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History torched

Fire at home of Williamsport founder labeled arson

Fire at home of Williamsport founder labeled arson

August 31, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WILLIAMSPORT - Days after volunteers worked on a spirited plan to fix up the log home of Williamsport's founder, a fire said to be intentional shredded the building.

The fire Wednesday morning at the tenant house at 6 Springfield Lane has been ruled arson, Mayor James G. McCleaf II said, citing a state fire marshal.

McCleaf said a fire marshal told him Wednesday afternoon that a fire investigation dog found traces of an accelerant in three spots.

The vacant building's front section might date to around the 1750s, but no one is sure, said Johnna Maravelis, who was helping to set up a living history museum in the building.

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The back addition, which appeared more heavily damaged by the fire, probably was put up in the 1800s, before the Civil War, Maravelis said.

The home, which the town owns, once belonged to Williamsport's founder, Otho Holland Williams.

At about 1:40 a.m. Wednesday, a neighbor found an outside porch on fire, according to a state fire marshal's office press release.

The fire caused about $150,000 worth of damage - just the amount for which the town had the building insured, McCleaf said.

When Maravelis saw the house after the fire, "the tears just started flowing," she said.

Others came to see the damage they had heard about. Councilman Earle S. Pereschuk Sr. drove up as Chris Grimes, the town's park coordinator, chatted with Conococheague Little League President Walter Williams.

Williams said he drives around the ball field and farm property several times a day to keep an eye on everything. He thinks he left about 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, just as a sheriff's deputy was arriving.

Town eyesore

For years, the building - a tenant house when the property was part of Springfield Farm - was considered an unkempt eyesore.

In 2001, the town agreed to have Patricia France live there rent-free for 10 years, if she invested $50,000 in labor and materials.

Four years later, the town forced her to move out after a zoning enforcement memo reported that most of the promised improvements were incomplete or never done.

After a battle that lasted several months and included a hearing in Washington County District Court, France moved out.

The town considered finding another curator, but decided against it when a Williamsport committee asked to set up a living history museum there.

Maravelis said more than 150 people visited the house during Williamsport Days. Money was collected for a new roof, which was the top priority, and other improvements through donations and a flea market, she said.

She said an 8-year-old boy contributed all that he had - $2.53 - and his brother added $5. A total of about $1,000 was collected, McCleaf said.

A group re-enacting the lives of Confederate Civil War soldiers offered to work on the house at no charge.

Others talked about planting an herb garden, taking core samples to figure out the age of the logs and planning other events.

Practically out of nowhere, the drive to restore the building had life and direction.

McCleaf said the town was about to call contractors to start the work.

"We had such big ideas Sunday ...," he said. "You know how you get really excited about something?"

The project had moved up to priority No. 3 on the dry-erase board in Clerk/Treasurer James R. Castle's office.

Now, instead of figuring out renovation costs, McCleaf said, the town council will decide whether the building needs to be torn down.

A representative from the town's insurance company is scheduled to look at the building today, McCleaf said. A structural engineer also has been called in.

"I can't tell you how upsetting it is," McCleaf said.

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