For the town of Randolph, Vt., 1992 will forever mark its “trial by fire.”
“We went from a historic downtown to what looked like a bombed-out war zone,” says David Palmer, one of 4,853 residents who refused to let their town, chartered in 1791 in the heart of Vermont’s green hills, die after three catastrophic blazes.
Randolph’s ordeal began the day after Christmas in 1991, when smoke poured from a brick building housing five shops at one end of Main Street. An onlooker described the blaze as an “erupting volcano.” Though 80 firefighters worked all night in bitter cold, by morning a pile of black rubble, smoldering ruin, and dirty ice stood where a 113-year-old landmark had been.
If there was good news, it was that the town’s row of elegant, three-story brick and wooden buildings had been saved. Built during the heyday of rail and lumber in the late 1800s, Randolph’s downtown was a handsome New England treasure, a mixture of businesses, churches, a school and library, ornate Victorian rail depots, and a restored opera house.
But a month and a day later, another fire consumed a wooden building at the other end of the block. Besides leaving three businesses and 15 residents homeless, it left the downtown with two gaping holes as bookends.
Though both fires eventually were ruled accidental, at the time many wondered if an arsonist was trying to destroy the town.
“It was a terrifying year,” recalls Marjorie Ryerson, a writer, photographer, and teacher who, like Palmer, was galvanized into action by the disasters.
On July 8, 1992, the sound of sirens came again. At The Herald, Randolph’s weekly paper founded in 1874, publisher Dick Drysdale recalls he’d just dropped off the latest edition for printing. With irony, he points out the cover photo—five area fire chiefs being honored at the July 4th parade for their earlier efforts.
This time, it was Randolph’s heart. Though 100 firefighters saved two adjacent buildings, the town’s main department store was gutted and four other businesses damaged. In all, 50 percent of the downtown had gone up in smoke in six months.
“We lost so much of the business community that a lot of people felt this town might go under,” says Ryerson, a diminutive mom whose house is nearby. But within days, the community shook off its despair and began to look to the future.
Putting the town back together became a $12 million jigsaw puzzle that showed the remarkable power of people working together, says Jeff Staudinger, a community development specialist who played a critical role getting key grants for revitalization.
Small, morale-boosting steps came first: gathering with brooms for a “clean sweep” day of the ravaged center; decorating fences around the gutted fire holes at Christmas; hanging schoolchildren’s art around the fire sites. The department store reopened in the fall of 1992 under a temporary “Ag Bag” inflatable dome. Slowly, townspeople began to see opportunity rising from the ashes.
Staudinger figures 15 committees with some 450 people got involved. Improvements to streets and infrastructure were approved. Businesses committed to rebuild in the historic downtown style, despite considerable extra cost. A gazebo and two small parks were created, and Amtrak agreed to make the town a stop.
Feeding off the energy, Randolph voted to build a new elementary school, an old industrial building became a spacious food co-op and gym, and in 2002, a $2.2 million project was completed, creating 20 senior housing units upstairs in a long-disused downtown lynchpin, the 1888 Red Lion Inn.
For Ryerson, the disasters not only revealed a town filled with heroes, but the power of community spirit.
“Randolph is a much more tight-knit, healthy and economically viable community,” she says, “as a result of all the work of bringing her back from the graveyard.”