by Tena Starr
copyright the Chronicle 1-30-2013
GLOVER — State Police investigators say the fire that destroyed the 123-year-old house at Green Mountain Fence here early Saturday morning was not suspicious, but what started it remains a mystery.
“They have no idea,” said owner Doug Conley, who lives in Glover a few miles from the mill. He said he got a call shortly after 4 a.m. saying the house was on fire.
“When you get a call like that the first thing you think is maybe it isn’t that bad.” But he said he could tell when he looked out the window that it was. “The sky was already orange,” he said. “When I got there a third of the roof had a hole through it.”
The mill itself did not burn, and Mr. Conley said the fire department went through heroic efforts to save his logging truck, which was parked near the house.
“I can’t say enough about these guys who fight these fires,” he said. “It was ten below zero. My log truck, they stayed on that truck for about an hour, and it’s still intact. There’s no way I’d put my life on the line for a log truck.”
Power lines had fallen and electricity was dancing over the roof, Mr. Conley said. “It was a bad scene. Those guys did a great job. By the time they got there that thing was already so hot. I’m just thankful no one got hurt.”
Mr. Conley and his sister Donna Perron bought the sawmill at a foreclosure auction in October. Howard Conley, their father, started the mill in 1946. He operated it for about 50 years before retiring in the mid-1990s. The business has only briefly been out of Conley family hands. The house itself predates the mill. It was built in 1890.
The house had been renovated and Mr. Conley had three tenants lined up. Donna Daniels had planned to move into one of the apartments on Saturday morning, the day of the fire. Her belongings were already packed into a U-Haul and ready to go.
Another prospective tenant is a teacher at Barton Graded School who lives in Walden and had hoped to move closer to her workplace in February, Ms. Perron said.
The third was Amanda Aiken, who had already moved much of the inventory for her candle business, Strictly Vermont Candle, into the office part of the building, Mr. Conley said. That included wax and scent, he said. “She must have had 50 or 60 buckets of oil scent. You could tell when that caught fire. It was hot.”
Ms. Perron claims responsibility for the fact that she talked her brother into buying the business last fall.
“I kept saying, god, I just don’t want it to not be in the family. I went there a couple of days before the auction and looked at the foreclosure sign thinking do we keep it or let it go? I called Doug and said I want to buy it. That’s how we got the mill back, an impulse, a sentimental thing.”
Glover Fire Chief Allen Mathews said the call came in at 4:14 a.m. By the time firemen arrived at the house on Route 16, flames were already coming through the old, gable end, he said.
“What caused it I don’t know,” Mr. Mathews said. “I don’t think anybody will ever know.” He said it looked to him like the fire had started up high in the old section of the building rather than the newer office area.
Fires are not uncommon in frigid weather when wood stoves can run too hot. But in this case, no one was living in the building, and the heat was set at 58 degrees, Mr. Conley said. “It was all baseboard hot water, not wood.”
The house was old, and the fire was hot, Mr. Mathews said. Glover, Barton, Orleans and Irasburg fire departments responded and worked well into Saturday morning. Mr. Matthews said he does not know who called in the fire.
He said he would have been less surprised if the mill had burned rather than the house. It was a shock, he said.
It was a rough night to fight a fire with temperatures well below zero. A couple of trucks froze up but were able to stay in service, Mr. Mathews said.
“The biggest thing is to try to keep the water supply. Once the water stops, things start getting hairy.” Also, there were power lines down in the road “which didn’t help us out any,” he said.
Ms. Perron said the oil and propane tanks had been filled that day to get ready for tenants moving in.
It’s not likely the house will be rebuilt, she said. “Maybe they’ll put something really small there. It’s too soon to know.”
“The reason I wanted to buy it was because of memories in the old house,” she said. “I remember my dad sitting there in the office with his big cigar in the chair that used to rock backwards. Growing up, me and my friends used to go in the office at night and pretend we were secretaries. There was this beautiful wide stairway that led to the upstairs bedrooms, and we’d slide on it and pretend it was a horse. We had no personal belongings there, but we had a lot of childhood memories.”
She said she posted some of her memories on Facebook and was immediately deluged with hits from other people who remembered her father, or bringing wood to the mill.
“I was born in that house,” Mr. Conley said. “There’s a lot of fond memories. There’s no replacing that.”
He said that when he was working on the house recently he found some of the wood in the building stamped C.P. Bean. “I believe they had the first sawmill in town, he said.
The entire house, even the attic, had been rewired in the past five or six years, Mr. Conley said. “It kind of makes you wonder what to hell went wrong. Like the fire marshal said, rats, mice, squirrels…. The office part was a brand new building.”
Detective Sergeant David Sutton of the State Police Fire Investigation Unit and an investigator from the Vermont Division of Fire Safety investigated the fire, which they ruled unsuspicious. However, anyone with information is asked to call Detective Sergeant Sutton at (802) 773-9101.
contact Tena Starr at [email protected]