In the history of Wilmington, one key date is a turning point, and that is April 13, 1903, when a large fire destroyed part of the center of town. Though nothing like the fires that swept through Boston or Chicago in the 1870s, in a sleepy farm town like Wilmington, it was big.
Two large buildings in Wilmington Square were completely burned and many others were damaged. The fire started in the blacksmith shop of Schamiel R. McIntosh. McIntosh had a complex of buildings including a livery stable, a paint shop and the blacksmith shop.
Mrs. Alice Cady was in the Square when it started. She saw Harry Ames run out of his store with a fire extinguisher, and over to McIntosh’s. The effort was of no use, and flames quickly engulfed all the buildings in McIntosh’s complex, including a paint shop and a livery stable.
Sparks blew across Church Street and set the Ames block afire. On the first floor was a drug store owned by Charles Hudson. Upstairs was Ames Hall, which at the time was the social center of Wilmington. The Masons met there, and when the Wilmington Methodist Church was formed, it held its first services in Ames Hall.
Wilmington had no fire department and no water system. But it did have telephone service. Calls were put through to Woburn and Reading for help. Woburn sent a horse-drawn steamer, which reached Wilmington in five minutes. But that was not fast enough to stop the fire.
The calls probably went by way of Buck Brothers store in North Wilmington, where Rodney Buck was the operator. Before long, Joseph Hill, a blacksmith from High Street, was on his way at a gallop, with a wagon full of shovels and hand pumps. Hill was the forest fire warden and police chief. As he passed the Congregational Parsonage at Nichols Corner (Wildwood Street), where Chester Horton and Winifred Rice were building a fence.
“The whole Square is burning up!” Hill yelled.
Rice and Horton dropped their tools and arrived in the Square in record time. They assisted in taking furniture from the Ames home, which had caught fire.
Sparks set fire to other buildings, including the railroad depot and Buck Brothers store, on the other side of Main Street, but the buildings were saved.
The fire soon took out the telephone service, along with the trolley car wires. Wilmington at the time had two trolley lines. Sparks carried across the railroad tracks, setting the grass afire. It quickly spread into the woods. By this time, practically every able-bodied man in town was fighting the fires, and many townspeople turned their attention to the fire in the woods.
The only water supply available to fight the fire was a small pond on the Hiller estate, 100 yards away. It was several hours before the fire was extinguished. Schamiel McIntosh’s entire complex was gone, as was Ames Hall and Hudson’s Store.
Prior to the fire
Wilmington at the turn of the century was still a sleepy farm town, but was showing signs of growth. There were three railroad lines in town, and the depot in the Square was always busy. Next door to the depot was Buck Brothers’ store, where George Buck sold groceries, along with hay and grain. His brother Herbert had a store in North Wilmington, a business that is carried on today as Elia’s.
Next to Buck’s was the “tin shop” of the Boston and Maine Railroad. A large, ramshackle building, painted gray, it was one of many repair shops for the railroad. Many Wilmington residents worked for the railroad, and there was a roundhouse between Middlesex Avenue and Clark Street.
Opposite the tin shop was the Hiller estate. Drs. France and Henry Hiller had come to town in 1875 and had built an elaborate home with many unusual features. By the time of the fire, both had died, and the estate stood vacant.
Nearby were two other homes, the old home of the White family and that of Joseph Newton Ames. Mr. Ames was a remarkable man, known as the best-dressed man in town. A veteran character actor, he was for many years a member of the Boston Museum Stock Company.
The White house had been built by the Jaques family. Mary Louisa White Buzzell was born there. She married Dr. Daniel Buzzell, and they were the parents of Philip Buzzell. Mrs. Buzzell designed the house that became Cavanaugh’s.
At the corner of Church and Main streets stood Ames Hall. Downstairs was Hudson’s Store, and upstairs was a large meeting hall. Like several other buildings in town, it was owned by the Ames estate.
Occasionally the hall would be rented by the Kickapoo Indians, who would put on a medicine show, delighting youngsters and their parents as well. The Indians sold an elixir known as “Kickapoo Indian Sagwa.” Whether it was the curative properties or its alcoholic content, the concoction sold well.
The Kickapoos also performed dentistry, advertising that they could pull teeth painlessly. George McIntosh once had a tooth pulled by one of the Kickapoos, and he said it hurt terribly.
When he complained, the Indian said, “It didn’t hurt me.”
The 1903 fire was not the first such experience for Mr. Hudson. He had started his business in the old railroad depot on the southwest corner of the square, between Main Street and the railroad tracks. The railroad depot was on the first floor, and Hudson’s Store faced Main Street on the upper level. Over the door, he had a sign which was known far and wide.
It read, “New England Rum, Tobacco and Nails.”
In 1890, Mr. Hudson decided to move his store across the square. He made arrangements with Joseph Ames, and began to transfer his stock into the new store.
On Nov. 5, Mr. Hudson took the train to Boston on business. Shortly after his departure, the depot caught fire, apparently from a spark from the locomotive of that train. Mary Louisa Buzzell and George McIntosh, who was clerking in the store (for Hudson’s standard rate of five cents an hour) moved the books and some of the stock across the square, but Mr. Hudson lost a considerable amount of stock in that fire.
In grateful appreciation for the aid rendered, Mr. Hudson and Mrs. Harriet Ames put on an oyster supper in Ames Hall, with not less than 150 persons attending. During the evening, two local ministers spoke on the need for a fire department and better fire control. Rev. Elijah Harmon was the minister of the Congregational Church, and Rev. Thurston was the Methodist minister.
However, it was not until after the 1903 fire that Wilmington finally organized a fire department, led by Caleb Harriman and Charles H. Osbon. A fire station was built on Church Street, where the newly paved Olson Road now runs between the post office and the Public Buildings building. A second fire station was built in North Wilmington at Harriman’s Tannery.