On the Eve of Destruction in 1964: Lebanon Simmers on the Brink of Cataclysmic Change
A postcard image of downtown Lebanon's Hanover Street in the early 1960s. After the 1964 fire destroyed 22 downtown buildings, the street was converted to a pedestrian mall. (Photograph courtesy Art Pease)
A postcard shows an aerial view of downtown Lebanon before the 1964 fire that destroyed many of the buildings along Hanover Street and Mill Street and led to the creation of the pedestrian mall. Hanover Street extends from the left of Colburn Park to the Mascoma River. (Photograph courtesy Art Pease)
Fran Shorey's Valley News cartoon in 1964.
A 1919 parade proceeds around the downtown park. (Photograph courtesy Art Pease)
Part 1 of 3. Visit the series homepage at www.vnews.com/lebanonfire.
Lebanon — This city loves a parade, and Saturday, June 20, 1964, was supposed to have been Alumni Day. Graduates of Lebanon High School were looking forward to the annual circuit around Colburn Park and the chance to catch up with old classmates.
For those alumni visiting from out of town who had taken a room at the Hotel Rogers, next to City Hall, much about the place must have seemed familiar.
The landmarks on either side of the hotel looked about the same as they had in 1925, the year the new Town Hall was built on North Park Street to replace the one that had been destroyed by fire in 1923. The bronze Civil War soldier still stood guard in front of the Soldiers Memorial Building, you could still shoot baskets at the Carter Community Building around the corner and the Whipple Building and Bank Block dominated West Park Street.
Anyone hankering for a frappe — nobody called them milkshakes — had a choice of lunch counters on Hanover Street: You could plop down on a stool at McNeill’s Drug Store where Omer and Bob’s is now; or you could slide into one of the booths at the Woolworth’s across the street — where Lebanon College is now headquartered.
Pedestrians trying to cross the street from one lunch counter to the other, however, had to dodge a steady stream of traffic along Hanover Street, which ended where it intersected with Court and West Park streets, by the Mascoma Savings Bank.
The day before the scheduled parade was hot and windy, firefighter Harold Blodgett recalled 20 years later, and the wooden buildings — most of which were put up following the great fire of 1887 — were like tinderboxes. “Bone dry,” was how Blodgett described them.
Conditions were perfect for a parade. They were perfect for a fire, too.
The parade never took place.
By the time Albert Healey set fire to a rug in an abandoned blacksmith shed on Mill Street that Friday, June 19, the city was no longer the mill town it had been almost from the Civil War to World War II.
Changes had taken hold, though residents still clung to some traditions that were rooted in an era that was on the wane.
Elementary school children at the School Street School who ate hot lunches still received their milk in half-pint bottles supplied by the Honey Gardens Dairy. Honey Gardens was located at the end of Mechanic Street, near the Mascoma River, at the start of that stretch of Route 4 which was only just beginning to be known as the Miracle Mile.
Some of the first- and second-graders who didn’t eat hot lunches in the basement of the school were allowed to leave school grounds — unescorted — and walk home if they lived close by. It was a tradition held over from the pre-refrigeration days, when school children ran home, grabbed lunch pails out of the family icebox and delivered them to their fathers working in the mills. Lebanon — indeed, much of society — was still a few years away from the point when school officials were trained to spot a potential lawsuit at every turn.
One thing that was different about Lebanon in 1964 — though you couldn’t tell by looking at it — was that it was officially a city, albeit one with fewer than 10,000 residents. That had come about as a result of an upheaval in the late 1950s, when residents revolted against rampant cronyism in town government and the Legislature passed a bill that replaced the old three-person Board of Selectmen with a new council-manager form of government. It was overwhelmingly ratified by voters.
That was 1957, the same year West Lebanon residents tried — unsuccessfully — to secede from Lebanon and form their own town. There was bad blood between the two villages, and a separate proposal to close West Lebanon High School and merge it with Lebanon High also failed that year. The school merger passed in 1961, though, and West Lebanon students began attending Lebanon High that fall, so by 1964 the city had a single high school, if not necessarily a unified one.
In fact, Lebanon still had two school systems in 1964 — the public one, and the Sacred Heart School system run by the Catholic Church that served children in grades 1-8. Sacred Heart was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, and it wasn’t uncommon in 1964 to see nuns from that order walking in pairs between the convent on Hanover Street and the church itself located in Hough Square, at the intersection of Hough, Hanover and High streets.
A Degree of Lawlessness
What Lebanon didn’t have was a thriving economy. You could still find work at H.W. Carter & Sons on Bank Street (now the AVA Gallery), Carter & Churchill on Parkhurst Street (which has been torn down) and at the Split Ballbearing plant on the Miracle Mile. But the last two big woolen mills along the Mascoma River — Lebanon Woolen (Kleen Laundry) and Lebandale (Rockdale complex) — had closed in 1962, putting 360 people out of work.
The shuttering of the mills had been one of the ripple effects of a political scandal involving mill owner Bernard Goldfine, a Massachusetts industrialist who was the target of congressional and criminal investigations after it became known that former New Hampshire Gov. Sherman Adams had accepted a vicuna coat from Goldfine while Adams was White House chief of staff under Eisenhower. Adams was fired in what was arguably the country’s biggest political scandal between the eras of Warren G. Harding’s Teapot Dome and Nixon’s Watergate.
It also came out that two other Lebanon residents, U.S. Sen. Norris Cotton and longtime Selectman Joe Perley, had previously acted as straw buyers for Goldfine, who eventually went to prison on tax evasion charges. Cotton even lived for a time in a house owned by Goldfine, leading to whispers about whether the senator paid rent or if he, too, was on the Goldfine payroll.
There was, attorney and future judge N. George Papademas claimed about a year after the fire, a “degree of lawlessness” that pervaded Lebanon at the time. “There was permissive drinking in this blacksmith shed, and the police failed to put an end to the practice,” Papademas said. “Lawlessness was winked at in the neighborhood in which Mr. Healey grew up.”
Albert Healey was raised by his grandparents on West Street, which, along with High Street, was considered the city’s toughest.
High Street was home to Tony’s Cafe — located where Kindlenook now sits — an old-fashioned beer joint with a jukebox, shuffleboard table and a loyal clientele that included laborers like those who worked in the massive E. Cummings Leather tannery wedged in just across the street, hard by the Mascoma River. It wasn’t unheard of for some of Tony’s customers to settle their differences outside on the sidewalk, or in the alley on the side that led to the tenement apartments in the rear of the building.
Such tenements were one of the defining features of the neighborhood, and they lent the area a transitory feel and somewhat unstable atmosphere. That was tempered to some degree by the single-family homes rising up the hillside that were occupied by law-abiding descendants of the French-Canadians who had immigrated down to work in the mills in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it was unquestionably a neighborhood punctuated by, and known for, bouts of rowdyism.
A few months after the 1964 fire, Benjamin Thompson Jr., of Hanover, had been hired to be Lebanon’s new police chief. Just how lawless Lebanon was at the time might be inferred from a Valley News cartoon of the era, by Fran Shorey, which depicted two outlaws on horseback at the city limits. “Let’s get out of here!” one of the outlaws says to the other, “I hear the law is really cleaning up that town!!”
Highway of Hope
If the closing of the mills felt like a body blow to the city’s economy and self-image, part of the reason was that nothing of substance had come along to take their place. There were no industrial parks and Lebanon in 1964 was hardly a booming retail center, either. Residents who wanted to do serious shopping usually made the trip down to Claremont, which had a thriving downtown.
Some saw Lebanon as a patient in need of new blood. The railroad passenger service that had once been the source of such civic pride — back when you could take the train from Lebanon to West Lebanon and White River Junction, or south to Enfield, Canaan and Concord — was dying. In fact, Lebanon’s population growth between 1960 and 1970, measured as a percentage increase, was the lowest it would be for the 20th century until the 1990s.
People were already beginning to give some thought to the impact of the new highway under construction just north of the village. Interstate 89 had four planned Lebanon exits, including one in West Lebanon that emptied onto a rural stretch of Route 12A, near a part of town once known as Butmanville. It was mostly farmland and was best known to Lebanon residents as the road you took to get to the city dump, where open burning of trash was the norm and shooting rats was considered acceptable sport.
While the highway brought hope, it also created an air of uncertainty and raised questions about the future of the downtown, two exits to the east. That was just the sort of issue a town or city could spend decades wrestling with while a once-vibrant commercial section underwent the long, slow process of decline.
That was already happening to some extent, and perhaps nowhere more than on Mill Street, a bleak, tired-looking side street next to the river that connected Mascoma Street to Hanover Street and was bisected by a railroad crossing. It ran somewhat parallel to High Street, but in a shorter arc and on the other side of the river. It hooked up with Mascoma Street about where a motorist would end up today if he drove up Water Street to its northern terminus and kept going straight across the road.
Like most of the other downtown buildings put up after the 1887 fire, the structures on Mill Street were made of wood and had little in the way of fire protection. They included a pool hall, a feed store, a laundry and the aforementioned abandoned blacksmith shed. Some of the buildings with storefronts also included small apartments on their upper floors — with flimsy fire escapes, if they had any at all.
Mill Street was where Healey and a 16-year-old friend ended up on the afternoon of June 19, 1964, after keeping vigil on the steps of City Hall. At the time, City Hall not only housed a gymnasium in the basement, a movie theater and a few municipal offices, it also was where the state unemployment office was located. It wasn’t unusual at the time for young men with no jobs to wait out their boredom on the City Hall steps, hoping for someone they knew to drive by and, if they were lucky, pick them up.
Boredom won out on this day. After a time, Healey and his friend took a walk down Hanover Street, where the pedestrian mall is now. They passed such Hanover Street landmarks as Currier & Co., the News Spot, McNeill’s, Woolworth’s, Lander’s Restaurant, Mike’s Restaurant and the Lamplighter Restaurant. There was also Tom’s Toggery, Lewis Brothers Hardware, The Custom Shop, Hirsch’s Army Navy store and Courtemanche’s Barber Shop, where firefighter Romeo Russell and Valley News editor Jim Wechsler were waiting for haircuts.
Healey turned onto Mill Street, crossed the railroad tracks and entered the abandoned blacksmith shop, which was known as a refuge for the homeless and destitute. There, he set fire to a rug in the building. The idea, authorities explained later, was to throw a scare into the men sleeping in the building and have a chuckle as they came stumbling out.
What Healey didn’t account for was the wind, which was gusting at more than 20 miles an hour and was capable of pushing a working fire from building to building to building.
Wechsler and Russell told Dick Courtermanche they’d be right back, and the men stepped outside to see what the sirens were about.
The decline of downtown Lebanon was about to accelerate faster than anyone could have imagined.
Tomorrow: City residents and former firefighters remember the day their downtown erupted in flames.
Roger Carroll, the editorial page editor of The Telegraph of Nashua, is a former Valley News reporter and author of Lebanon 1761-1994: The Evolution of a Resilient New Hampshire City .