Two RVFD volunteers still fondly recalled
Their initials were both J. W.
One was an insurance company executive and one worked in a filling station. Just after
midnight on a Tuesday morning in September, 1935, John Wilbur Williams and John Wesley
Hooper answered a fire call in downtown Rockdale with their fellow members of the
Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department.
And their names became forever linked.
Wilbur and J. W. (that’s what Hooper went by) died together on a hose line at the
Scarbrough & Hicks fire on the corner of Ackerman and Cameron, the present day site of
the city library.
They are the only firefighters to die on duty in the Rockdale VFD’s 144- year history.
Williams and Hooper are enshrined on a marker at the new monument to be dedicated at
10 a.m. Saturday at the fire station, Bell at Wilcox.
Needless to say, everyone hopes and prays their names are the only ones to ever grace
that particular marker.
‘DULL RED’ — Scarbrough & Hicks was the largest, and most iconic, business in Rockdale
throughout the first third of the 20th Century.
It filled most of a 13,100-square foot lot and was divided into four buildings—grocery
store, ladies wear/dry goods, men’s clothing/shoes and a storeroom.
At 12:40 a.m. the morning of Sept. 3, Homer Turner and Max Ferrari, two members of
American Legion Carlyle Post 358, were returning from a Legionnaire convention in
Dallas and passed by the intersection.
Turner said they noticed a dull red reflection in one of the windows, turned around to
investigate and discovered a small blaze under the store’s electric refrigeration
They turned in a fire alarm. Seconds later a wall of flame engulfed first the grocery
department, then roared through the entire store.
It was later determined an explosion was triggered by the gases in the refrigeration
THREE ON A LINE - Two alarms were sounded, a few minutes apart. Rockdale’s
firefighters had hoses on the fire at 12:47, exactly seven minutes after the alarm was
At the Katie Williams house, Mrs. Williams had to awaken her son, volunteer
firefighter Wilbur, more than once to answer the alarm.
Family members recalled she then tried to persuade him not to go. But he did.
It was a long time until dawn and a long night.
Three separate times volunteers believed they had the fire under control, but it was
not to be as hallways between the departments created a natural air flow which kept
the fire supplied with oxygen.
Three hours in, Williams, Hooper and volunteer Lee Talbott were on a hose spraying
water on the inferno when the awning’s end began to sag.
Spectators saw what was about to happen and screamed at them to jump free. Talbott was
able to. Williams and Hooper were not.
The collapsing awning pulled masses of hot bricks onto the two men. The Reporter
described it as “an avalanche of death.”
Hooper was killed instantly. Williams was still breathing when he was dragged from the
rubble but died at the scene.
For several hours it was feared other bodies might have been buried under the rubble.
The fire was finally brought under control.
Scarbrough & Hicks briefly re-opened but eventually moved all its business into its
co-existing Austin store which remained open for another half century.
Wilbur Williams (L) and J. W. Hooper are the only two members of the Rockdale
Volunteer Fire Department to perish in the line of duty. Williams was 25 and
Hooper 32 when they died Sept. 3, 1935. Williams is buried in the Sand Grove
Cemetery, southwest of Milano, Hooper in the Taylor City Cemetery.
‘Farewell John, farewell Wilbur, we make amends’ J. W. Hooper was a native of Taylor,
attended Taylor High School and Southwestern University.
At the time of his death he had resided in Rockdale two years. An insurance executive, he
had been promoted to district supervisor, where he would have overseen 22 counties, the
day before his death.
Hooper was survived by his wife, a small daughter and his father.
He was a member of Rockdale First Baptist Church and a Mason.
Wilbur Williams was a lifelong Rockdale resident and a 1930 RHS grad. He worked at a
Five years previously, his father, J. C. Williams, had been killed in a train-car
Wilbur Williams was reported to have “devoted his life to caring for his widowed mother.”
His sister was the late Eugenia Williams Vinton, longtime Milano school secretary. A
nephew, Gary Vinton is a volunteer firefighter in Milano.
Two days after the fire Reporter Publisher John Esten Cooke wrote: “Farewell John,
farewell Wilbur. Rockdale regrets it did not give you more flowers while you were living,
but makes amends today as best it can....”
Eighty-one years later Rockdale has taken steps to remember J. W. Hooper and Wilbur
This is an architect’s drawing of the Scarbrough & Hicks building showing its new front,
constructed in 1916. Hooper and Williams were crushed when part of the awning collapsed,
pulling bricks down onto them.