The Main Street Fires

December 2nd, 1874; January 20th, 1881; December 2nd, 1885.  Three dates, all in the dead of winter; the last coming, in an amazing co-incidence, precisely eleven years to the day of the first.  Three fires, the first occurring in that early December 146 years ago, and re-occurring with frightening regularity twice more in slightly over the span of a decade.

Main Street fire aftermathWe sometimes forget, in this day of uniform building codes, sprinkler and alarm systems, and modern firefighting equipment and methods, how common destruction by fire was for our good ancestors.  The Historical Society here in Wilton houses many photos of the aftermath of these fires.  The photo on the right shows what appears to be a parade – there are horses and wagons filling the streets, and townsfolk lined up on the sidewalk to watch.  The photographer is standing on a rise, just about where the main entrance to Town Hall is today.  Littered about in the foreground are piles of rubble and a small set of stairs going nowhere.  This is, of course, the site of the old Whiting Hotel, which was completely destroyed in the first blaze of 1874.  There wouldn’t seem to be much to celebrate, but there it is, nonetheless; the town, exhibiting its wonderful Yankee resilience staging a parade amidst the debris.  Main Street was rebuilt and restored, only to burn again, and yet again. 

Three fires, eleven years; one fire every five years (more or less) from 1874 to 1885.  The account of this in the town history is dry, almost matter-of-fact; it talks about estimated damages and insurance payouts.  Even the excerpt from the old Farmer’s Cabinet, published six days later and quoted in the History, detailing the final fire of 1885, is, by our standards, very low-key and devoid of sensationalism.  Several sentences from this account are offered here as an example: 

 Wednesday evening, December 2, 1885, will long be remembered as a most unfortunate one for this enterprising New Hampshire village.  Though accustomed to a certain extent to reverses of this nature, the conflagration of last week will long leave its dreadful impress. . . [the] firemen worked heroically; barring [a] delay at the outset, no criticism could be offered. . . [the] fire must of necessity cripple the industry of the town, but Wilton pluck is manifesting itself in the erection of new buildings on the burned territory.

 Very little survived those fires; most of the Main Street we all know dates from the late 19th and on into the 20th century.   Proctor’s store, built in 1851, was one of the buildings that escaped the flames but it is long gone now, having been torn down in the 1930’s.  Only one building stands today (shown in the photos below) from our long-ago Main Street; a building that was home over the years to private businesses, the Wilton Police Department, and the US Post Office. 
1874 fire
The late Carl Anderson’s Color Shop (now the Local Share) dates from ca. 1811 and is the only structure to come to us intact.  It was one of many fine, multi-storied brick buildings that lined our Main Street, like D.B. Needham’s and the old Masonic Hall.  Hidden away in the basement are several iron-barred jail cells, the only remnant of its incarnation as a Police Station.  This old building is what we usually think of as our heritage, built of wood and stone, brick and mortar, passed on to us down through time. But things happen, buildings burn.  You pick up, you make do, you rebuild.  Sometimes, your heritage is another thing entirely, more subtle, that has to do with the town’s spirit, and its heart, and its soul.  This too, is passed down to us, and we owe it to the ones who simply did what they knew had to be done, to cherish it all those things, tangible and intangible, that are our heritage, our history, and our strength.

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