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Historic home goes up in flames

Owner David Scalley watches as fire crews work to quell the flames that engulfed his property at 29 Elm Street in Whitefield last Wednesday. The house, dating back to the early 19th century, was being renovated into apartments by Mr. Scalley. (Photo by Kayti Burt) (click for larger version)
July 07, 2010
WHITEFIELD — Whitefield lost a piece of its history last week when the 19th century, Queen Anne-style Victorian house and adjacent barn at 29 Elm Street went up in flames. The fire started just before 6 p.m. on Wednesday evening, and it wasn't long before crowds of townspeople had gathered to watch the 175-year-old house turn to frame before their eyes. Crews worked until midnight to put out the blaze and smoldering ash, and no one was injured.

"We saw thick, black smoke shooting up into the sky," said 13-year-old Alex Husson, one of the over 100 townspeople who stood, mesmerized, at spots around town as flames shot up over the tree line and ash sprinkled from the sky. "As we were walking, we saw the branches fall and turn into ash."

The Whitefield Fire Department first got the 911 call that the barn at 29 Elm Street was on fire at 5:50 p.m. By 5:52, they were on the scene.

"When I first arrived," said Whitefield Fire Chief Jay Watkins, "the barn was fully involved. Because it was a total loss and the house was already on fire, we wanted to protect the surrounding houses," the Comeau and Allen residences, as well as the McIntire Apartments. The department focused their energies on evacuating these properties, and keeping the barn fire contained, said Chief Watkins. When the Dalton Fire Department arrived, they were able to focus on the house fire.

The building belonged to David Scalley, of Twin Mountain, who owns and operates D.S. Contractors, Inc. Mr. Scalley has owned the house for about a year, but has been working on it for only 3 months. There were three workers putting on roofing earlier that day, he said. They left less than 45 minutes before the fire broke out. Mr. Scalley had been turning the house into apartment units and the barn into a garage and storage area, as well as an upstairs apartment. The house was set to be ready sometime this summer, with the barn hopefully finished this fall.

"As long as no one is hurt," said a shocked Mr. Scalley as he watched his property burn to the ground. Mr. Scalley rushed to the scene from his office on Route 3, near the elementary school, when the calls started coming in, he said.

Whitefield and Dalton were eventually joined by the Lancaster, Twin Mountain, Bethlehem, and Littleton fire departments on the scene, as well as the Groveton Fire Department on station coverage. The Lancaster EMS also lent a hand on the scene, as the Whitefield EMS team was busy evacuating the Morrison Nursing Home.

"We had things under control by 9 o'clock. It definitely could have gotten a whole lot worse in a hurry," said Chief Watkins who applauded the efforts of his own men, the surrounding departments, as well as the help from the community.

"I'd like to thank Whitefield Public Works, Whitefield Water, and the police department, Jiffy Mart and Cumberland Farms for helping out with food and drink, and the Morrison Nursing Home for providing shelter and food for the residents of the McIntire," said Chief Watkins.

Arson rumors are flying, but Chief Watkins can confirm nothing.

"I was there [last Thursday] with the fire marshal," he said. "We're still in the beginning stages of the investigation."

Most rumors stem from the suspicious fire that erupted in the property's dumpster two days prior to the house and barn burning. That fire is also still under investigation, said Chief Watkins.

Days after the fire, townspeople are still feeling its effects. Phone and cable service across town have been interrupted, and the McIntire Apartments building will have to do some renovations. Much of the vinyl siding has been melted off, and melted air-conditioning units and heat-cracked windows will have to be replaced.

Town memories tied to burnt house

By Kayti Burt

Contributing writer

Separate from the logistical issues the fires at 29 Elm Street last week have caused, are the emotional ones, as many townspeople recall the many memories they have of the historic home.

"Almost everyone in town did something on that hill," said former house resident Jeff Woodburn, "either got beat up or kissed a girl or got chased down the hill." Mr. Woodburn owned the house prior to its current owner, David Scalley, who was renovating the 175-year old building into apartments.

Mr. Woodburn bought the house about seven years ago from Alan Astle, whose family owned the house for over 100 years.

"My grandparents bought the house in the late 1800s," said Mr. Astle, who now lives in Dalton. "I was born and brought up in a little, brown bungalow next door." Mr. Astle and his father, mother, and sister moved into the house with his father when he was only six, and Mr. Astle lived in it — save for short breaks for prep school, college, and the like — for roughly 60 years.

"My father was brought up in the house, and I was, too." Mr. Astle said he tried to let go when the house was first sold. "I never went near it, and I've known Jeff all his life. I just couldn't bring myself to go and see what he had done with the house."

Mr. Astle felt the same with Mr. Scalley's renovations. "I was sad. I saw what [Mr. Scalley] was doing. I've never met him, but from all accounts he's fairly reputable and was going to do a good job with the house, and I said, 'As long as the house is going to be maintained to its original pristine.' I was feeling happy about that."

Mr. Astle went down to the remnants of his former home the day after the fire. Nothing was salvageable, he said, but he hopes someone will build something nice in its place.

"I feel the house does have a certain amount of history to it, and for sure it was one of the nicer, old Victorians in Whitefield, and for that reason alone, I'm sad it burned," concluded Mr. Astle. "But, it did, and we have to move on."

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