‘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.