In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I am working on book #3 in the Winds of Freedom series, a teen adventure series set in the 1850s in North Danville, Vermont. My 1852 Vermont adventure THIS ARDENT FLAME is scheduled for June 2021 publication with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you updates and early order information as soon as I know! I'm also writing a memoir; revising a mystery; in the midst of a novel about a grandmother and her granddaughter; and always writing poems. Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

"East Village" Vermont Fire of 1912: The True Story

The East Village fire of 1912: remains. Photo taken from behind today's Peter & Polly Park. Look for the bell tower of the church, toward the right rear in the card.
Dave and I enjoy collecting old postcards that show locations -- and sometimes people -- around our area, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. We've done this since we met, back in 2002, and it's become an important part of the research we each do: Dave for his attention to the college where he worked for 19 years (Lyndon State College) as Assistant Dean of Residential Life (he stays in touch with SO many people, as well as the history of Theodore N. Vail, a founder of AT&T and donor of many of the college town's cultural treasures. And me, well, I'm always hunting down more details of "truth" to add to the historical adventures I write.

So this postcard became one of our Big Finds for 2015. It is what's called a "real photo postcard" -- someone photographed an actual scene and event, and had the picture made into cards. Three things alerted us to excitement here: the scene, which is after a disastrous fire; the postmark and hardwritten date, August 26 (25), 1912, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont; and the writer, L. D. Weston, who notes that he's writing to "Dear" Mrs. F. Weston, in Marbleton, Quebec, Canada.

We were wrong in almost all of our early assumptions about the card, though! The name "Weston" immediately rang a bell for us, as we know there's a household including that name in East St. Johnbury today. We wondered whether it was connected to today's family, and whether the image showed a farm fire.

Each of us -- Dave and I -- investigated in different directions. Soon we learned that today's Weston family didn't have a record of someone of that name in East St. Johnsbury (then known as "East Village") in 1912; then we found that L. D. Weston had lived in Lyndonville but was employed for a while by the railroad in St. Johnsbury. Finally Dave used the Library of Congress archives to unearth newspaper coverage of the 1912 fire -- which, oddly enough, turned out to have happened in East Village after all! I typed the news report up, and circled back to Edward Lee's "East St. Johnsbury Vermont" (1984) booklet to confirm the story from another direction. Lee's account makes it clear that the devastation of the East Village fire on August 7, 1912, had three contributing factors: no firefighting system in the village beyond the traditional "bucket brigade"; the fact that when the first motor-powered firetruck in St. Johnsbury itself (some 5+ miles away) tried to reach the fire, it was interrupted (according to the newspaper, three times!) by frightened teams of horses along the route; and a delay in getting a hand pumper from the Fairbanks Scale factory (about 6 miles way) to the fire via the railroad -- the pumper was placed on a flat car for transport along the rail line that linked the two villages, but had to wait for the passenger train from Portland, Maine, to arrive first.

Lee's account also includes the intriguing mention that firefighting villagers considered dynamiting the Moulton house next door to the church to stop the fire from traveling as far as the church! It appears this was a last resort that didn't actually happen.

A final note from Lee's accounts: By 1928 the East Village had its own fire station, next to the large store built a century earlier by Silas Hibbard. Perhaps one of today's readers can tell us when firefighting left East Village again, to be focused in "downtown" St. Johnsbury instead.

Here is the promised newspaper article:

St. Johnsbury Caledonian, August 14, 1912

Four Houses and Four Barns Completely Destroyed and other Buildings Damaged.

            The little village of East St. Johnsbury suffered the worst fire it its history last Wednesday afternoon when in about three hours four houses and four barns were completely destroyed and another house and the Congregational church were considerably damaged. It was a case of no water system and all that save at least three more houses and the church was the sending of a hose cart and a hand pump with several volunteer firemen from this village to assist their brethren in misfortune.

            The fire was discovered about half past twelve when smoke was seen pouring out of the roof and along the ridge pole of John Nolan’s house on Main street. All the men in that section were away at their work and Mrs. George Dodge spread the alarm along the street. When the flames burst through the roof the top of the house was all on fire and all it was possible to do was get Mr. and Mrs. John Nolan Sr. out of the house and the family’s furniture, clothing and bedding were all lost. The fire quickly reached the barn which was filled with this season’s cut of hay and everything there was burned. Mr. Nolan received $1930 insurance on the buildings and furniture and that practically covers his loss.

            George Dodge’s house stood next to the Nolans and the fire soon leaped across the space and began devouring those buildings. Enough people had gathered by this time to remove most of the furniture and articles from the barn and they were saved in a somewhat damaged condition. The Dodges received $1,000 insurance which practically covered their loss on the buildings. There was a loss of over $200  on the hay, wood and furniture.

Assistance From St. Johnsbury

            When it was seen the fire would spread the authorities of St. Johnsbury were telephoned, and they ordered the new automobile fire truck to the scene. The truck had to come to a full stop three times on account of frightened teams and then made the trip in nine minutes. The buildings were so far done before the truck arrived that the chemicals were of no use and as the village had no water pressure the hose could not be used. Word was sent back to St. Johnsbury and an out of town alarm was sounded. The firemen quickly responded and soon had the hose cart with a hand pump loaded on a flat car and with about 20 firemen was ready to start. The special train was held however until the eastbound express pulled out and then was run to East Village. The firemen arrived there about quarter of three and soon had the pump throwing a good stream of water from the river on the fire.

More Buildings Destroyed

            Before the St. Johnsbury men arrived the fire had swept through the house and barn of Miss Charlotte Morrill a[n]d practically leveled the house and barn of Francis Brown. It had also caught on one side of the buildings of Lois Moulton and an attempt was being made to tear down that house in an effort to keep the blaze from the Congregational church. In their fright the people damaged the furniture considerably and they tore out the pews, windows and carpets of the church and some furniture was taken from the house of Eugene Shasteny beyond the church In a few minutes after the stream from the pump was started it seemed that the blaze would be stopped at the Brown house and the destruction of furniture was stopped.

Sick People Carried Out

            During the excitement Mrs. Moulton and Mrs. Shores were nearly overcome by fright and had to be helped to places of safety. Aunt Honor Brown, a woman about 85 years of age who lay in bed with a broken hip, were carried out of the Brown house. George Babcock was quite badly cut over one eye by a piece of furniture which was thrown from a house. The Brown invalids were taken to St. Johnsbury and the whole Brown family are there at present stopping with relatives. The Brown buildings were insured for $800 which covers the loss of them but Mr. Brown lost a lot of nice wood and some furniture. It is doubtful if they rebuild.

More of the Insurance

            The church was allowed $200 damage by the insurance company and Lois Moulton was allowed $350 insurance which will hardly cover her loss. The loss on the Morrill house was $1,243 but the loss is above $1,600.
            John Nolan and his family stay through the day at the abandoned house on their farm outside the village, but they stay nights at Charles Bowman’s as they lost all of their bedding. Mr. and Mrs. George Dodge have taken rooms as Oscar Wallace’s and will rebuild their house at once. Miss Charlotte Morrill is stopping with the Rev. Edward Lee and he sister, Mrs. M. S. McCurdy, who was spending the summer with her. is stopping at George Copp’s. Mrs. Moulton is also stopping there until her house is made habitable.

The Morrill House

            The house of Miss Charlotte Morrill was one of the oldest and best known residences in the village. It was partly built by the Rev. Silas Gaskill in 1825 and completed by Judge Calvin Morrill in 1850. It has been the residence of the Morrill family since the marriage of Calvin Morrill and Sophronia Lee in 1834. The family consisted of one son and three daughters of whom only the daughters, Mrs. M. S. McCurdy of Andover, Mass., Mrs. Elizabeth Chapman of South Part and Miss Charlotte Morrill, a member of the faculty of Adelphi College in Brooklyn, N.Y., survive. For years it has been occupied by the Morrill family as a summer residence where they had entertained many other guests.
            Miss Morrill plans to rebuilt the house at once. ###

A final note from Beth: Each of my novels somehow includes a fire, I find ... probably because of the one that made such a change in my own family's life. More on that, some other time. Finally, Dave and I are pretty sure this postcard is indeed of the East Village fire -- but a curious side issue is, it seems to be the only existing image of the fire. So if, after all this, you think we are mistaken and you have a good reason to say the card is of some other place or time ... let us know. We are always learning, and eager to learn more. -- BK