Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sarah Jordan Boarding House Catches Fire

This posting is about a near historic tragedy concerning this very important boarding house. If you would like to read about this historic home's history, please click HERE, otherwise read on to find how we very nearly lost a very important piece of not only American history but world history as well.
The following is an article that I wrote for the February 2009 newsletter of the Civil War unit I belong to. I did not include the names of the workers as I would like to get their permission first.

On Monday January 5, a fire broke out at the Sarah Jordan Boarding House in Greenfield Village and caused heavy damage to the duplex. Many of the original artifacts have been lost, although most were saved. The cause is suspected to be from some roof /gutter construction. All of us who love visiting the Village – whether as re-enactors or as patrons - have been greatly saddened by this awful occurrence. But, there is a bright side to this as well; fortunately, this 1870 duplex was not burned beyond repair – it will be restored back to its original glory.
A friend of mine who was a presenter at the Village wrote a stirring account of the night of the fire. It was explained how the workers were preparing the Village homes for the winter break when they received a desperate call from a co-worker who saw flames coming from the Sarah Jordan house. They saw all of the firetrucks and police cars hurrying to the fire. I should like to present what was written at this point in a ‘Reader’s Digest condensed version’ here:
“From the Firestone Farm we looked way down the fire lane to the front of the village and saw a lot of people running towards the other end. (Another Village presenter) called me and told me what was going on and said there was a fire at Sarah Jordan Boardinghouse. I asked if there were flames and damage. She said yes, and they were actually having to tear parts of the house off.
I don't think I was prepared for what we saw when we got there. We turned the corner by the carousel, and the whole lane in front of Menlo Park was full of fire trucks, ambulances, Henry Ford security vehicles, and more trucks. There were at least 10 firefighters working on the house. They were tearing off siding and parts of the porch. There were managers, supervisors, and various other people there. Some were standing with tears streaming down their faces. It was hard to watch; seeing something like that literally breaks your heart. We stood there for a long time, just watching more and more damage being done to the house.
They then told us they'd need help getting the artifacts out of the house, and anyone who could stay would be appreciated. There was a gaping hole, so nothing could be
kept inside. It was so amazing to see how many people selflessly gave up whatever plans they may have had to help out when needed. It was hours till all the insurance pictures were taken, and the house was deemed safe by the fire dept.
It was determined that we would get in lines like the old fashioned bucket brigades and take everything one by one out of the house and put it in big trucks. Some would stand outside of the house, and some would head down to the Guild Beer Hall where the artifacts were going to be stored. We headed to the beer hall. By this time, it was about 8 pm, and the fire started around 4:30. There were about 50 people giving up their time to pitch in where needed, no questions asked. How cool to be a part of a big team that believes so much in this institution when it goes through something like this!
Tables were being set up in the beer hall to lay everything out on. First it was everything from the downstairs (of Sarah Jordan’s), so it wasn't damaged much at all. Still, the smell of smoke was overwhelming. Soon we started seeing things with soot and smoke damage. We were to bag everything that was damaged or wet. They would be frozen to stop any further damage before they could be assessed. Every single item that was in that house was brought out, including every hair pin, picture, newspaper, as well as the dressers, bed frames, and big pieces of furniture. Once the truck was unloaded, it would head back to the house, and we would start spreading everything out safely on the tables. Someone would yell, "truck's here!" and we would start over again. This went on for hours. The last truck load was the hardest to see - it had all the items from the room where the blaze started; priceless pieces of history literally gone up in smoke. I should say, however, that many people were surprised by the little damage that was done. The Dearborn Fire Department was amazing in the work they did. They were tossing small artifacts onto the beds and out of the fire to save as many things as they could. It was so cool that they cared about our village like that. One happy thing to mention is that the Lincoln chairs were saved! They are a set of chairs that was sold in a yard sale the Lincolns had before they left Springfield for Washington D.C. and were stored in the Boardinghouse. Someone knew enough to tell the firefighters to get them out asap. Yay!About 10 pm, the last truck had come and our job was done. We were cold, smelled like smoke, and were covered in soot, but I know there was no place we'd rather be. The conservation and exhibits team looked at the tables full of artifacts and knew they had quite a job in front of them! To sum it all up, I'm so thankful no one was hurt, and that the building wasn't completely lost. As hard as it was to see what happened, I'm glad I was able to be a part of this experience that I soon won't forget. Another co-worker summed it up perfectly, ‘History was made and we were all there to help, though sadness lingered throughout.’ "
As you can see, it was quite a dramatic night for all of the workers of Greenfield Village. What they all did to help save one of the most important structures in history – one of the two first buildings ever to be lit by electricity – and its contents was nothing short of heroic, and they deserve our praise and thanks for their efforts on that very frightening night.
GOOD NEWS: The Sarah Jordan Boarding House has been repaired and restored to its former glory and was re-opened in time for the 2009 4th of July celebrations. The only change that I have noticed is the S J highlighted in the wallpaper of an upstairs bedroom is no longer there. Otherwise, to the untrained eye the house looks the same as it did before.



mjw10250 said...

OH my. After I retired from the Wayne County Sheriff's Dept., I worked in security for the Village and Museum for about two years. I am so sorry to see that this fire happened. I was in that building every night to check and make sure all was well.

I really miss it you know. It was a fun job for a retiree.

Historical Ken said...

They did a phenomenal job restoring back to its original state.