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The next day

From behind the police tape, uncertainty and sadness


On the day after the night that the Brooks House was destroyed by fire, I went downtown to see it for myself.

I parked up near Union Street, where I could smell the acrid smoke, and walked toward the corner of Main and High.

The Brooks House came into view, a devastating sight. This historic red brick Victorian pile has anchored Main Street since it was built in 1871. It was the heart of Main Street.

Now it looked fragile, torn, and tattered. The beams let the light play through. I wondered at how we had kept it for so long.

The beautiful Mansard roof was melted, and the cupola where Rudyard Kipling and his cronies had once played poker was tilted to the West.

It had become Brattleboro’s own version of the Twin Towers — a tourist attraction, but not for tourists.

* * *

People from all over the county were gathering at pulse points — in front of A Candle in the Night, outside the parking lot of Brown & Roberts, in the Harmony Lot — anywhere they could see what was left of Brooks House from behind yellow police tape.

Someone who had watched the fire in the night said they could see it going from room to room until it hit the firewall.

No one who lived there was hurt. No one died. That was the miracle of the place.

But 59 apartments gone. Approximately 80 people homeless.

Local personality Alfred Hughes Jr., who lived in the building, posted on Facebook: “Mon cher amis I am very touched by your outpouring friendship and love. Brattleboro is the beaming light dimmed for a flash. I’m alive!"

Main Street, with its fragile economy, was closed off. “No lunch at Amy’s,” I overheard someone say.

Important businesses are under water — Brilliance, Wasteland, Adagio, Dragonfly, The Book Cellar, and Jumi Shop, which has been destroyed by fire for the second time.

“Water was pouring into Brilliance like a waterfall,” someone said. “And they have all their rugs in the basement."

No one knows what kind of insurance people have.

“So many businesses work on the edge, just to do business on Main Street,” said a woman who once owned a store on Main Street. She didn’t want me to quote her by name. “Even if your store isn’t damaged, do you have non-fire insurance for the business you lose when they close down Main Street?"

I overheard a woman on her cell phone: “The biggest disaster in this part of the state! The building is condemned! They’re talking about leveling it! Basically, they’re going to have to rebuild Brattleboro!"

I asked her how she knew all this, and she said she was “in the loop” because she was an insurance adjuster. She wouldn’t give me her name, either.

* * *

I heard there was six feet of water in the Mole’s Eye.

When I first came to Brattleboro in the late 1980s, I was afraid to go into the Mole’s Eye.  I was shy. I was a stranger here. It took some courage to start hanging out there. It was riddled with town characters and as close to a singles bar as Brattleboro had back then. People met their mates there. And then settled down and stopped coming.

I got my start as a columnist at the Mole’s Eye. It was more than 21 years ago, and they had great blues bands coming in from Boston every weekend for $4 at the door, with $1 Bud on tap. It was heaven, and I was allowed to write about it for the Brattleboro Reformer.

It turned out I had opinions about everything, not just music. The column became a fixture on the pages of the Reformer. Now it’s in this paper.

On Monday, I ran into Norman, the famous Mole’s Eye bartender, and Brenda, the famous Mole’s Eye waitress, coming around the corner from the Shriner’s to see the damage. Their eyes were big. They were holding hands.

“They built it in 1871, and it cost $150,000,” Norman said. “I have a great sense of tragedy and loss. Such a devastating loss. I put in 30 years of my life in the Mole’s Eye. I lived in the Brooks House for a few years. Out of the ashes rises a new phoenix, but right now, I feel consumed with sadness."

Norman reminded me of a column I had written about a blues guy from Northampton, “Vast” Ed Vadas, who had basically torn me a new one when I tried to interview him. He still remembered the piece I’d written about my experience. It was maybe the second column I’d ever written, and he still remembered it.

One way or another, the Brooks House has played a part in the lives of almost everyone in the Brattleboro orbit. We shopped there, or had our jewelry repaired there, or bought books there, or drank there, or had a radio program there, or lived there, or pointed it out proudly when people came to visit. Even though it is a privately owned building, we all have a sense of ownership about it.

The Brooks House has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980. We are hungry to see it restored.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #97 (Wednesday, April 20, 2011).

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