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.”