Chestertown fire chars house of memories


CHESTERTOWN -- Mary Emerson gazed across High Street at the charred skeleton of McCrory's yesterday and remembered a loyal customer: herself, a half-century or so ago.

"On Saturday nights, we country people came to town to do our shopping. We kids would each get a quarter -- 15 cents for a movie, and after the movie I'd bring the 10 cents over here and get some penny candy," said Mrs. Emerson, 64.

"It's sad to see. Every town needs a five-and-dime."

Nearby, a more recent customer, Peter Heller, 8, leaned on his bike and stared into the same sooty ruins, where three cash registers sat melted on the sidewalk.

"I bought my Matchbox cars in there," he said. "I've got 209 of them."

It took 23 fire companies from Anne Arundel County to the Delaware coast more than 12 hours to snuff out this stubborn blaze that ripped a piece of history from the heart of Chestertown.

Beginning with an electrical short in the ceiling at McCrory's, the fire moved quickly into Christmas supplies already piled high in a back storeroom, said Bob Thomas, chief deputy state fire marshal.

It burned undetected for more than 45 minutes, and by yesterday morning had caused damage estimated at $1.2 million to McCrory's and adjacent stores, Mr. Thomas said.

But no one was injured, and firefighters prevented high winds from spreading the blaze farther along the row of shops. Most of the buildings date to before World War I, built after an even bigger fire started in a blacksmith shop around the corner on Cross Street and razed the entire block.

The McCrory's fire prompted an astonishing display of firefighting cooperation. Fire trucks roared over the Bay Bridge from beyond Annapolis.

A bunch of equipment came direct from a parade up the road in Townsend, Del. From Dover, Del., firefighters brought a 5-inch-diameter hose long enough to reach the Chester River, a saving grace when Chestertown's water supply threatened to be depleted.

But the heavy work was done by the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Department, whose annual picnic at the Elks Lodge was canceled because of a major fire for the second year running.

Last year, during the picnic, a two-story office building next to town hall caught fire.

This year's picnic was scheduled to start at 3 p.m. Saturday.

The call, "building fire at McCrory's," came at 2:03.

"We were back in the kitchen, preparing the shrimp," said Chestertown Chief Richard White, 29, a beefy man in red suspenders, still going strong yesterday after 30 hours without sleep.

"My first thought was that it was something small. But when I came around the corner, I had to slow down, the smoke was so thick."

Chief White's Chevy Impala, officially Car 61, was just a few seconds ahead of Truck 62, a gargantuan piece of red steel that raised a few eyebrows when the company bought it with Bingo revenue and the town's help in 1989.

"What'd it cost, Whitey?" Chestertown Mayor Elmer E. Horsey asked the fire chief yesterday, after riding the truck's 90-foot ladder in the air for a better view of the destruction.

"Half a million dollars," Chief White replied, with a smirk that expressed his pleasure at being proven right in the fiscal debate of three years ago.

He said that Truck 62 was incomparably more effective in fighting the McCrory's blaze than would have been the 1963 warhorse it replaced.

Mayor Horsey, a crew-cut man of 60, said the destruction of McCrory's threatened to undo more than a decade of work to preserve the town's commercial center in the face of competition from shopping centers burgeoning on the outskirts.

"McCrory's has been an anchor store for downtown," he said.

Local officials will try to persuade McCrory's to reopen in a vacant store, Mayor Horsey said, but the retail chain is in bankruptcy, and company officials were making no promises yesterday.

McCrory's has leased the building since the early 1970s from the heirs of Baurice Fox, who started a five-and-dime around the corner in the 1920s and moved it to the site of a car dealership on the High Street location during World War II, said Hurtt Deringer, editor of the Kent County News.

Many longtime residents still refer to the store, which contained a busy lunch counter, as "Fox's."

The row of stores around McCrory's served in 1985 as a nostalgic, 1940s backdrop for a few scenes in the TV miniseries "Space," based on James Michener's novel on the history of the U.S. space program.

Chestertown was recast in the series as the fictional Eastern Shore town of "Clay."

Mrs. Emerson, the penny-candy customer, stood in the sun yesterday reminiscing about the old days with her sister, Louise McMahan, and brother, Albert Baxter.

They remembered their father's tale of the devastating earlier fire, which they said occurred in 1911, though others in the crowd insisted it was 1910 or 1905.

Everyone agreed that blaze was fought by fire engines transported to Chestertown from Wilmington by train.

"The circus was in town, and our father, who would have been about 13, was coming to see it," Mr. Baxter said.

"But they caught sight of the fire and turned around. His parents took the kids home and then came back to watch the fire themselves. He didn't get to see the circus or the fire."

The circus performance was canceled, and the performers joined in the battle against the blaze, according to local lore.

In fact, Mr. Deringer said, legend has it that while the pump units were still en route from Wilmington, the circus elephants were commandeered to spray water on the flames.

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