Centuries-Old Vermont General Store Burns Down Again

November 3, 2009

When a fire destroyed the beloved, centuries-old Putney General Store 18 months ago, some people here cried.

The creaky wooden building where locals arrived for coffee, hardware and gossip, and where tourists ducked in to buy maple syrup by the gallon meant that much to them.

Now, they’re crying again.

A suspicious fire swept through the 21/2-story structure late Sunday, destroying the vacant post-and-beam structure and with it a piece of the past.

“This place used to have the coffee, the delicatessen, videos, hardware, just about anything you need,” said Craig Stead, 65, a local historian. “So it was a true general store. You always had a certain number of people from around Putney sitting around the tables, chatting business over their coffees.

“You had a lot of tourist trade here, because of your Vermont products _ maple syrup, maple sugar. It was just sort of a hub that everything revolved around. And now it’s gone.”

When owner Erhan Oge couldn’t rebuild after the first fire, the town’s historical society bought it, hoping to raise enough money to rebuild and find another operator _ anything to keep the store at Kimball Hill Road and Route 5.

Nearly $700,000 was raised, and renovation work on what was once considered the state’s longest continually operating general store was nearly complete.

The building, which dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s, has been a general store since around 1830, serving as a hub to the small business district of the southern Vermont town, which is home to about 3,000 people.

In May 2008, a fire of unknown origin damaged the attic of the building, but the general store’s interior was left intact, as was an adjoining building that houses apartments and shops.

After Oge _ the previous owner _ decided not to rebuild, the Putney Historical Society bought it for $105,000 and spearheaded a private fundraising effort to cover the $880,000 cost of renovating it and finding a new store operator. A community block grant for $200,000 was obtained, and a $100,000 Village Revitalization Grant. Individual donations raised $70,000, and an estimated $18,000 worth of in-kind services were donated.

The work it paid for was nearly completed, and a new operator had agreed to be the tenant.

Then came fire _ again.

More than 100 firefighters from Vermont and New Hampshire battled the latest fire, which was reported about 10:30 p.m. Sunday.

The building, which had yet to have its new fixtures or partitions installed, had no utilities hooked up, and it was unoccupied. Those facts, together with the speed with which the fire spread, led fire officials to label it “suspicious,” Putney Fire Chief Thomas Goddard said.

“It went up like a torch, you could see it for three miles down the road,” said Neil Madow, 58, of Westminster, who owns the adjoining building.

“When they told me, it was like, ‘Wait, this is old news,”‘ said Lyssa Papazian, a historic preservation consultant and member of the Society who had worked on the campaign. “How could it happen again? I’m still in shock.”

On Monday, the site was a jumble of charred wooden beams, peeled-back siding and clumps of cinder block, wood and ash. Investigators from the Vermont State Police, the state Fire Marshal and the Windham County Sheriff’s Department stood by yellow crime scene tape as onlookers _ still smelling the ruins _ snapped photos and shared memories.

“It’s horrible,” said Pauline Bamberger, 66. “I actually cried when I came down last night and saw it burning away. It was the pulse of Putney.”

Because there is no building to restore this time, this fire leaves Putney with little sense of what’s next.

“We don’t even have a historic building anymore,” Papazian said.

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