Creative Journalism

by Sheila Connolly

I’ve been a genealogist, amateur and professional, for most of my adult life, and I’ve got the computer file with 12,000 relatives, close and not so close, to prove it. But I also do house genealogy, because I’m always curious to know who lived where I’m living now—who built the place, who altered it later and why, and how they lived in the spaces I now occupy.

Recently I’ve been exploring a trash dump under an addition at the back of the house, but I’ve talked about that in other places (although it may tell you something about me that I get really excited about finding things like an intact chamber pot or an old cannonball). I’ve figured out that the trash heap dates to around 1900-1905, but there’s a later incident that occurred here that had always had me wondering, and now I’ve found some answers.

As part of my ongoing house research, I’ve been checking local newspaper accounts (they go back to the 1850s in our local library).  A brief history:  the house was built ca. 1870 and has had multiple owners.  (Regrettably the papers from the period when the house was built are not in the library’s collections.) The earlier residents didn’t stay very long, but we bought it from the son of a couple who had moved in the week they married, in 1943.  The family had owned the place continuously for 60 years when we came along (and I must say, they took very good care of it AND they didn’t change much, for which I often offer up thanks, having seen my share of remuddled houses).

Barn at rear of the house
Barn at the rear of the house

The house came with a barn or stable (it was built when horses were the primary mode of transport), linked to the house by a connecting shed (my dump site lay under the shed floor). It was obvious that there had been a major fire in the barn at some point, and the building had been rebuilt at the time, clearly in the twentieth century based on the materials. The house was not involved, and the adjacent shed only barely. Of course I was curious about such a significant event, and rightly assumed there would be a newspaper account of it.

But when I found the account, which dated from December 28, 1945, it proved to be an interesting example of journalistic dramatization—I’m not sure the writer ever came near the place, and I’m not sure he (or she) talked to. Let’s start with the headline: ”Gammons and Wife Escape Suffocation.” Not “Fire in Gammons Barn” or “Local Fire Fighters Extinguish Blaze.” Apparently a near-death experience was deemed more exciting than a run-of-the-mill fire.

The body of the story (almost eight column inches!) contains such prose as “suffocating smoke swirling into the second-floor bedroom…awakened Mrs. Gammons before she and her husband were overcome.” Frankly I’m still puzzling a bit over this, because we use that bedroom, and there are several doors between the site of the fire and that space. It was late December, so those doors would have been closed, right?

The alarm sounded at 4:14 a.m. Mr. Gammons “got himself and his wife to a door for air [which door? Had to be downstairs—but remember, it’s winter, and the respectable couple is clad in their nightclothes]. The dog asleep on the floor had not been awakened by the smoke.” [A nice touch, that, even though it doesn’t reflect well on the dog!]

“The fire was burning furiously whipped by a strong wind, when the firemen reached the scene [BTW, the firehouse is three blocks away], and smoke was pouring through the house as though it were also in fire.” Later the writer added, “there was substantial smoke damage in the house, particularly in the kitchen, which had just been redecorated.”

Hmm.  A bit of hyperbole, perhaps?  My husband and I are very hands-on with our homes, and we do quite a bit of renovation and reconstruction ourselves.  We are familiar with the damage of the buildings to the rear, which included some charring of the timbers.  But inside?  Never seen any.  All windows and moldings are intact, and definitely predate the 1945 event, although I’m willing to concede that the kitchen ceiling may have been replaced. Even within the walls there is no charring or ash or lingering odor of smoke.

As noted, the fire took place at 4:14 a.m. on a cold, rainy winter morning.  Do you think the writer of this piece went anywhere near the house at that time? I doubt it. But whoever it was made a good story out of it.  Of course, one must take into account that Mr. Gammons was a big man in town—a member of the Lions Club, the Masons, the Elks Lodge; founder of the local savings bank, a friend of the library, and an avid golfer. At the time of the fire he owned a local Shell station as well as a taxi service. His wife’s CV was no less impressive:  she attended Radcliffe College and earned a master’s in library science; she was on the library board, and was a champion golfer, and enjoyed fishing and hunting with her husband. (I think I would like to have known her.)

We also happen to know that she and her husband were avid collectors of antiques, because when we first toured the house, every room on the second floor plus the attic was stuffed with furniture, trunks, and other treasures.  We never saw the floors beneath until we moved in.

The Mess in the Attic
The Mess in the Attic

I’d always wondered why they didn’t just tear down the barn—by the time of the fire it was an anachronism.  But as it turned out, Mr. Gammons apparently used it to store auto parts and business records, along with a few antiques, so it did serve a purpose.  So instead of leveling it and starting over, this thrifty Yankee family patched it together again, keeping the parts that were salvageable, like the sliding barn door, and throwing together a bare minimum for new material, for the roof, for example.

And one eager writer worked hard to make this a punchy story.

9 Thoughts

  1. Renovations in old houses are such fun. When my husband was working on a window in our dining room a few years ago he removed the trim work and discovered two signatures written on the back side and dated to the year the house was built. The penmanship was beautiful and it felt like such a gift to be able to reach back in time that way. When he had completed his repairs my husband signed and dated the same piece of trim right below the original names for the next repair person to happen upon.

  2. Sheila–you actually do the things I only consider. I started life as a title examiner, and in each of our houses, I’ve always thought, I’d like to know about who lived here–but I never actually do it.

    One of the best things we have in our house in Maine is a photograph of the original family posed stiffly on the lawn out front. From the clothes, I think it must have been taken shortly after the house was completed in 1879.

  3. Your article started me thinking about the many places I’ve lived. I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a home built before the 40s. The two that were built in the 40s were both on Air Force bases — I won’t rant about living in a place built by the lowest bidder. So no treasure troves under the house or pithy articles about a home’s past for me.

  4. Sheila—I love that you’re genealogist. I find local family history fascinating, and I have enjoyed unravelling my own family history. A recent discovery changed the whole picture of my family on my mother’s side. It even gave me a new direction for the book I am currently writing.

    When I was a teenager we lived in a house said to be a couple of hundred years old. It was in Marblehead, Massachusetts and was certainly very old with fireplaces in the bedrooms as well as the living rooms. My room was very small with a closet built into the corner. The kitchen had a modern looking bench seat built along two walls. The top lifted up for storage—we thought.

    It seems that when the main part of the house was added onto, the kitchen was built around a traditional New England rock wall. My bedroom closet was not a closet at all. It was a space built around a very large boulder with a door for access. There was no room to hang anything in it. Perhaps you would know if there was a historic reason for leaving the wall and boulder accessible, or if there was a more practical reason.

    1. Sounds delightful, Reine. My friends had an old New England home that had no architectural changes made to it by the time they bought it. It had a door almost at the bottom of the stairway. I once fell down those stairs, getting trapped at the door with my foot caught in the stair and my knee twisted out of its socket, an entire storey in itself. They also had a walking space in the wall between the living and dining rooms, closed off by a door. That was designed so you could periodically walk between the walls to check the brickwork of the two fireplaces and make any necessary repairs.

      My earliest memories are of living in a 16-room colonial house in the country (New England!), with a fireplace in every room even though some were boarded or bricked off. My bed was up against one of the closed fireplaces and leaves would rustle down them at night and scare the BeJeezus out of me! I was only 4 at the time. The house was bordered by woods behind and on one side, next to a cemetery – another place that could be scary. No wonder I love murder mysteries!

      1. Hi Claire,
        Growing up in New England was great! Thanks. I enjoyed your comments and story. The stairway you mentioned reminded me of the one in the House of Seven Gables which is closed in with doors at either end and very narrow. I felt a certain fear climbing it to Susan Ingersoll’s bedroom. My 8th great-grand father’s house is still standing in Essex, Massachusetts.

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