2017-10-19 / Editorial

The Fires of 1947 – The Week Maine Burned

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by Melanie Taylor Coombs

I only saw my grandfather cry once.

It was a cool day toward the end of the summer and we were sitting in my grandparents’ tiny camp on the shore of Bonny Eagle pond in Buxton.

I was perched on the steep narrow stairs that went to the second floor facing my grandparents’ recliners; his was a big bulky, masculine chair, and hers was a dainty version with wooden arms and a tatted doily on the head rest. There was a fire blazing in the tiny woodstove nearby.

Through the years I spent many, many days in their company, but this day was different.

My grandfather tried in vain to prevent the welling in his eyes, as he told me I had to know what it was like during “the fire”.

I learned several things that day. I learned that my family’s homestead had burned to the ground during the blaze.

I learned that the soles of my grandfather’s brand new shoes had burned through to his socks while he fought fires near what would later become the Sanford Airport.

I learned that my grandmother and grandfather had to flee from their home so quickly that the dinner was left unfinished on the kitchen table.

Mostly, I learned that this story was so important to my family that they wanted me to never, ever forget.

By 1997, the 50th anniversary of the “Week Maine Burned”, both of my grandparents had passed away. At the time, I was the Director of the Gray Public Library, and I invited Lawrence Dolby, former State Fire Inspector, to visit Gray and speak about the fires and his book “The Language of Fire”. We set up several chairs for the event, but people kept coming until it was standing room only.

Most had come to hear Mr. Dolby, but many had come to share their stories.

Last year when I realized another big Fire of 1947 anniversary was coming up, I began to look for possible speakers.

Very quickly I realized that this year would be very different than back in 1997.

Many of the people who lived through the fires are no longer with us, but their stories, like my grandfather’s story, live on forever through us. It is why sharing stories is so important.

McArthur Library is very proud to be partnering with the Biddeford Historical Society for this special tribute to the Fires of 1947 on Friday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.

We’ve asked professional storyteller Jo Radner to open the evening with her stories of the Brownfield Fires. Following an intermission, we will invite others to share stories and experiences from the fires.

Special thanks to the Biddeford Historical Society for hosting the event at the Historic Biddeford Meeting House (corner of Pool Street and Meetinghouse Road).

The event is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served.

In the meantime, please feel free to check out Joyce Butler’s book “Wildfire Loose: The Week Maine Burned,” which has become the definitive work of the 1947 fires. Copies are available in our collections.

Happy reading! Melanie Taylor Coombs is the adult services librarian at McArthur Library

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