Fire takes more than a home
By ERIC FRANCIS
CORRESPONDENT | October 03,2012
Above, the “Lackie Brooks House” is shown before a fire leveled the structure. Below, the scene of fire last week in the Stone Village section of Chester.
CHESTER — The unoccupied historic home that burned to the ground in the Stone Village section of town last week had been broken into frequently in recent months, according to the owner, who said he suspects that human activity, rather than an electrical problem, could have caused the blaze.
Stuart Lackie, who grew up in the unusually long clapboarded Federal style home, which in recent decades was known as the “Lackie Brooks House,” said from his current residence in northern Vermont that the structure was even older than previous news reports, which had identified it as dating back to the early 19th century.
“The main structure got built in 1760 when it was originally ‘Kelly’s Inn’,” Lackie explained. “It was part of the inns that were along the route from Boston to Montreal and the stagecoach would come along and every 20 miles or so they would have a place like that people would stay at.”
Recalling one of the home’s quirkiest features from that era, Lackie said, “It had a springboard dance floor on the second floor. The way that worked was they had huge timbers that were strung 60 feet and they lashed together beams that were not long enough. It was supported on the ends but not on the sides so, if you jumped up and down on it, it would move up and down.”
“It had a little stage on one end where they had a fiddler and caller who would do the square-dance thing for them and they would have a time of it there,” Lackie said. “When I grew up in the house there was an older lady who lived across the street who said that when she was a little girl they used to have square dances up there. She remembered that if you were dancing and got out of step the floor would ‘kick’ you!”
At one point the building also had portals on the second floor that would allow workers at the inn to slide wooden ramps out and take luggage directly off the tops of parked stagecoaches into the guest rooms on the second floor while the passengers were still disembarking and entering on the ground floor below.
Lackie said his parents, Henry and Florence, bought the sprawling house in 1950 and lived in the southern portion while his uncle and aunt, Oswin and Virginia Brooks, lived in the northern end. “My uncle and father were in business together doing construction their entire lives,” Lackie said, adding that his aunt was the last surviving resident of the house before it became vacant about a decade ago.
Lackie confirmed the fears of the Chester Historical Society that many items of significance to the town’s past most likely were lost in the flames. “It was full of stuff because my parents and aunt and uncle were packrats,” he said. “One of the things we were trying to do was clean it out and we were in the process of doing that but didn’t quite make it.”
One of the challenges of trying to keep ahead of the elements and hang on to the home’s history in recent months and years had been the frequent evidence of entry by unknown people, Lackie said. He doesn’t have a clue whether it was juveniles, ordinary burglars or antiquities looters who were doing it but it leads him to doubt theories that an electrical problem may have been to blame.
“I really don’t know what caused the fire (but) I really kind of doubt that it was electrical,” Lackie said. “The electrical power was live into one end of the building but I had removed all the fuses that were feeding the rest of the house. ... It was a continual problem.”
Lackie said he learned of the three-alarm blaze from a relation in the Stone Village late Tuesday night.
“My wife’s brother’s wife texted both Janet and I and I called up the Chester police after that and they gave me the lowdown on it. It was still kind of burning at that point. They said houses across the street were getting warm so they had to spray them down,” Lackie said. “It’s an awful thing. I’m still in shock over it.”
Lackie said he doubted anything of significance remains after the intense fire which had flames shooting out of every window almost from the moment firefighters arrived.
“We’ve seen some pictures people have sent us of what’s left of it and there really wasn’t a full cellar underneath that so what looks like a pile of timbers that might be stuck in a basement is not, it’s just level ground so there’s not much left. It got really burned up,” Lackie said.
Chester Fire Chief Henry Goodell said that it was difficult to determine where in the house the flames originated because of the speed with which it spread before it was noticed and called in.
“There was so much fire it was really hard to tell,” Goodell said, noting, “This thing was really going,” when the first engine from what would eventually be a dozen Vermont and New Hampshire fire departments arrived at the scene alongside Route 131.
“We didn’t put anyone in or next to the building because there was no need to risk firefighters,” Goodell said. “We brought in aerial platforms (ladder trucks) from Ludlow and Springfield in order to reach over and get at it. It went real well. We used the hydrants in the town and also ran another supply line from the Williams River so we had plenty of water.”
Goodell said that fire investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by the Vermont State Police Fire Marshals who that the cause is currently classified as “undetermined.”
“You don’t expect things like this to happen on your watch,” Lackie said, recalling, “We lost the big barn last year with that heavy snowstorm and now with this fire I’ve lost it all there. It had been in existence for over 300 years and this doesn’t really seem like the right ending for a stately house like that.”