Carole Owens: Lee spirit survived two horrific fires


STOCKBRIDGE - The stories of fires are not happy ones. Instead they are stories of loss and sorrow, but in the midst of the flames, fires in Lee also illuminated the sprit of the town.

Within a 50-year period, Lee lost two structures central to its identity and prosperity. In both instances, the response of firemen and citizens was exemplary during the crisis and in the aftermath.

Before continuing the story, however, one thing must be made clear. About a year ago, a reader responded to this column for what was, on his part, a misunderstanding of English usage. Let me explain. In the 18th century, every town and village in Massachusetts was asked to form a Congregational Church -- it was a prerequisite to becoming incorporated. When this church was formed it was called the First (capital F) Congregational Church (capital C). Some towns, such as Pittsfield, were large enough so a second congregation formed, and when they built their own church, it was called the Second (capital S) Congregational Church.

Returning to the First Congregational Church: its membership might grow and necessitate building a larger church (called meeting house), and that building would be the second (small s) Congregational church (small c). One could write: "the second church building of the First Con gre gational Church," but that would become as tedious as this explanation. Just think, however, this explanation may stop another outraged letter correcting me for a mistake I never made. So, to continue.

In Lee in 1801, the First Congregational Church built a second Congregational church. It was larger than the first (56-by-60 feet); it was heated, and it had a bell. The size, the bell, and the heat were improvements over the first church. The second church was enlarged again until it accommodated 700 seats below and 300 above. In 1852 the organ was added. It was a striking structure without; comfortable and pleasant within; it stood at the corner of Main and Park Streets anchoring the town in more ways than one.

It was the church bell that sounded the alarm at 1:30 in the morning, Jan. 23, 1857. Fire! It was so cold that the water brought to dowse the flames froze. The wind picked up burning shingles from the side of the church and lodged them in the belfry. The firemen were prompt and hard-working, but they were no match for the blaze or the weather conditions. By 5 a.m. the Valley Gleaner reported: "the holy and beautiful house where our Fathers prayed" was a heap of ashes.

In the midst of tragedy, everyone was up and doing. The fire was spreading down Main Street threatening banks and stores. Theodore Sedgwick, president of Lee Savings Bank, took out an ad in the Valley Gleaner to formally thank "the coolness and intrepidity manifested by cashier Mr. Edward Bliss in his efforts to save the public's property." Bliss entered the burning bank and "at imminent peril to himself" removed to a place of safety all the books, gold and silver coin. Remembering to close the vault door behind him, he also saved that portion of the bank from the flames.

The spirit of the town was best displayed after the fire. The loss of the church was keenly felt. The mid-19th century was a time of economic hardship. The town was overwhelmed with the enormity of the loss. So the congregation came together under Reverend Gale and vowed to rebuild using their own resources and their own sweat.

In July the cornerstone was laid, and in September, the doors of the third church of the First Congregational Church opened its doors. It stands today, a bright white tribute to the history and people of Lee.

Jan. 8, 1908, the Valley Gleaner: "A terrible blow came to the town of Lee yesterday in the destruction of the Greenock Inn by fire." Another cold January, another dark night, another fire -- this time there was no bell to sound the alarm and the fire was not discovered until 6 a.m. when hotel employees arrived for work. The firemen were fast on the scene, and this time the water did not freeze, but the water pressure died. The fire roared up the chimney and the roof caught.

The work of salvaging what they could and especially waking and rescuing guests began immediately. Without hesitation those on scene ran into the building rousing the guests and if necessary carrying them to safety. All the neighboring homes opened their doors and took in the Greenock guests.

The Morgan House provided coffee for fireman and volunteers. All the neighboring houses set extra places for breakfast and attempted to feed the hotel guests, firemen and volunteers. In a precious gesture, the ladies of the neighborhood sent written invitations to dine for all at the scene of the fire.

It was necessary for the fire hoses to be laid across the trolley tracks and an odd ballet ensued as one trolley stopped to avoid depressing the hoses.

The passengers disembarked, walked the few feet and boarded another trolley to continue their journey. The water ran like a river in the streets of Lee, but the hotel was lost.

The generous spirit of the town, however, was not extinguished.

Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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