Havre, MT H. Earl Clack Co. Oil Plant Fire, May 1930



Sixteen-Year-Old Homer Church Tells Officials Of Entering Warehouse to Take Gasoline and of Lighting Matches While Filling Can; Stratton Also Admits Truth

Sixteen-year-old Homer Church and fifteen-year-old Durwood Stratton, while stealing gasoline in the H. Earl Clack Co. wholesale oil plant Monday night, May 26, started the disastrous fire which resulted in the complete destruction of the station and the H. Earl Clack Co. elevator and contents, causing a loss of $75,000. Confessions to county officers made by the two boys Wednesday afternoon confirmed the suspicions which had been held by officers since Durwood Stratton was taken to the Sacred Heart hospital badly burned around his abdomen and upper limbs by burning clothes which at that time he said had been fired when blazing gasoline from the flames fell upon him while watching the fire.

The confessions were secured following the return to Havre Wednesday afternoon of Homer Church who had been away from town since Tuesday morning, having gone with Wm. Dritshulas into the country to purchase and slaughter cattle. Young Church had been named by Durwood Stratton as having run with him to the fire after it started. Therefore officials had been looking for Church to confirm or contradict Stratton’s tale. Accompanied to the office of Max P. Kuhr, county attorney, by George Herron, deputy sheriff, the boy first denied any knowledge of the origin of the fire. But on being told that officials believed his story untrue, he weakened, stating that he would tell all about it.

According to the statement given to the county attorney, the Church youth asserted that he had known young Stratton some three or four months. On the evening of Monday, May 26, he had been at Harvey Cooper’s, going to the Paul Church home about 8 o’clock. One, Sam Jedkins, came home asking Homer to drive the car down to Jedkins place. He went to Stratton's and waited for Durwood to go to the store, then both boys went back to Jedkin’s in the car, which Church was driving. Here they took a big jar out of the car, the two boys then driving across the viaduct to First street in Church’s car, and parking it at the International elevator.

They proceeded, according to Church's statement, to enter the oil warehouse building of the H. Earl Clack Co., climbing on some barrels which were piled near a rear window, Church going first. The boys hunted up an oil can, lighted a match to see by. This match burned out harmlessly. After finding a can, they went to the front of the warehouse to draw the gasoline from a valve pipe. Opening the tank they had their can about half full, when Church lighted another match, which he either dropped or which ignited the gasoline spontaneously.

The gasoline exploded, setting fire to Stratton’s clothes. Both boys ran frantically, according to the confession, Church trying first the door out the platform way, finally escaping out the back way. He denied knowledge as to how Stratton escaped and also asserted that he made an effort to put out the fire on Stratton's clothes.

Armed with this confession, the Stratton boy was then confronted at the hospital with, the information that Homer had confessed. The burned boy then repudiated his first statement; and admitted that he had been with Church, and that the events were practically as his companion had stated. Extremely close questioning of the Stratton boy was postponed until his condition was improved as he was suffering considerable pain from burns.

What became of the automobile which the boys had parked near the International elevator has not yet been learned. Whether the boys were in the habit of stealing gasoline at the H. Earl Clack wholesale house had not been discovered, though gasoline had been stolen front the station frequently the, past few weeks.
Petitions alleging the delinquency of both Derwood Stratton and Homer Church were filed by the county attorney Thursday. Just what disposition would be made of the boys is not known.

Late Thursday afternoon, young Church stated that he drove the car home from its parking place by the International after he had escaped from the burning building.

The Havre Daily News, Havre, MT May 30, 1930