By Bill Kirk and Dustin Luca
---- — Ice-covered rubble is all that remains of a nearly 150-year-old structure that held a significant link to the country’s history.
The old Poor’s Wagon Shop that once manufactured wagons with false bottoms to smuggle slaves out of the South and into freedom all but burned to the ground Monday night in what officials — and its owner — are calling a “suspicious” fire.
The unoccupied, 2 1/2-story structure — which took on a second life in the 20th century as Arden Casino on the grounds of the historic, 63-acre Wood Estate at 276 No. Main St. — had been burning for a while when firefighters, returning from another call, noticed smoke hanging low over the road around 7 p.m.
They soon found the source — flames shooting out the front windows of the wood-shingled structure, which overlooks Poor’s Pond. The remote location and snow-covered driveways leading to the building hampered the response, but eventually up to 60 first-responders were on hand to knock down the blaze.
The fire seemed mostly extinguished by around 8 p.m., but continued smoldering and then flared up again an hour later, collapsing the roof and leaving the interior covered in debris and coated with ice.
Now the hard work begins.
While responding to the fire itself was a challenge, Fire Chief Mike Mansfield said sifting through the rubble to find the cause will be an even greater challenge.
The investigation is being handled by several agencies, including the Andover Police Department, Massachusetts State Police and the state fire marshal’s office. Aiding them in the investigation is the state Department of Fire Services rehab unit, which has provided a mobile work site — a converted Winnebago — for conducting interviews and allowing investigators to warm up after working the scene in frigid temperatures, Mansfield said.
While the cold and ice are obstacles, another hurdle is that the building collapsed, helping to conceal and protect hot spots, extending the department’s need to douse the blaze, according to Mansfield.
The task now becomes picking up the pieces, literally.
“You have to take layers of the building off of others,” he said. “You’re de-layering the floors of the building as you’re looking for clues as to the cause and origin.”
Plus, the fire had a good head start before firefighters arrived, damaging or destroying much of the contents of the structure before suppression efforts could begin.
Monday night, Rosalyn Wood, 75, who lives in a mansion on the estate, was comforted by friends and neighbors as she leaned against the front bumper of a fire truck, watching the blaze devour the historic building.
“I’m quite upset,” Wood said, adding that she thinks the fire was purposely set. “There’s no way it could start itself. I think somebody did it. We have had break-ins there over the years. Someone deliberately put a fire in the building. I guess the Fire Department will have to check that out.”
Mansfield said Monday it was too early to say whether the fire was set. But he added that with no utilities in the structure, “it increases your suspicions.”
Mansfield said he was sorry to see the building go.
“This whole area has seen a lot of history,” he said. “It’s a loss to the entire community.”
`Throwback in time’
Built in 1867, the structure was one of the few pre-industrial buildings left standing in Andover. Originally located in what was known as Frye Village, the precursor to Shawsheen Village, it was bought by the Wood family following the closure of the wagon and blacksmith business and relocated to their estate in 1900.
Thomas Childs, owner of Childs Design and Construction, has taken on several renovation and restoration projects for Wood on the estate over the last three years.
Working on Arden Casino was not one of them, he said.
Childs said he walked into it only once, but what he saw inside was enough to leave a lasting impression. The interior harkened to the building’s use as a theater and entertainment venue for William Wood’s employees in Shawsheen Village.
“The stage was still intact. The curtains were still there, and I think there were some playbills still on the floor,” Childs said. “They just closed it up after a performance and never used it again.
“It was a throwback in time.”
In the years since, the windows had been boarded up. Entrances were padlocked, and the building fell into a perpetual state of disrepair, according to Childs.
“Part of the roof was caving in, and it was structurally unstable,” he said. “It probably would have needed razing. I had had some discussions with Rose about it, but no course of action was ever decided on.”
Rosalyn Wood agreed the building was in very poor condition.
“It was derelict,” she said Monday night. “It was going to be a tear-down anyway.”
While Wood still owns the 63-acre estate, she entered into a conservation restriction with the Trustees of Reservations about six years ago for 55 acres of the property. Under the restriction, the land can never be developed.
It is believed that the buildings on the property are still owned by Wood.