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Some Williamsport residents lost more than a building in blaze

February 04, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Dolly Gray, left, is comforted by her neighbor Nathaniel Flagg as Gray watches her North Conococheague Street apartment and all of her belongings burn Monday morning from a window seat in Flagg's kitchen.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

WILLIAMSPORT — For the past quarter of a century, Dolly Gray lived in a second-floor apartment in a historic building on Williamsport’s Town Square.

That changed Monday morning when a five-alarm fire ripped through the Civil War-era building.

Gray, 89, said she was sleeping when she was roused by the smell of smoke at about 7:30 a.m. She grabbed her coat, purse and medication and fled. Later, she watched through the window of a neighbor’s home as the rest of her belongings were consumed by flames.

“I’m watching all my stuff burn,” Gray said. “I had all my furniture, all my jewelry, everything. All that stuff’s gone. It makes me feel like I’m lost.

As Gray peered through the window, dozens of people gathered outside to watch as the blaze quickly spread to other sections of the building, including a liquor store that formerly was known as Wolfe’s on the Square.

Perhaps no one had more personal memories of the building than sisters Lolly Traver and Sally Drury, whose grandfather, George “Hooper” Wolfe, bought the business in 1921.

“We all worked in it as kids ... I started working in it when I was 10,” said Drury, who lives in Great Cacapon, W.Va.

Traver said she worked there until owner Jack Slick closed the store a couple of years ago.

“We didn’t get into the liquor (business) until after Prohibition,” ended, Traver said.

There was never an excuse not to get to work because they lived in a house that was connected to the store, Traver said.

She still lives in the house and was holding a shopping bag full of belongings that she threw together when firefighters told her to evacuate.

After she got married, Drury lived on the third floor and, after moving out of the area for a time, came back and lived on the second floor.

“It was just always home,” Drury said.

Slick, who is married to another of Wolfe’s granddaughters, Ginny, said he still owns the building, but transferred the liquor license in 2011. The sign out front said L&J Liquors.

The building dates to before the Civil War, Councilwoman and local historian Joan Knode said. Over the centuries it had been the Wabash Hotel and the Taylor Hotel, she said, and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stopped there during the Civil War and tethered his horse, Traveler.

George Hooper Wolfe came to the business after having worked on the C&O Canal and put those experiences into a book, “I Drove Mules on the C&O Canal,” Knode said. A hardware store, lunch counter and fishing and hunting shop have been in the building over the years, she said.

Jack Byers, who owned Byers’ Busy Corner across the street until about six months ago, said the history of the building, in one form or another, might date to the late 18th century.

“That’s a lot of history going up in smoke,” Byers said. His 94-year-old mother, Evelyn, worked there in the 1950s, and he recalled going there as a boy to walk her home at night.

When Wolfe’s closed, Tammy Whitney bought a couple of its old display cases for her business, Williamsport Barber Shop Downtown.

“I purchased the displays because I wanted some of the history of the town,” Whitney said.

“Wolfe’s store was a big part of my youth,” said Washington County Commissioner William McKinley, who lives in Williamsport. “As a boy, I used to spend a lot of time on the river fishing, and I would stop in every morning and talk to old Mr. Hooper Wolfe, who a lot of the old-time residents remember. I’d buy three or four hooks and half a dozen worms,” he said.

“This place really is an institution,” McKinley said.

Staff writer Dan Dearth contributed to this story.

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