Historic Wells River school gutted by fire

Published: Jul. 18, 2022 at 5:33 PM EDT
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WELLS RIVER, Vt. (WCAX) - A fire ripped through an old schoolhouse in Wells River Monday that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It comes as a blow to community members who grew up in the building.

Crews from Vermont and New Hampshire responded to the historic structure within minutes of the initial call. However, firefighters say at that time, the flames were already in the roof. Flames shot through the steeple of the old grade school on Main Street three hours after firefighters were first called to the scene.

The building is just a block from the center of the village.

“I graduated from here in 1949,” John Mahnker said.

Mahnker grew up in Wells River. He looked on as firefighters poured water on the flames.

“Well, when we were in school here, we always hoped it would burn down like school kids do but never thought it would ever happen,” Mahnker said.

But the joke masked a hint of sadness in his voice.

“It’s too bad, it’s a shame, we have lost several things like that here in town,” he said.

Firefighters say the owner of the building was on a lift removing paint with a heat gun when she accidentally caught the 1870s structure on fire.

Chad Roy was working down the street.

“We hopped in the truck and hightailed it over here. And when we got here, Lisa was up in the lift trying to put the fire out up at the steeple. It was just starting to get going,” Roy said.

The building hasn’t been used as a school since the 1970s. It’s had commercial and residential uses over the years.

Firefighters say the current residents were able to make it out safely along with their dogs.

“She had a fire extinguisher in the basket of the lift when we got here but obviously it was out of control at that point,” Roy said.

Firefighters say the old architecture made access to the fire difficult. Preventing the fire from spreading to nearby buildings, including the church next door, was the top priority.

“It’s a piece of history that will probably never be built again,” Mahnker said.

Firefighters say they do not know the total extent of the damage, however, the chief in Wells River fears the building could be a total loss.

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