Updated: Dec 2, 2022
If you were one of the many people who voted at the Community House this week, then you were visiting the site of a significant mid-19th century fire 177 years ago this week. On Friday, June 27, 1845, people received reports about this devastating fire in Longmeadow. The fire started across the street in the chimney of the "large and fine" house of Mr. Roderick Burnham (702 Longmeadow Street). The large wooden structure burned quickly in the high winds and was not saved. A burning ember from that fire blew across the green to the east, igniting the wooden shake roof of the old, grand house built by the Reverend Stephen Williams almost a hundred and thirty years before on what is now the site of the Longmeadow Community House. Volunteers valiantly fought the fire, but the roof and upper part of the Williams' house, now occupied by the late minister's grandson, Col. Samuel Williams, were severely damaged. The fire engines that fought the blaze were identified by the Springfield Republican newspaper account as the "Lion, the Niagra, the Ocean, and the U.S. Armory engine."
Even though both houses were destroyed, much of the contents were saved from the conflagration. Mr. Burnham's property was insured for $2500, but the paper reported "his loss will far exceed that amount, as the house was one of the largest and most expensive in the county." Unfortunately, Col. Williams' house was not insured.
Two volumes of Stephen Williams' diaries, Collection of First Church Longmeadow
We always imagined that many brave people must have dared to enter Williams' burning house, or that the fire was a very slow, indolent fire, because the records in the Historical Society list a large number of items that were saved from the burning structure and brought to the home of the Reverend Richard Salter Storrs several doors to the north. The Reverend Storrs had passed away in 1819, but his widow Sarah Williams Storrs, sister to Col. Samuel Williams, still resided there.
Snowshoes belonging to Stephen Williams
One of the pieces of furniture belonging to Stephen Williams' mother
Clerical collar or Geneva bands, belonging to Stephen Williams
Among the rescued items, according to the Proceedings at the Centennial Celebration of the Incorporation of the Town of Longmeadow, October 17th, 1883 published nearly fifty years after the fire, were "most fortunately the ten manuscript volumes of Dr. Williams' diary covering the entire period of his ministry." Other items included an oak writing table and inkstand, court cupboard, dower chest, old pistol, courting stick, chair, very old highboy (sold at auction in 1916 in two parts), 4 Chippendale chairs, Dutch or Queen Ann chairs, wing chair, old musical instrument, bands worn by Dr. Williams (Geneva bands or clerical collars), snow shoes, a handwoven towel, a collection of original letters, and bonnets. This list was enumerated in the original inventory list of the Society's collection, compiled by Mrs. D. T. Smith in 1930. Many of these items are still in the collection of the Historical Society--alas not the 'very old highboy"! Now you can see why we believe the fire to be a slow one--the hardy rescuers had time to move a house-worth of furniture plus many other treasured items before it was unsafe. More than 60 years after Stephen Williams' death, he was still a revered citizen of Longmeadow, and the relics that remained were considered worthy of saving.
-contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member
Originally published June 16, 2022