PUTNEY—Charred beams outline an empty window frame. Sheet metal peels backwards into the Sacketts Brook. Wind twists strips of police tape and carries the bitter smell of smoke over the team of inspectors sorting through debris to the stunned crowd huddled along Kimball Hill.
Over 200 years of Putney community memories and hopes for the future of its village through a rebuilt Putney General Store burned to rubble within minutes in the late-night hours of Nov. 1.
The fast moving fire consumed the store, rendered the building next door at 10 Kimball Hill uninhabitable, cracked windows at the Putney Paper Mill across Route 5, and blistered the paint on the Putney Tavern building across the road.
The Putney Historical Society was in the process of rebuilding the 214-year-old structure after another fire took off the roof in May 2008.
“We don’t have a historic building to save any more,” said Lyssa Papazain, the manager of the efforts to complete renovations by May 2010. “I think I’m still in shock. Two years of my life.”
A number of citizens reacted with numbness and shock.
“My brain didn’t agree with my eyes,” said Robyn O’Brien, general manager of the Putney Food Co-op, as she recalled seeing the hole where the Putney General Store stood.
“Nobody could believe it was happening again,” said Steven Griffiths, co-owner of the Front Porch Café at the Putney Tavern across the street. “We all kept our fingers crossed the fire didn’t travel up the road.”
By Tuesday, Det. Sgt. Fred Cornell, an investigator with the Vermont State Police’s Fire Investigation Unit, had joined Putney Fire Chief Tom Goddard to conduct an investigation into the fire’s cause.
“We have termed the fire suspicious, and a full investigation is ongoing at this time,” Goddard told a reporter from Burlington-based WPTZ the day after the blaze.
“We’re at the very beginning of figuring out what happened here,” Cornell said Tuesday. “Lots of people talk, lots of people have theories. We’re here to separate fact from fiction.”
A grieving process
On this unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, citizens and visitors stood silently on the town green, walking quietly by. Some take photos. Many stand by, subdued, watching as firefighters confer and gesture to details of the scene.
“It just puts a gloom over Putney,” said resident Julia Zeller. “Everyone was anticipating the building reopening.”
Behind the yellow tape and traffic cones marking the perimeter, people shared their shock, grief, and memories. They gathered on the green, stood on the Tavern porch, and sat on the stone wall in small groups, all the way up Kimball Hill.
“Yes, it was only a building but it represented an anchor [for the downtown],” O’Brien said. “We had so much hope pinned on it reopening. It was a huge blow to have it burn a second time.”
The store was “more than a building,” said former Putney resident and “soda jerk” Carrie Grover, who worked there as a teen in 1979. Gone now, she says, are “the memories that were in the wood and the walls.”
“The store was a meeting place,” said Peter Albert, a social worker at the Brattleboro Retreat and former Putney resident.
Albert described the store as a place for conversations and for people to come together.
“The people of the town gave the store its personality,” he said. “When the town advocated for the store’s rebuild they were advocating for their community.”
Albert acknowledged the grief expressed by many.
“When we lose something that was a part of our lives,” he said, “there’s a hole, and it doesn’t make sense; you wonder why, and there’s no good reason.”
Albert explained the public’s sadness over losing the store may be complex. People might not be prepared to grieve over the loss of a building as they would over the loss of a loved one, yet strong emotions could well emerge.
That is what happened to Grover, who lived in Putney from the age of 15 to 20, and for whom the store served as a sanctuary.
She said the owners, the Fairchilds, welcomed her, her siblings, and even their three-legged cat, Faith, who ran away to live in the store’s front bay window.
“We had a really hard childhood,” Grover said. “And I was welcomed there. Now it’s gone. It’s almost as if someone erased those memories, and I can’t have them anymore.”
Grover’s niece, Cassidy, also worked at the store.
Grover now lives in New Hampshire but brought her children and friends to the store when it was open, before the 2008 fire, to share her memories with them. And now, she described herself as heartbroken that she won’t be able to share the store with her new grandchildren.
‘There was nothing there’
The night of the fire, J. D. McCliment, owner of J.D. McCliment’s Pub at 26 Bellows Falls Rd., said he closed the bar at 10:30 p.m.
“As soon as we walked outside, we could smell the smoke,” he said. “By the time we walked downtown, there was nothing there."
Lorelei and Don Smead watched the fire from their home on Main Street. Lorelei Smead heard a bang. She looked out the window and saw the blaze. She called to Don, “the G Store’s on fire again.”
Don Smead ran to the scene with his camera. He recalls chunks of ash and debris falling on the diner and pizza place with each spray of water from the hoses.
Stuart Strothman, historical society president, arrived at 10:45 p.m. He said he could see the flames 2 miles away casting “a huge orange light into the sky.”
In the aftermath, Cheryl Struthers of Putney stood on the tavern green watching the inspectors.
“I thought it was a sick joke” when she read about the fire on Facebook, Struthers said. “Wish it was.”
Struthers remembered buying penny candy and how the floorboards creaked when she would walk through. There was no rhyme or reason to the store’s organization but it had everything people needed, she recalled.
“It feels like we lost a friend or family,” Struthers said.
Out of a home
Scorch marks frame the third floor window of 10 Kimball Hill, the building that housed Offerings Jewelry and the residents of three apartments. A portion of the roof has fallen in.
The tenants are safe but homeless, and the retail store is closed, representing the loss of a second business in the village. Offerings Jewelry continues to conduct business through its Web site, www.offeringsjewelry.com.
Landlord Neil Madow’s first concern when he heard about the fire was for the physical safety of his tenants and the condition of the building.
“We’re shaking our heads,” he said. “Third fire in six years. The chances of that are as good as winning the lotto.”
The fire also displaced John Mozley and Llora Kressmann. Mozley teaches at Kurn Hattin, a residential facility in Westminster for at-risk youth, and Kressmann studies education at Antioch University.
The couple, who moved from Brattleboro in August, will stay with a friend, Elisabeth Dearborn, at the nearby Putney Commons co-housing community.
The store’s front wall partially crushed Mozley and Kressmann’s white Subaru station wagon when it collapsed. The couple expressed concern for their personal items left in their apartment, now off limits because of the investigation.
“The Red Cross gave us a couple hundred dollars,” Mozley said. “The world is kind of upside down. I’m not sure how to really feel about it.”
“Everything we had is gone,” he said. “The community is supportive, friends are supportive, but we don’t have a home.”
Robyn O’Brien has offered the Co-op as a donation point for the people displaced by the fire. She will publicize details on iPutney.com and other venues once arrangements have been made.
What might have been
The Putney Historical Society recently completed its first phase of rebuilding the store, steps that included stabilizing the structure, replacing the slate roof, and protecting the inside from the elements.
Phase two — raising funds and restoring the building for use — had only recently begun, Papazain said.
The 2008 fire transformed what had been the oldest continually operating general store in Vermont from downtown hub to vacant eyesore.
Faced with staggering debt to repair the fire damage, the previous owners, Erhan Oge and Tugce Okumus, sold the burned-out building to the historical society, whose members approved the purchase in September 2008.
The historical society’s designation as nonprofit under section 501(c)3 of the federal tax code opened up opportunities for grants and funding not available to individuals or for-profit corporations.
The project attracted some grant funding because of its efforts to revitalize the economy of the Putney business community, like the $200,000 from the Vermont Community Development Program this spring.
One basis of that grant was the loss of 13 jobs from the store’s closing and the economic effects of the store’s disappearance on the remaining entrepreneurs.
The project generated other support from funders interested in the historical significance of the Putney General Store building — support that vanished with the building.
The project has lost $162,000 in tax credits awarded to historic structures.
‘Cautiously pursuing’ rebuilding
On Nov. 2, less than two days after the fire, the historical society’s board unanimously voted “to cautiously pursue the feasibility to rebuilding the General Store,” Strothman said.
“If it is possible, we will do it,” he said.
The historical society had to decide quickly between rebuilding or selling the site. Both choices came with their fair share of complex financial consequences.
The majority of funding details are still unknown. The larger funding bodies are waiting on the insurance adjusters’ report before committing to any dollar amounts.
The society received an advance insurance check of $25,000 for the site’s security and clean-up.
Strothman said the historical society told the insurance company it would take $368,000 to rebuild the structure as it existed the day before the fire.
Strothman realizes the site will never be the same as when the Putney General still stood but the historical society plans to work on a new design with project architect Bill Gallup of Maclay Architects in Waitsfield.
“If we’re in charge,” Strothman said, “it will not look like a box store.”
Before the historical society was anywhere close to deciding how to proceed, citizens stood looking at the rubble and expressing their support for rebuilding.
If a structure is rebuilt on the site, glass artist Bob Burch said he was looking ahead, trying to remain positive.
“I’ve got a hammer,” he said.
Ray Fordier, owner of Ray’s Auto Body, at 76 River Rd., said the site needs a building.
“It’s been here forever and ever and ever. We can’t just leave it like that."
Neither Strothman nor Lonie Lisai, who had been planning to operate the store, knows what role, if any, the Lisai family will play in the store’s future.
Lonie Lisai, his wife Obe, and their son Ben — third- and fourth-generation community grocers with Putney roots — had been working for almost a year to bring the store back to life.
“We did everything we possibly could do to make this store work,” Lisai said the morning after the fire. “We’re still stunned. The only good news is that the tenants next door got out.”
The Lisais posted a message on “Save the Putney General Store,” a Facebook group that Strothman had set up for the original rebuilding efforts last year.
“We were so graciously welcomed by the Putney community and so looked forward to being the next proprietors. We feel especially bad for the Putney Historical Society who worked so hard to bring this building back from the last fire,” the family wrote.
Strothman said the efforts to rebuild will require a renewed financial support from the community and some fresh blood.
“We need their support. We need fresh people to step up and join our board and join our task forces and help us sort through,” he said.
“[The store] remains the heart of our town,” he said, describing how he witnessed community members on the green showing their support as “very moving” and “a powerful moment.”
And the emotions continued throughout the week as people worked through their community’s loss.
On Friday, Nov. 6 a community vigil will take place on the tavern green at 7 p.m., where people will gather and share their memories and their sadness, says state representative Mike Mrowicki.
“It’s not a time when we should lose heart,” Strothman said.