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Fire at the Strafford County Farm Poor House

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January 7 1881 occurred at the County Farm the most terrible fire in the history of Dover. The almshouse took fire from an overheated furnace and burned to the ground. The money loss was $75,000 which was of no account compared to the loss of life.

The fire was discovered in the kitchen at half past four in the morning. Dr. Fairbanks, physician at the County Farm passed the night there. He was awakened by the smell of smoke and repairing to the kitchen discovered that fire was just burning through the floor. He gave the alarm and with William T. Wentworth and Lucien B. Legg set about the removal of those who, by reason of age or other infirmity of mind or body were unable to help themselves. The main entrance was cut off by fire leaving but one exit. The able-bodied men and women escaped through windows not having time to snatch a garment to cover them from the biting cold and deep snow. Some ran long distances till they were overcome and fell by the roadside to be picked up later. Thirteen of the 164 inmates perished in the flames. Four old people and two children were in the attic and could not be rescued. One man returning for some clothing perished. A woman who went back for her easy chair was consumed. Mr. Cornelius Caswell Superintendent at the County Farm was very ill at the time and great fears were entertained that the shock and the exposure to cold might have fatal results. Mrs. Caswell saved two wallets, a tin box containing papers and bonds, and a photograph of her son.

The insane asylum containing 30 inmates was in great danger. The overseer of this department stepped outside to cut away the partitions connecting the asylum with the main building leaving his wife to guard the excited inmate. They pushed her aside and escaped into the darkness, moaning and chattering, rushing wildly about in every direction, bewildered and frantic with fright but never with the exception of two getting out of sight of the fierce conflagration. With the exception of these two they were secured and placed in a neighboring house. One of the women thinly clad tramped to Gonic to the house of Nabum Yeaton. The other walked to the home of relatives in Barrington. Both were returned the next day.

Before any assistance could be rendered, or any effective efforts put forth to stay the progress of the rapidly spreading flames, the whole interior of the immense three story structure with the entire household contents was a mass of smoking, smoldering runs. Not one article of furniture, bedding or wearing apparel was saved. Lack of water rather than lack of appliances was the cause. A steamer started from this city but turned back after reaching the hill near William Bakers seeing they would be too late for service. The reservoir and wells were either dry or very low. A frozen hydraulic ram was the only power by which to force water from the spring to that immense institution.

Among the first of the citizens to response to the alarm were Ralph Hough, Harry Hough and Dr. Chamberlain. They found there at work William T. Wentworth, Jacob Twombly, Jason M. Hayes, J.A. Clough and others doing all in their power to save life and property. Col. Bracewell and Harry Hough brought up clothing, E.J. Brewster boots, shoes, and many others contributed to the loads that went from the city that day. Friday night every person was provided with clothing to which great Falls, Rochester, Barrington and other towns contributed. One hundred new beds, bedding and covering were ordered from Boston. Beds were placed in the old lockup for the men and the women were sheltered in the Snell and Trickey houses connected with the farm.

From the files of the Northam Colonists, edited by Iris Valley, 1881.

Among those who perished in the fire were:

Frank Jones, age 70, of Great Falls
Asa Hall, age 40, of Barrington
Porter Sargent, age 50, of Great Falls
Burnham Nute, age 75, of Farmington
Jeff Holland, age 35, of New Durham
Joseph Cook, age 40, of Dover
Tommy McDermott, age 75, of Dover
Martha Jewell, age 65, of Great Falls
Lizzie Wilson, age 40, of Lee
Clara Soates, age 40, of Milton
Kate Tobey, age 25, of Dover
Charlie Riley, age 4, of Gonic
Sadie Abbott, age 7, of Rollinsford

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