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'A hole in the town center': Arson not suspected in Wescustogo Hall fire in North Yarmouth

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'A hole in the town center': Arson not suspected in Wescustogo Hall fire in North Yarmouth

NORTH YARMOUTH — Unless new evidence comes to light, the cause of a fire that consumed Wescustogo Hall late last week will remain undetermined, Fire Chief Ricky Plummer said Tuesday.

The 1950s building at 475 Walnut Hill Road (Route 115), for decades a centerpiece of the community for events like Town Meeting, elections and parties, was consumed by fire the night of Aug. 29-30. It was unoccupied at the time.

Plummer said the state fire marshal's office was investigating the blaze, which is not believed to have been intentionally set.

"We have not found anything to lead us to believe that it was set, but we haven't ruled it out," Plummer said the morning of Aug. 30.

He repeated that opinion on Tuesday.

"We still have not found any evidence that leads us to believe it was arson, but it's still undetermined," he said. "It still leaves that door open if later on, someone comes up and says, 'we saw someone coming out of there.' But we've interviewed tons of people."

Plummer said he would be talking with the Board of Selectmen about tearing down the remaining wreckage soon, "because it's a hazard."

By the afternoon of Aug. 30, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland, investigators had determined the fire originated in the left front of the building, which housed electrical panels, a kitchen, office and storage room.

Plummer said the blaze was fully involved by the time firefighters got the call at 11:57 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29

"When I pulled up, that's what we saw – fire coming out of every window," he said, looking at the charred remains of a structure that held memories for many residents. "... It was burned before we got here. (There) was no winning this situation."

When he received the call, and heard the fire was at Wescustogo Hall, Plummer said his "heart kind of sunk. It's certainly a town treasure. (When) everybody thinks of Wescustogo Hall, they think of North Yarmouth."

The blaze was completely extinguished by about 3 a.m. Friday, he said.

Voters at June's Town Meeting had approved spending $45,000 to have an architect determine the cost of upgrading the building. That work would have been funded by a bond if approved by a special Town Meeting vote.

The building had still been in regular use, although the basement had been closed because of code violations, Plummer said: Exits were not sufficient for its capacity, he said, so activity was limited to smaller groups upstairs.

"The exits ... were OK upstairs, it's just that the building, what it was made out of, was not up to code," the chief explained, noting that the structure was made of flammable pine covered with varnish, and did not contain wallboard.

"It didn't start the fire ... but it certainly made the building burn quicker, because of all the flammable materials in it," Plummer said.

If more than 100 people were in the building, he noted, one person was required to be stationed on fire watch, as a precaution; 200 people would necessitate a second watcher.

Improved exits, alarms and sprinklers were among improvements expected to be made to the building. An architect had not yet begun the study; the Board of Selectmen first wanted to hear input from the town about what to do with the building, Interim Town Manager Marnie Diffin said.

The building is insured, Diffin said. It was valued last year at a little more than $400,000.

The shock of the building's loss resonated among residents Friday morning.

"This is really devastating for the community; this is our town center," state Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, said, adding that she would like something rebuilt on the same spot.

Graham recalled a variety of activities held at Wescustogo, from aerobics to the annual potluck Christmas celebration, with caroling, a tree lighting and Santa.

"I feel like it's a loss of a member of our community," she said.

Clark Whittier, vice chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said he attended almost all the Town Meetings held at the hall since he moved to town in 1973.

"It's ... one of the integral parts of the town," he said. "It's a real loss, and a hole in the town center."

The hall's destruction also raises questions about the direction of a town center economic development plan.

The first phase of that plan, approved by voters in June, called for installation of a sidewalk from the fire barn to Wescustogo Hall, along with a path that would lead from the hall to an approximately 70-foot bridge that would span Toddy Brook ravine. A trail would lead from there to Town Hall, tying both sides of the town property together for pedestrian access.

"Now that we don't have Wescustogo, it raises the question of whether we should continue with the bridge," Steve Palmer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said Friday. He said options for North Yarmouth Memorial School, which is due to close in June 2014, could be affected as well, and noted that November's election could be held there.

Al Ahlers, chairman of the town's Economic Development and Sustainability Committee, which is spearheading the development plan, said Friday it was too soon to say how the fire could affect the plan.

"It's tragic that you have a building that's been in town for a long time, that's been destroyed," he said. "But on the other hand, the building certainly needed some major improvements. ... (This situation) may give the town the opportunity to ... rebuild something that is more effective for what the town needs."

"It's a loss and an opportunity both, I guess," Ahlers added.

Palmer expressed sympathy for the people who had scheduled events at Wescustogo, including Boy Scouts, cheerleaders and contradancers.

"All that we were looking forward to continuing to do here has now been dashed," he said.

The Wescustogo Grange Hall Association purchased the property in the 1940s and erected the building the following decade. The group turned the building over to the town in the mid-1990s.

Linc Merrill, a longtime member and president of the grange, said he was devastated by news of the fire.

"It was a big part of my life for a long time; my brother had his wedding reception there, my father-in-law played at a dance there as a fundraiser for the grange, my wife and I belonged there together, along with a lot of our friends," he said. "... A lot of memories I have are from that place, and I think it's just a shame that it's gone."

While most of the memorabilia related to the grange and town had already been removed, he said, some things were lost, including the town's voting booths.

But "the biggest physical loss that I can think of that we suffered," Merrill said, "is the curtain that was on the stage. That curtain was the last known example of one of those roll-up canvas curtains that anyone knows of. ... That was a great piece of history that we can't replace."

Katie Murphy, whose community activities include the North Yarmouth Historical Society and North Yarmouth Fun Day, said she attended events at the hall more times than she can count.

At the scene Friday morning, she said she heard one woman say she had her first kiss at Wescustogo.

In her mind, Murphy said, she could still hear the front door opening and see herself walking inside. She could smell the building's unique aroma, gaze at the vast wood floor, and feel herself jumping up onto the stage.

"In every single piece of that hall were memories, and a lot of sweat equity went into it; a lot of love built it," she said. "... I just honestly cannot believe it's gone."

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

475 Walnut Hill Road, North Yarmouth, Maine