Memories Survive Farmhouse Blaze in Bridgewater
Alice Paglia checks for damage on wood cook stove while cleaning up Monday, February 10, 2014 after a fire destroyed her childhood home Saturday, February 8. A family friend was living in the house, but was not home when the fire occured. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Brad Pirkey looks through the pockets of a smoke damaged coat, Monday, February 10, 2014, frozen stiff by water from firefighters who tried to save the house where he was living in Bridgewater. Pirkey spent the day cleaning out the house with the owners and friend Shane Warren, left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
While sitting outside her childhood home in Bridgewater that burned Saturday night, Edna Luce of South Pomfret holds a photograph of her daughter, Patricia Barton, that was salavaged from inside, Monday, February 10, 2014. Barton, of Reading, Vt., died Saturday at age 56 of an apparent heart attack. She was not at the house in Bridgewater. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Bridgewater, Vt. — Sisters Alice Paglia, 69, and Edna Luce, 77, sat together in a car at the bottom of the driveway of the white farmhouse they grew up in, watching on Monday afternoon as friends and family carried out what belongings could be salvaged from the home’s charred insides, blackened with soot.
The treasures rescued included a school portrait of Luce’s daughter, Patricia Barton, when Barton looked to be 10 or 12 years old. About the length of Luce’s outstretched hand, the photograph held special significance: Barton, a 56-year-old mother of four and grandmother of eight, died from a suspected heart attack at her Reading, Vt. home on Saturday evening, Paglia said — the same night that nine fire departments and 50 firefighters responded to the old white farmhouse in Bridgewater, which was largely lost to flames.
“This is a building,” Paglia said earlier, as she helped to carry items out of the home on Route 100A. “Hers is a life.”
Still, the sisters mourned, too, the loss of their childhood home, which they said has been in the family since at least their grandparents’ time and had accumulated multiple generations’ and family branches’ worth of mementos.
State fire inspectors were unable to determine the cause of the fire, but have ruled it not suspicious.
A friend of Paglia’s, Brad Pirkey, 51, who sometimes parks a food truck outside Paglia’s farm stand, has been living at the residence for about a year. He was not in the home at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported.
Recovered items were piled on the front lawn, where family members sifted them into categories — the untouched or salvageable, which were piled into a truck, and the rest, which were tossed into a large dumpster. Many of the recovered items had the feeling of vintage antiques, like a box of hand-painted salt shakers and old dishes, chairs and trinkets.
“I had a lot of family stuff that we hadn’t moved out,” Paglia said. “There was stuff, because (the house has) been in the family for generations ... from my grandparents.”
Sitting in the car, Luce held a recovered box of letters written to her in the 1940s, collected in a small box affixed with a painting of two horses.
“It’s very unfortunate,” said Luce, of South Pomfret, “but I guess we’re lucky for what we could save.”
Paglia said she took over maintenance of the house, which listers’ records show was built in 1845, after the women’s mother, Pearl Townsend, died in 2007. Their father, Paul Townsend, died in 1990.
Paul Townsend became head of the household and took over care of the family dairy farm upon his father’s death when Paul was 16, Paglia said. He met Pearl in 1931, when she moved to Bridgewater Corners after earning a teaching degree from the University of Vermont, Paglia said. They raised their family in the home while continuing the dairy farm, which is no longer in operation.
“It’s not easy. This is a landmark. That’s why I live next door,” Paglia said, motioning toward her farmhouse down the road. “I was born here and that’s as far as I moved.”
As he arrived back at the house to help out on Monday, Pirkey walked past Paglia and Luce sitting in the car, mouthing “I’m sorry” to them as he walked toward the home to continue to help cleaning.
Although he’s not sure what started the fire, he said he suspects it could have been avoided if the home were unoccupied.
“It sucks for Alice more than anything,” he said. Everybody who lives in the area has always admired the home, he said, which people know as “Pearl’s house,” in reference to Luce’s and Paglia’s mother.
Bridgewater Fire Chief Bruce Maxham said the house was mostly engulfed with flames shooting out the windows when firefighters arrived around 7 p.m. Saturday night after they were alerted by a 911 call from somebody driving by. It took more than an hour and a half to get flames under control, Maxham said, figuring the home to be a “total loss.”
Damages are estimated in excess of $75,000, according to a news release from the Vermont State Police.
The historic construction of the house allowed the fire to spread quickly, Maxham said, calling it a difficult fire to control.
“Being the way the construction was, once it got in the walls ... there were no fire stops, and that kind of construction, (fire) just travels through the walls and the roof,” he said.
Inside the home on Monday, most rooms looked as if they had been spray-painted black, with piles of debris strewn throughout. Icicles punctured ceilings, remnants of the water that firefighters had used to douse flames. A light snow fell through gaping patches of missing roof.
Paglia was at Bingo during the fire, she said, and heard the call come in over the scanner of a volunteer firefighter who was in attendance. The person who called 911 was a firefighter from Connecticut, she said, and got in touch with Paglia after the fact. He had tried to race around the house to make sure nobody was inside, she said.
Paglia managed a smile throughout much of the afternoon, chit-chatting with Luce about old memories, but choked up when she spoke of her niece. She’s not sure what will become of the house, she said.
“Just a mess,” she said, surveying the damage. “That’s what it is.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.