodies of four missing persons who may have perished in the flames.

The dead: J. E. Pirtle; Mrs. J. E. Pirtle, 29; Emma Sizemore, 18; H. A. Wooters, and Finlay Taylor.

Dr. S. B. Waldon, Roy Baker, a Mr. Morton and a Mr. Stone are missing, according to a check of the hotel register which revealed that numerous persons were in the hotel Saturday, which was pay-day at nearby mines. A crowd continually was passing in and out of the hotel and a number of unregistered persons may also have met death when the structure collapsed.


Corsicana Semi-Weekly Light (TX) ~ December 18, 1928

SEARCH OF HOTEL RUINS FOR SEVEN MISSING PERSONS

THREE BODIES HAVE ALREADY BEEN REMOVED FROM KENTUCKY HOTEL

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 17.—(AP)— Search for the seven persons missing in the Combs hotel fire of Saturday night from which three bodies have been recovered, was renewed today with a detachment of Kentucky national guard on duty. The property loss was estimated at $260,000. It was feared that several of those unaccounted for might be dead.

The known dead are: J. Edward Pirtle, 30; his wife, Mrs. Mayme Watson Pirtle, 28; Miss Emily A. Sizemore, 18, chambermaid. The bodies badly burned were taken from the ruins and identified by keys and rings.

Guests of the hotel unaccounted for are: W. A. Wooters, 52, president of the Wooters-Maytag company of Hazard; Finley Taylor, 52, a railroad yardmaster; H. F. Rainey of Lancaster; Scott Stone, Roy Baker, Miss A. D. Melvin and R. S. Walden.

While Mayor J. W. Craft said he knew of no foundation for reports that incendiarism was responsible for the fire, the authorities were understood to be considering ordering a grand jury investigation.

Two bodies were taken from ruins today and identified as those of Taylor and Wooters. Firemen dug up a partly burned coat containing a hunting license issued to E. W. Phipps and efforts were made to establish whether he was missing.


Mason City Globe Gazette (IA) ~ December 18, 1928

MISSING IN HOTEL BLAZE

Property Loss in Hazard, Ky., Fire Is Placed at $260,000.

HAZARD, Ky., Dec. 18. (AP)—Search for the five persons missing in the Combs hotel fire of Saturday night from which five bodies have been recovered was renewed Monday with a detachment of Kentucky national guard on duty. The property loss estimated at $260,000.

One of the two bodies found today was identified as that of W. A. Wooters, 52, president of the Wooters-Maytag company of Hazard.

Authorities were understood to be considering ordering a grand jury investigation. A $1,000 reward for arrest and conviction of the incendiary, if there was one, has been offered by trustees of the estate to which the hotel belonged.


Mountain Eagle (Whitesburg, KY) ~ December 20, 1928

DEPLORABLE LOSS AT HAZARD

About seven o’clock Saturday evening the word was flashed here that a great fire was sweeping our sister town of Hazard, and that the Combs Hotel, the biggest of the kind in the mountains was a mass of flames. A wave of great uneasiness spread over the city, for it was known that a number of Whitesburg people were at the big hotel. [It] also was said the entire city was likely to be soon fire-swept entailing a loss of millions of dollars and probably a great loss of life.

At about nine o’clock the word was, however, that the flames were under control and that the big hotel and some smaller business buildings near it had been destroyed. The message also said that there was a considerable loss of human lives. The estimate was placed at thirty, but on Sunday morning persons returning from there said the loss would run up to ten or more. At that time it was definitely known that Mr. Wooters, the Maytag man, Mr. and Mrs. Pirtle and a Sizemore girl, a waiter at the hotel, about twenty years of age had perished in the flames. It was said that the remains of at least three others could be seen in the smoldering embers.

Our last information is that the body of Mr. Wooters has not yet been taken from the embers. A number of the persons who perished in the flames are well and favorably known here. The fire loss will reach approximately $250,000 partly covered by insurance.

BODY RECOVERED

The charred remains of W. A. Wooters who lost his life in the burning hotel at Hazard was taken from the debris. This makes five bodies removed and this is believed to be all that lost their lives in the fire.


See also "The Combs Hotel Burned Down" sung by Roscoe Holcomb on Folkways CD FW02368 — a reissue of the LP The High Lonesome Sound. You can hear a very brief snippet here:

http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=214

NOTE: The song is omitted from the Folkways CD compilation of Roscoe Holcomb with the same title listed here:

http://www.folkways.si.edu/albumdetails.aspx?itemid=2413


Last Update: October 5, 2015