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May 5, 2014

Worcester rebounded from devastating 1994 fire

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The Daily Star

---- — While speaking with Worcester Fire Department Chief Jim Empie in 2012, upon marking the department’s 125th anniversary, he readily agreed that likely the most historic and largest fire in Worcester’s history took place 20 years ago this week.

Fire broke out late Monday night, May 2, 1994 at what was then the vacant Village Inn, one of a few wooden structures joined together on the south side of Main Street, dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The fire destroyed the Village Inn and Wheeler’s Pharmacy, next door at 90 Main St., and caused heavy damage to the Worcester Historical Society and Country Boy Realty, at 96 Main St.

Then-Fire Chief Rudolph Gorsch said at the time, it was the largest fire in Worcester in the past 35 years. No one was in the cluster of buildings at the time and in the battle two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

It was indeed a big fire, as more than 200 firefighters from as far away as Sidney battled the blaze from around midnight Monday and into the early morning hours. Residents across the street from the fire were evacuated.

Audrey and Gerald Wheeler had been in business for the last 41 years at Wheeler’s Pharmacy.

“I assume we’ll close,” Audrey Wheeler told The Daily Star the next day. “It’s hard to start over after 41 years. I didn’t think this was in the cards for us.” The Wheelers had been looking forward to selling the store so they could retire soon.

Although the Worcester Historical Society was able to salvage a majority of their historic items, the fire was quite hard to take, as the society had recently finished refurbishing the bottom floor and putting a new roof on the building they owned.

“I was out there watching all night long,” said Marilyn Dufresne, then the vice president of the society. “I was thinking about all the hard work of people who formed the society. A lot of communities didn’t have a beautiful museum like this.”

Chief Gorsch said on Wednesday evening, May 4, that the fire was set intentionally, and an investigation was underway by local and state authorities. Otsego County Fire Coordinator Lyle Jones estimated the loss of the buildings and contents at $5 million, not counting priceless historic items from the historical society.

Twenty years later, Dufresne, now Worcester Town Historian, said the arson case has never been solved.

They might have been down in 1994, but the Worcester Historical Society was certainly not out, as by Wednesday, June 1, the Star reported that the walls of the building and a new roof were being rebuilt. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said of the other damaged buildings, as those were razed and the community began weighing options on what could replace them. A park was already in the thoughts of some local merchants and leaders, if new businesses couldn’t be attracted to the site.

The Star followed up a year later and found that progress was being made on the historical society’s building, and that they were re-organizing items that had been salvaged from the fire. The society had been recently awarded grants from the Dewar Foundation of Oneonta, Robinson Broadhurst Foundation of Stamford, Key Bank and Fay’s Drugs, to get the restoration work progressing.

In subsequent years, the Wheeler family donated the former store site and the McCabe family made a $25,000 donation in 2004 to help build the proposed park.

In 2005, the society purchased the site of the former Village Inn, and the first phase of construction of the park began in 2009.

On Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010, the Worcester Heritage Park was dedicated in a ceremony to restore the heart of the hamlet’s historic commercial district. What had been gaping holes and charred ruins in early May 1994 had been replaced by a gazebo, ornamental fencing and benches and developed green areas to provide a focal point for community events.

This weekend: The mighty struggle to get Oneonta’s streets paved in 1889.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.