August 04, 2020

Canaan looks forward to new town hall> In year since arson destroyed the building, officials have coped with loss of records

CANAAN — By the end of the month, Canaan officials hope to have a new town hall under construction.

It has been one year since the town lost its town hall to arson, and no charges have been reported in the case. The century-old structure burned early on the morning of June 10, 1995. Firefighters from Canaan and two neighboring communities fought the fire for more than six hours before bringing it under control. By then, the three-story building had been reduced to a pile of rubble, and local people wondered how it could ever be replaced.

The fire not only destroyed a building but the town office, many town records, historical artifacts from the town’s museum and ceremonial pieces and records of the Order of the Eastern Star and the Masons.

Town Clerk Sherrill Hunt said rarely a day goes by that the town is not affected by the loss of records. For a month after the fire, town business was conducted from Hunt’s home. Eventually, the town office was moved to a leased mobile home placed near the site of the fire.

“It’s been comfortable, but space is a real problem. There just isn’t enough,” Hunt said.

She is looking forward to new quarters and having the town office operations under one roof. Since the fire, voting has taken place either at the school or the Grange Hall.

The rest of the town is also eager to see a town office right where it ought to be — in the center of town, just as its predecessor was. At a special town meeting in December, townspeople voted “resoundingly” to place the new town hall on the old town hall site, said Selectman Louise Townsend.

Shortly after the fire, Townsend told townspeople a lot more was saved in the fire than at first believed. “It’s amazing what was saved,” said Townsend, “particularly from the museum.”

As fire destroyed the upper floors, firefighters pulled pieces from the first-floor museum, including a 1900 fire pumper and an antique hose-and-reel. The pieces were instrumental in saving the town hall in 1908, when most of Canaan’s once self-sufficient business district was destroyed by fire. This time, it was the pumper that was saved.

Former Town Clerk Irma Graf was pleased to see many pictures and scrapbooks saved from the flames. Over the past year, she has spent hours drying out the books, wiping away or repairing charred pieces.

“I had the books lying all over my kitchen for two weeks,” she said. “It smelled kind of smoky in here.”

Pages from years of scrapbooks of town history have been placed in plastic sleeves, she said. A rare album of Canaan postcards and an album of bicentennial pictures came through the fire remarkably unscathed.

The museum, however, will not be included in the new building. There is not yet a location for that facility.

Graf also is working on re-creating some of the town’s vital records. Books dating to the 1700s were either charred or water-damaged. Graf expects to copy over all legible entries into new books. The damaged books were a significant loss, she said, because they were in excellent shape.

The new building will be a wooden, single-story facility with space for overhead storage. At 30 by 50 feet, the building will house the town office, its records and a meeting room for selectmen and town committees.

Town officials will oversee the construction with the help of David Davis, a local contractor known for his quality work, Townsend said. Sections of the work will be put out to bid, allowing local contractors to participate in the construction. She said the town may save 20 to 30 percent of the costs by serving as its own general contractor.

Sergio Gaddar, an architect from New Hampshire, is preparing the plans. He has a Canaan connection, Townsend said, because he is married to the former Cathy Burrill of Canaan.

The Canaan chapters of the Eastern Star and Masons are working on the construction of a new meeting hall on the Canaan-Skowhegan town line.

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