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Fire damages auto auction site on Route 14 in Hartford

  • Hartford firefighters Capt. Shawn Hannux, left, and Brett Quilla continue to pump water where the Connecticut Valley Auto Auction building burned during an early morning fire on Route 14 in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Fire fighters from numerous Upper Valley departments continue to work on an early morning fire on Route 14 in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. It is the site where the late Charlie Kelton built an octagonal hippodrome in 1963 that he used to house an elephant named Shirley to promote his trucking business. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Herbert Gray, of East Thetford, walks past where the Connecticut Valley Auto Auction building burned during an early morning fire on Route 14 in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Gray has owned the property for 30 years. No one was injured in the fire. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Firefighters break through walls to access the roof where C-Clear Auto Glass was housed on Route 14 in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. An early morning fire destroyed much of the complex. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley firefighters continue to work on an early morning fire on Route 14 in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney said that lightning may have been the cause, but the fire is under investigation. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2020 8:10:06 AM
Modified: 7/14/2020 9:13:29 PM

HARTFORD — A Route 14 car dealership and auction building with a colorful history went up in flames early Tuesday morning.

Firefighters from Upper Valley towns from as far away as Windsor and Plainfield were called to the Connecticut Valley Auto Auction for a fire around 4:10 a.m. as heavy thunderstorms with lightning strikes rolled through the area.

Hartford Fire Chief Scott Cooney said an alarm alerted his department to the fire, and that no one was in the building when the flames broke out.

He said the department had not determined a cause Tuesday morning, but that it’s likely the heavy storms and lightning played a part. State and town fire officials were investigating.

The blaze started in the main building, where property owner Herbert Gray and employees hold weekly auto auctions, and flames traveled to other parts of the building, damaging a detail shop and auto-glass shop.

Another business at the site, High Country Aluminum Products, also suffered minor damage, Gray said.

Tenants who lived in an apartment on the site said their building was not affected.

Firefighters battled plumes of smoke by using a crane over the building. Around 10 a.m., all that remained of the auction hall was a pile of charred metal and a lone structural beam. Fire crews cleared the scene around 3:30 p.m.

Adjacent to the main room sat an octagonal hippodrome, which former owner Charlie Kelton built in 1963 to house an elephant named Shirley to promote his GMC trucking business. The inside of the structure had been blackened by flames, and smoke poured out of the peak on its roof Tuesday morning.

Standing just feet from the blackened ruins of his business on Tuesday, Gray reflected on what he’d lost, from the material things — a new tractor, some classic cars, an RV camper — to a business that employed around 30 people and was part of his livelihood.

“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” said Gray, an auctioneer from East Thetford.

He added that he hopes to continue holding auctions, despite the devastating fire.

He said he and his employees recently reopened weekly auto auctions after the outbreak of COVID-19 forced them to shut down the popular events for nearly three months.

“We got (auctions) going then, and we can do it again,” he said.

Gray purchased the sprawling, 85-acre site along Route 14 between Hartford Village and West Hartford in 1990 for $2.4 million, according to Hartford property records.

The site, which is largely made up of hayfields, includes a large parking lot where classic car shows are sometimes held.

Prior to Herb Gray’s purchase, it was owned by Kelton, who kept a menagerie of exotic animals including Shirley and, later, two more elephants, Missy and Diamond, as well as monkeys.

Kelton, who died at 91 in 2015, had acquired three old dairy farms along Route 14 to assemble the dealership site, according to the Hartford Historical Society.

Gray and Kelton also drew widespread attention when they were involved in a bank fraud case in the 1990s.

Kelton, who owned dealerships around the state, pleaded guilty in 1991 to fraudulently obtaining $8 million in loans from banks and finance companies.

He also testified against Gray, who had been chairman of Bradford National Bank, and others accused of trying to profit from fees in arranging a $1.4 million loan for Kelton.

Gray’s initial conviction was overturned, but he ultimately pleaded guilty in 1996 to making false entries in bank accounts.

“He helped a lot of people. He did remarkable things. He hurt a lot of people, too,” Gray said of Kelton, who over his career also served on the Hartford School Board and in the Vermont Senate.

Gray’s grandsons, who work on the business with other family members, are hopeful about the opportunity to resume auctions, but wary.

“We’ll never get enough to replace what was here,” said Brandon Gray, gesturing to the burned garage behind him. “It’s awful. This is how we pay our bills.”

But for both men, the business means something more, too. The Gray family has worked together at the auto auction for nearly 30 years, since Gray’s grandsons were children.

“It’s our whole life,” said Jason Gray, another grandson.

Hartford Deputy Fire Marshal Mike Bedard also reflected on the significance of the loss Tuesday.

“Obviously, from the size of the building and the number of people put out of work ... that alone makes this a tragedy,” Bedard said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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