‘Hot Time’ in Wilton

Library offers program on historic fires

WILTON – During the 11 years from 1874-85, most of Main Street burned three times. The only building that survived them all is the former Color Shop, the only brick building on the street.

The fire on Dec. 2, 1874, did leave two lasting leg­acies: the Town Hall and the Fire Department. The Town Hall, built of bricks and stone in 1885, survived the last one.

The Heritage Commis­sion will present a pro­gram on the 1874 fire, 142 years later, as well as the other two fires at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, in the ro­tunda at the Wilton Pub­lic & Gregg Free Library.

Included in "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight – The Fires of Wilton" will be the rebuilding of Main Street and the develop­ment of the Fire Depart­ment.

In 1874, the largest building on Main Street was The Whiting House, a four-story wooden hotel on the north side of the street that could almost be classified as "grand." Stores lined the Main Street level, with the ho­tel entrance on Maple Street. Balconies on two floors lined the northern end overlooking what is now called Cooley Park. At that time, Wilton had a hand pumper, but no or­ganized fire department.

The fire was discov­ered at about 5 a.m. in the second floor of the Wallace Building in the middle of the street. It is believed to have started in a pile of paint rags.

In the ensuing con­fusion, no one could remember where the pumper had been stored. When it was fi­nally located, its valves were frozen, and time was lost thawing them.

A message was sent to Milford, which mus­tered a crew and sent an engine up by train.

In the meantime, the fire had spread to neigh­boring stores. Nothing could be done to save the hotel, so the crews concentrated on sav­ing the railroad station and the Peterborough Railroad bridge behind Main Street.

A steam engine arrived from Nashua around 8 a.m., but by then, most of Main Street was gone.

In addition to the ho­tel, nine stores and busi­nesses were destroyed, including the Wilton Sav­ings Bank and the law of­fices and library of the Hon. C.H. Burns. About a third of the town li­brary’s books were saved.

The fire engine that couldn’t be located had been purchased in 1870 by the residents of East Wilton, now the down­town area. The town had purchased a hose, but otherwise had only a bucket brigade. At the Town Meeting in 1875, the town formed a fire de­partment and bought an engine. Those first fire­men were paid $3 a year.

The Queen Anne-style Town Hall is built of bricks and Milford gran­ite. In 1883, voters ap­proved moving the town hall from Wilton Center (now the home of Andy’s Playhouse) to downtown. The Whiting family do­nated the site.

What is now the the­ater’s small theater was constructed as a library and used until 1909, when David Gregg donated the present one. The tower’s clock was manufactured in Boston by George Mil­ton Stevens. In 2009, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Plac­es through the efforts of the Heritage Commission.

The Heritage Commis­sion meets at the library at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Meetings are open to the public.

The Dec. 4 program is free and open to the pub­lic. Refreshments will follow in the Historical Rooms on the upper floor.