The Leland Block

Last month’s visit with the I.O.O.F stirred quite a few memories with some of the more established residents of Ashland (I wouldn’t dare say older). Thank you for your contributions and recollections. The Historical Society now has items donated that create a more complete picture of the organization, as well as providing a clearer path for researchers in the future. It has been said that documenting history is itself historical. I’m sure somebody, probably 100 years from now, will be looking at what we are saying here today and writing about it. One of those perpetual things I guess.

Anyway, today’s visit involves the building which once housed the I.O.O.F. From last month’s story we saw that before moving to the corner of Summer St. and Linden Lane, the I.O.O.F. held the top floor of the building on the corner of Summer St. and Main St. If you remember the picture that accompanied the story, the building was across the street from what is today the Post Office, and is currently the location of Main Street Wine and Spirits. Although it was know by many names, it was originally known as the Leland Block.

Built by bootmakers Albert Leland and S.F. Woodbury in 1853, the original structure collapsed during construction. Strong winds and a poor foundation were blamed. Leland immediately began constructing another building, but at the same time Captain John Stone was rebuilding a barn that had burned two years prior, and adjacent to Leland’s property. To add to this recipe for disaster, Thayer’s Livery Stable was built next to Leland’s building leaving only a couple of feet between each building. Keep in mind this was the mid-1800’s, and Ashland didn’t have an established underground water system. A fire could only be handled by water pumped by a nearby river, or by use of the “bucket brigade.”

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. On June 15, 1889, a fire broke out in the barn next to Leland’s building. According to records, the fire started around 3:45 AM. A Miss Laura Rowe lived in an apartment in Leland’s building and was able to escape with her family and a few possessions. Frank Martin, who was the hostler, escaped by climbing out onto the roof “clad only in a single garment, but with a handful of clothes in his hands.” He slid down a wooden downspout 14 feet to the ground. He lost everything he owned except for what he threw off the roof, and I’m sure he picked up a few splinters during his descent. Martin, along with hotel employee George Eames, tried unsuccessfully to save the nine horses in the barn. The animals were panic stricken, but the heat and flames were too intense.

The fire department arrived quickly but soon realized that more help was needed. Ashland residents Arthur Brooks and George Whittemore went to Holliston and Framingham respectfully to seek assistance. Both towns responded quickly, but as I mentioned before there wasn’t an established underground water system, therefore, no fire hydrants. The closest water supply was the river under the Concord St. bridge. 4850 feet of fire hose was needed to pump water to the fire.

With repeated dousing by hose and the bucket brigade, the hotel and the livery stables were saved, but the Leland building was more of a challenge. It was constructed using a slate roof making it difficult to fight the fire. Falling pieces of slate drove the firemen back until enough of it fell to the ground. Fortunately, there were only minor injuries as they fought to save the building. Through sheer determination, the Leland building was “rescued from the fire fiend, scorched on every side but with the walls intact.”

The fire was eventually contained both by the efforts of the firemen and an afternoon rain shower, but the toll had already been taken. Nine horses, carriages, farm wagons, and several tons of hay were lost. Tenants of the Leland Block, which included leathergoods merchant James O’Brien, Oxley the druggist, and Edgecomb the jeweler, found new locations within the downtown area as did Miss Rowe and Mrs. Dwyer and her family.

The Leland building was eventually purchased by B.C. Hathaway and rebuilt. The I.O.O.F. took the entire 3rd floor and placed their name prominently on the building as seen in last month’s photo. But as we all know, history tends to repeat itself. The building burned to the ground on February 15, 1943. One Ashland resident has photos of the firemen with icicles on their helmets while fighting the fire.

The building sitting on the property today is one story and was built using cinder blocks. And it still exists! Hopefully, the cycle has been broken.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
May 2012