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The skeleton walls

Snapping flames and heavy black smoke cut through the thick fog near Bear Creek. Medford’s “shrine to the performing arts,” the massive Page Theater, barely 10 years old, was dying.

The only three witnesses were two Sunday morning duck hunters, driving toward the Bear Creek Bridge, and an early rising man on his way to work.

By 6:00 that morning, Dec. 30, 1923, the entire Medford fire department and nearly every volunteer was on the battle line, desperately and hopelessly for hours pouring streams of water into the building through windows and doors.

Just before 10 a.m., the blaze burned itself out, leaving only some smoldering ruins inside that had to be checked and extinguished.

Along with others in the crew, fire Chief Roy Elliott took hold of a hose and asked his close friend and volunteer firefighter Amos Willits to come with him on the inspection.

Amos was 39 and had been married to Alice French for just over 13 years. The couple had lost one son early in their marriage and their second son was only a year and a half old. Amos, a local business owner and mechanic, became a volunteer firefighter barely nine months earlier, when Medford City Council had fired the old fire department crew and hired Roy Elliot as chief.

Inside the shell of the theater everything looked relatively safe.

“We went down in the basement,” Roy said. “A little fire had sprung up in one of the dressing rooms. We threw water on it and put it out.”

They were near the firewall that had separated the stage from the auditorium.

Deciding to go outside and catch their breath, and also check with the other crew members, Amos and Roy put down the hose and walked toward some steps.

“We got very near the steps when the crash came,” Roy said. “I got up either two or three steps ahead of him (Amos), and the crash caught him. It pinned me down, both legs were crossed, my left arm under my body, and my right hand against the wall. I hollered for help and the boys came.”

Fireman Charles Boussman had seen the wall fall and was the first to reach the victims. They were covered in about two feet of rubble, timbers, bricks and radiators.

Amos was crushed and died instantly. It took six men to remove one radiator from his body.

Somehow, Roy was only bruised and beaten — he had no broken bones. He spent a short time in the hospital and a few weeks in Portland for therapy, but soon returned to the fire department.

“I was very fortunate and lucky to escape the sad fate that met Amos,” Roy said. “I can’t understand why I was not killed. As I lay there, helpless under that pile of brick and debris … I was conscious all the time but, of course, I could not see anything. The sound of those voices,” he said, “as the men began the work of digging me out, was the sweetest music I have ever heard.”

After a funeral service in Medford attended by hundreds, Amos Willits’ body was taken for burial in Ashland’s Mountain View Cemetery.

For the loss of Amos, Alice, his wife, received over $7,500 from the state accident commission and an additional $500 in accident and life insurance carried by Amos.

She returned to live with her parents and, as a graduate of the Ashland Normal School, returned to teaching. She joined Amos in 1980 at age 92.

The skeleton, concrete walls of the Page Theater, “a gaping monument of rebuke to progressive Medford,” said former Medford Mayor Alfred Pipes, stood nearly another seven years, until they were pulled down in the summer of 1930.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.