Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I was around seven or eight when the mill in town went up.  It had been one of those summer evenings that didn't require a sweater.  One of those black and gray evenings when there is no sunset to speak of, things just seem to fade from the light quickly, and before you know it, buildings have all turned the same shade of shadows, and it's time to go inside.   

The neighborhood kids and I had just dispersed, heading for home when the siren began sounding  it's numeric code for the location of the fire.   Well, that was always exciting.  I ran through the back screen door, flew to the cellar stairwell while counting the number of blasts and spaces the siren issued, and by the time I looked up the location of the call box, sirens in the distance could already be heard. 

"Goin' to the FIRE!"  I yelled at the empty kitchen, racing back out the screen door to find the neighborhood gang already reassembling in our back yard.  "Its the MILL!" the boy next door said, and the five of us were off like a shot towards the river.

The lumber mill was half owned by my grandfather at that time, and was situated just off the river. Railroad tracks that followed the river split into a  junction, the side rail ran directly through the mill for pick ups and deliveries.  Though he ran the manufacturing side of the business, while his partner ran the office, he could never quite keep his hands away from wood, and was always making things to bring home to give to my grandmother.

Baba's hand turned saltshakers he made for Gunga.
I still feel ridiculous calling them these names...

Just past the tracks were the old, rickety wooden docks we'd fish from.  It was only a couple minutes away, and as the small group of us ran at full tilt, we began to smell the burning wood, mixed with an oily smell, and see the smoke before we were halfway there.

Upon our arrival some fire apparatus were already setting up running hoses, and shouting orders to each other we didn't understand.     We raced across the tracks taking up positions on the familiar dock, knowing - even in semi-darkness - where the boards were broken, where not to step so as to avoid going through and landing in the slime that edged the river underneath.

The fire got progressively worse, the crowds continued to gather and at some point blocked our view of the firefighters in action.  We left the dock and made our way through the crowd to get a closer look.  It was easy to do that when you were a kid.  Shimmy through the crowd at the height just below the point where adult bodies had become thick with age and pushed against each other when in close proximity.

Most of the lumber came from the mills in Manchester.

Suddenly the shouting from the firefighters reached a panicked crescendo, as some that were actually in the burning building were rushing out covered in soot and coughing. The crowd, sensing danger, moved in reverse en mass, my friends and I carried along with them.

The reason for the abrupt change in the fire came not a minute later.  Evidently there were quite a few fuel tanks within the building and the fire could not be contained enough to keep the blaze from reaching the tanks.   The first enormous explosion whacked the front row of the crowd, along with my friends and I, about five feet back, and onto the pavement.   Then we were all up and running over the tracks to get further away from the building as the firefighters were shouting "MORE TANKS INSIDE!" It wasn't until we were a safe distance away sitting on the slimy river bank, did we realize we, along with most of the crowd, were covered in black, greasy soot.  Three or four more tanks blew up, one causing the long, low roof of the mill to spring into the air a bit, before collapsing into the building.

Soon one of my friends would say, "Uh oh."   I followed the direction of his gaze and saw my sister on her prized black Raleigh, pedaling down the street like the Wicked Witch of the West.  She was scanning the scene in front of her bike and got a bead on my friends and me.  Pedaling over with an air of superiority only one who is in the loop is able to carry off, she braked the bike, stopped and said,  "Baba is here somewhere, you are late for dinner, and you were too close to the fire and I'm TELLIN'."   I should note my sister had named our Grandparents "Gunga" and "Baba" when she was small and incapable of words that actually meant something. The names stuck.  Baba loved it and Gunga spent most of my sister's childhood trying to force her to call her "Grand Mother."  Gunga never quite learned that my sister was the boss of everything.

George MacComber Gifford   (AKA Baba)
Viola May French Gifford  (AKA Gunga)

My Grandfather had his dream job.  He not only got to work with wood, but he got to be around trains, which he loved.

This is how he utilized the attic bedroom in his home.

He left his prized collection to me.

Which I still have because my son still lives with me.

My first experience with fire, during which I gained a healthy respect for it.  Thus began my adventure in life, where it seemed fire would follow me, no matter how hard I tried to avoid it.


  1. Now that is an amazing childhood story! (also well written). That must have been an exciting, scary and sad night...
    GREAT post! also great old photos!

  2. Yes, that is quite a story. I was also glad to hear your sister didn't pedal into the wrong place. I was also intrigued by your statement that fire has followed you ever since then. I hope to hear more about that.

  3. That was a scary, altho I'm sure exciting to you then, experience. Especially a wood mill.

    I do like the pictures.

  4. You are fortunate to still have that train collection. I recognize the Lionel transformer under the train table in the "attic" picture. I still have mine which is exactly the same transformer.

    The grand kids called their grandmother "Mongra", my grandma was "Memo". The rule is that the grandkids get to name their grandparents.