By Judy Wakefield and Dustin Luca'
---- — As flames torched a secluded, but very significant piece of Andover history at the Wood Estate off North Main Street Monday night, one town history buff could only hope the valuable lesson behind the property will never be forgotten.
That lesson means too much to Andover, said Don Robb, a longtime resident and former selectman who is now active with the Andover Historical Society.
“I don’t want people to think that what burned is nothing more than entertainment for the Wood family,” Robb said. “There is so much more.”
Robb wants people to remember that the vacant structure, built in 1867, was once the Poor Wagon Shop, a wagon factory that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and put two leading abolitionists from town on this country’s anti-slavery map.
“They would build wagons with no bottoms so slaves could hide. They (slaves) could go north, get to Canada, because of the wagon shop in Andover,” Robb said.
Ellen Wood, the wife of mill magnate William Wood who is credited with developing Shawsheen Village, purchased the wagon shop in 1900. The couple would eventually move it to the banks of a small pond on their estate and turn it into Arden Casino, a performing arts-type venue for plays, dances and family celebration.
“It’s a tragedy in a sense of the loss of history,” Karen Herman, chairwoman of the Andover Preservation Commission, said of the building’s demise.
Over the years, the Wood family estate has been passed down through generations, eventually landing with Wood’s grandson, the late Cornelius Ayer Wood Jr., whose widow, Rosalyn, still occupies the main estate house.
Herman said Rosalyn Wood has been very mindful of William Wood’s legacy and the “sense of the history of place” that his entire estate represents to the town. In recent years, much of that property has been given to the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit conservation organization that preserves land, nature and historic places in Massachusetts.
Wood and her family have been benefactors for many local programs and causes, giving millions to the Andover-North Andover YMCA expansion, the new Andover Youth Center and Esperanza Academy in Lawrence over the years.
“We’re lucky to have had someone like that in Andover,” Herman said of Rosalyn Wood.
Susan Grabski, executive director of the Lawrence History Center who grew up in Andover, recalled learning about William Wood when she was in sixth grade at Shawsheen School. She said Poor’s Wagon Shop was “as important as the mill, the stories, the history of the people and part of the landscape.”
“Hearing the stories and looking at the house was fascinating,” she said. “That industrial legacy was still here, and he was the only mill owner still represented in the area.”
Grabski said her heart sank when she learned about the fire.
“It’s a significant loss because it was a living link to the past; it’s catastrophic,” she said.
— Staff writer Yadira Betances contributed to this report.