TWO STORES AND THREE HOUSES DESTROYED BY FIRE
IN FAIRFAX FIRE OF AUGUST 26, 1898
By
Henry A. Raymond

(Special thanks to Albert Rich for the photos and Sally (Wilkins) Sweet for finding the original article in the September 1, 1898 issue of the St. Albans Messenger)

The Fairfax Historical Society held itís annual meeting on Sunday night, August 16, 1998 at the Museum located at 1181 Main Street in Fairfax. The museum, originally a meeting house, then a school, was donated to the museum by the Hayes-Rich Funeral Home. It is open during the summer months each Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and again the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October. In addition to these regular hours, anyone wishing to visit the museum in groups, or with family or friends may call Mike Cain at 849-6638 and special arrangements can be made.

Anyone wishing to search for their ancestors in Fairfax, may do so by either writing the Fairfax Town Office, Hunt Street, Fairfax, Vermont 05454 or by calling 849-6111. Fairfax is unique in that all the births, deaths and marriages recorded in the Fairfax Town Records are computerized between the late 1700ís and 1997. This was done using a genealogy program and not only contains the names of individuals, but all other information such as occupation, place of birth and parent information, if available. This effort took over 6000 hours of volunteer effort by a resident of the town.

After the business meeting, Mike Cain, President of the Fairfax Historical Society, led the group in a discussion about the fire which occurred in Fairfax the evening of August 26, 1898. It seemed quite appropriate, since this was the 100th anniversary. This fire destroyed two stores and three houses in the area starting at the brook where the small vacant former barber shop was, Vermont Food Ventures lot and the Dorothy King lot on Maple Street. On the morning of August 27, 1898, this area was an empty smoldering lot.

The buildings burned were Ira E. Hunt's general store, located on the corner of Main and Maple Street, P. R. Curley's drug store located just up from Ira E. Huntís general store and Palmer Hunt's residence and barn located near the river. A tenement house and barn owned by W. H. Bellows and a tenement house and barn owned by Nelson Leonard were located on Maple Street.

Click here to see Main Street before the fire (Photo Courtesy of Albert Rich)

Click here to see Maple Street before the fire (Photo Courtesy of Albert Rich)

It was estimated that the loss would reach $15,000 with $10,000 insurance. Had there been any wind no one knows where the fire would have stopped, as it was only the efficient work of the bucket brigade that saved the residence of George A. Ballard and the other buildings in close proximity. It was a severe blow to the prosperity of Fairfax and one from which many of the residents felt at that time they might never recover.

According to a September 1, 1898 article found in the archives of The St. Albans Messenger, the fire started in Mr. Curley's drug store. It was discovered about 9:30 p.m. by W. J. Trombley who was on his way to care for his horse which was stabled in a barn in the rear of and adjoining the drug store. Mr. Trombley says when he turned the corner of the store, flames were bursting out of the windows of the rear cellar in which were stored old packing boxes, excelsior and drugs. Almost before he could give the alarm the fire reached a small shed and jumped to the barn. Help was soon at hand and everything was removed from the barn except about four tons of hay. It was impossible to save anything in the drug store.

Over the store was the office of Dr. Phelps who saved his library and part of his office furniture. He had $200 insurance which was expected to cover his loss. Directly east of Mr. Curley's store was the general store of Ira E. Hunt and to the west, separated only by a narrow driveway, was Palmer Hunt's house. These buildings caught fire about the same time. Mr. Hunt saved a portion of his stock in a damaged condition. He valued his stock at about $4,000 on which he had $2,500 insurance. His insurance on the building was $l,000.

The Post Office which was located in Ira E. Huntís store was destroyed in the fire as well, but all the mail matter and office furnishings were saved.

The upper story of the Hunt store was owned by Lamoille Lodge No. 6. F & A.M. and occupied as a hall. The charter, granted in 1803 and signed by Nathaniel Chipman and most of the lodge furniture was saved. The lodge had $500 insurance on the building and $100 on the furniture and furnishings. The insurance covered about half of the lodge's loss on the building. The loss on personal property was covered.

Mr. Hunt's dwelling which was next to the brook, was a two story house with barn attached. Part of the household goods were saved and everything in the barn except the hay. He was insured for $1,325.

Just across the brook was an unoccupied store and storehouse combined owned by Ira E. Hunt. This caught fire several times, but was saved by the bucket brigade. The following day, Mr. Hunt moved what goods he saved into the unoccupied store.

From the Hunt store the fire spread to a one story tenement house on Maple street owned by W. B. Bellows and occupied by Mrs. L. B. Buck. The building was insured for $400 which covered the loss. Mrs. Buck saved most of her goods. She had $200 insurance. This was the second time in 13 months Mrs. Buck had been burned out.

The barn in the rear of the Curley store was connected with the tenement and owned by Mr. Bellows.

The last building to go was the tenement house of Nelson Leonard and was located on Maple Street. M. E. Shedd was the occupant. He had $500 insurance and saved most of his goods. Mr. Leonard, who has been spending the summer at Randolph, had his household goods stored here, most of which were saved. He was insured for $1050.

About 50 feet from Mr. Leonard's house was the residence of George A. Ballard. I believe this is probably the house on Maple Street, formerly owned Bernard and Bea Cherrier. By heroic work it was saved and the progress of the flames staved.

Louis Despart's house opposite Palmer Hunt's, presently an apartment building located near the river and George Bell's grocery across the street from Mr. Curley's store, currently the building last occupied by the U.S. Post Office in 1998, were badly scorched. A derrick which was being used in the construction of the new bridge was also burned.

The origin of the fire is a mystery. Mr. Curley had closed his store only a few minutes before the fire was discovered and had just reached his residence. He says there was nothing in his cellar which would cause spontaneous combustion and thinks the fire started in the shed in the rear. The first Mr. Trombley saw of the fire was in the drug store cellar. Besides drugs Mr. Curley carried a stock of boots and shoes. He was insured for $2,350, which he said would not cover his loss. All the insurance was placed through Luther B. Hunt's Agency and was all in the Vermont Mutual except that carried by Lamoille Lodge which was in the Orient.

Click here to see Main Street view 1 after fire (Photo Courtesy of Albert Rich)

Click here to see Main Street view 2 after fire (Photo Courtesy of Albert Rich)

Click here to see Main Street view 3 after fire (Photo Courtesy of Albert Rich)

This was the fourth mysterious fire in Fairfax in 13 months and the people here were more than a little stirred up. The first was the residence of Mrs. P. J. Farnsworth. Her house was located in the vicinity of the present residence of Lee and Louise Minor on Hunt Street. The second the New Hampton Institute Building and the third the boarding house connected with the institute which was saved. The New Hampton Institute was located in the vicinity of the Ralph and Claire Lemnah residence on the Firemanís Pond Road. At the investigation into the institute fire suspicion was directed toward a young son of Mr. Curley whose store was burned on the night of August 26, 1898. The boy was before the investigators several times and closely questioned, but nothing could be proven.

During discussion in the meeting, one of the members mentioned that Clip Stewart, a long time resident of Fairfax, prior to his death, had mentioned that for a period of time, there were an average of seven unexplained fires a year in Fairfax and although there were suspicions as to who may have been the cause, the arsonist or suspected arsonist was never found.

Our oldest resident, Albert W. Rich provided us with some outstanding photos of Fairfax before and after the fire of August 26, 1898. In addition, as he looked through one of the old New Hampton Institute books, he very quickly and easily identified where many of the individuals named lived here in town.

Fifty-five years after the fire, when I moved to Fairfax, little was left to indicate that there had been such a disastrous fire in the center of town. George Penoís barbershop was located in the small building near the river and the building on the corner of Main and Maple street contained Steve Aldermanís store as well as the U.S. Post Office on the first floor with Lamoille Lodge No. 6. F & A.M located on the second floor. This building had been built by F. W. Shepardson and Lamoille Lodge No. 6. F & A.M. a number of years earlier. The reason for the two owners was that F. W. Shepardson started building the store and after completing the first floor, ran out of money. Albert Rich recounted the story of being given the task of selling the top story of a building in one of our earlier meetings. Babe and Dorothy King lived in the first white house on Maple Street. Across the street were the original house of Despartís, Howard Parsons Store, including gas pumps, and Winona (Trombley) Spillerís Hardware Store. This was indeed a very busy section of town.

Today, the center of town is very quiet, except for through traffic. The small former barbershop stands empty with one wall falling away into the river. The former Steve Alderman Store is occupied by Vermont Food Ventures, Inc. and you see an occasional tractor trailer unloading supplies or individuals dressed in white uniforms entering and leaving the building. The Despart house is now an apartment house owned by Colleen Steen. Howard Parsonís Store, now owned by Colleen Steen is now empty on the ground floor with an upstairs apartment and Winona (Trombly) Spillerís Hardware Store, also owned by Colleen Steen, is now an apartment building. St. Luke Church, which was formerly in downtown Fairfax, is now occupied by a grocery store.

We have a quick-stop store and gas station at each end of town and at the top of Main Hill we have a funeral home and garage. The center of activity now seems to be at the junction of route 104 and 128. Here we have a pharmacy, video store, hair salon, post office, hardware store, garage and restaurant.

The make-up of the town has changed greatly over the last forty-five years I have lived here. What was once a farming community has now changed to many residents who commute to nearby towns for employment and as one drives along the roads in Fairfax, houses, developments and condos are replacing what was once meadow and pasture land. Fairfax also has many retired individuals and couples who have ignored the call of the sunny south to stay and watch the gentle snowflakes fall and enjoy the company of their friends and neighbors. The remainder of the town is made up of what few farmers we have left and business owners and their employees.

I am sure that the Fairfax residents, who viewed with such despair, the ruins of the disastrous fire of August 26, 1898 would be proud to see that, with Godís help, not only did Fairfax recover from that tragedy, but also the flood of 1927, the tornado of 1973 and other tragedies I am not aware of over the past 100 years.

Author: Henry A. Raymond
Web Site Design: Henry A. Raymond
Updated: March 15, 1999

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