History Repeating Itself

I would like to start our visit today noting the passing of two Ashland residents who each in their own way contributed selflessly to make Ashland a great place to live.

Ben Montenegro was a major contributor in many activities and community projects for as long as I can remember. Whether it was the tennis courts and athletic facilities at the old high school, the Ashland Emergency Fund, or Ashland Day, Ben was the engine that made it happen. His quiet and friendly demeanor, along with his vast network of friends and local business associates made any project he was involved with seem easy.

Archie Beaton was a local builder who served on both the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Planning Board. I had the pleasure of serving with Archie on the ZBA, and remember well the site visits where an occasional homeowner’s dog would bite him on the leg. Archie was a big man, but not intimidating. He always had a smile. I will miss both Ben and Archie.

On to today’s visit. Life is a circle they say, and some events seem to repeat themselves. Some will say that if you wait long enough history will repeat itself regardless of the lessons learned, or precautionary actions taken to avoid reoccurrences. One such repeating event seems to be fires in Ashland, and today we are focusing on the Baptist Church.

Originally meeting in a small chapel on Front Street, the Baptist congregation built a beautiful white church on Summer St. It was an impressive 48′ by 68′ building with a 131′ steeple and an Elm tree lined circular driveway. Shortly after building the new church, the old church building burned. Forty years later on the night of December 29, 1900 the new church was on fire. Neighbors Edward Tierney, and Mr. and Mrs. Mann discovered the fire and alerted Ashland’s volunteer fire department. The volunteers gathered as quickly as a volunteer department can, and soon water was applied to the fire. Unfortunately, the water supply could not meet the demand and the firemen were forced to pump water from the river under the Concord Street bridge. This required the placement of fire hoses over the railroad tracks effectively stopping two trains from the busy Boston and Albany railroad.

The fire was so intense that embers and cinders landed as far away as Alden and Front Street. It quickly became apparent that the surrounding buildings were at risk, and if any one of them caught fire the firemen knew it would quickly become an uncontrollable situation. Adjacent roofs caught on fire, and sidings were scorched, but the firemen were able to save them. We hear tales of the “bucket brigades” and that was exactly what was used. With the hoses feeding the equipment for the main event, the firemen had to feed the hand pumpers by bucket. The sheer number of men and pails must have been incredible.

Barely and hour had passed from the first alarm when the 131 foot steeple and the bell collapsed. All was lost. The church was completely destroyed. But in the true spirit of brotherhood, the Methodist Church on Alden Street offered their building to the Baptist congregation until a new church could be built. Many fundraisers were held, even the sale of fragments of the broken and melted brass bell.

So what happened? Apparently some of the piping from the steam boiler froze during the near zero temperatures that season. After $700.00 in repairs was made, the boiler was restarted to test the work. Apparently nobody sensed anything was wrong until the neighbors reported the fire. It was concluded that a defective chimney was most likely the cause of the blaze, but due to the total devastation it was difficult to be certain.

The cycle was repeating. Two churches built, two churches destroyed by fire. Hopefully this was the end. But was it? Many people who have lived in town for a number of years remember the old American Legion’s building on Summer Street. It burned to the ground on a cold winter’s night. It was said that the flames could be seen for miles, and that the adjacent buildings were in peril. Sound familiar? The building was the third BaptistChurch built. Fate? Coincidence? No, just that pesky history repeating itself. Similar to the Leland Block fires, the replacement structure for the American Legion was made of something that couldn’t burn to the ground. Today stands a metal Butler type building. Very functional for their needs, but I have to admit I miss the style and grace of the old church.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
June 2013