Historic inn burns

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The 18th century inn was devoured by flames during a pre-dawn, five-alarm blaze Friday that drew firefighters from three states and closed off roads leading to the postcard-perfect inn, located just off Route 23 on Old Sheffield Road.

The 229-year-old inn was considered a town treasure, whose humble origins date back to 1780, when Francis Haere, an Irishman who fought in the American Revolution, opened a tavern for weary travelers making their way between Albany and Hartford.

Fast forward to present-day Egremont, where the inn became the passion of Robert and Marie Johnson, who purchased the landmark inn last year and set out to become innkeepers in a scenic slice of the Berkshires near the New York and Connecticut lines.

"This was our dream," said Marie Johnson, holding back tears. "We're devastated."

Johnson said the Egremont Inn was the couple's second attempt at running a dining and lodging facility, having previously run an inn in another state.

"It was such an old building," she said, as fire crews trained hoses on the scorched building and ice formed along the eaves of its collapsed roof.

Firefighters received a report of flames shooting from the south side of the inn around 4:45 a.m. Friday. Minutes later, "the south side of the building was totally involved," said Edward McCormick, Egremont's emergency management director and a deputy fire chief in Great Barrington.

The inn's top two floors collapsed, reducing the once grand three-story structure to a squat, charred one-story building.

Firefighters continued to soak the smoldering building well into the afternoon, as frigid temperatures and wind gusts continued to make conditions tough. Temperatures hovered in the low- to mid-teens when the fire was first reported, but gradually warmed up to the low-20s as the sun rose shortly after 7 a.m.

Icing was a concern, according to officials at the scene, but there were no reported injuries linked to the fire, which remains under investigation. Officials from the state fire marshal's office were on scene for much of the day.

No guests were staying at the inn at the time of the blaze. The inn's chef was the last known person on the premises, having left shortly after midnight Friday, according to McCormick. Massachusetts State Police investigators assigned to the fire marshal's office were interviewing the chef Friday afternoon, McCormick said.

The Johnsons were in Connecticut visiting their son at the time of the fire, according to McCormick.

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The Johnsons have insurance, but Marie Johnson did not reveal what the couple plans to do next. She was overcome with emotion while speaking to reporters at the scene, where an unidentified woman comforted her and ended an impromptu press conference held on Button Ball Lane, about 100 yards from the site of the fire.

Button Ball Lane and Old Sheffield Road, which intersect near the inn, became staging areas for scores of emergency vehicles, which remained on scene throughout the day. Those streets were expected to remain cordoned off overnight and throughout today, according to officials.

Close to 100 public safety personnel responded to the five-alarm blaze, which drew fire and police officials from all over South County and from neighboring Connecticut and New York.

"It was a great effort on the part of all area departments," said McCormick, who served as incident commander. He was backed up by Egremont Fire Chief Bill Turner.

"It's a total loss," said Turner, a 30-year fire veteran.

"I was hoping this wouldn't happen on my watch."

Like many of the old buildings in this town full of historic structures, fire officials said they were worried something like this might happen one day -- and it did.

Despite working tirelessly on the coldest morning of the season so far, firefighters were unable to save the historic structure.

"The building is very dangerous," said McCormick, noting that temporary fencing will be placed around the structure until it's razed. Due to safety concerns, he said, that effort might begin very soon.

"This is a great loss for our community and we are all saddened -- not only for the loss of such a beautiful and historic structure, but for the many lives this loss will affect," said Egremont Selectman Bruce Cumsky. "Our hearts certainly go out to them."

Haere's tavern served as a muster area and hospital during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. It was also one mile from the last battle of Shays Rebellion, the 1780 clash between farmers and merchants that rattled the strength of the republic in the nation's early years and factored in the formation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

The tavern changed hands several times before it was eventually expanded into a full-fledged summer hotel in 1857. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

To reach Conor Berry: cberry@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6249.


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