NORTH YARMOUTH — Residents are lamenting the loss of Wescustogo Hall, which burned to the ground early Friday after serving as the town’s community center for decades.
“It’s like losing a family member,” said state Rep. Anne Graham of North Yarmouth, who noted that the town was trying to develop a village center around the building.
Investigators still haven’t determined the cause of the fire, but say it started in the left front area of the building, where there were electrical panels, the kitchen, a storage room and an office.
The state Fire Marshal’s Office said Friday afternoon that the severe damage prevented investigators from identifying the cause of the fire, which started just before midnight Thursday. Officials continue to interview residents.
The fire incinerated a building where residents have gathered for community functions for generations. The former Grange hall, which opened in 1959, served as the town’s polling place, a meeting place for Cub Scouts and a venue for contradancing.
In June, town meeting voters approved spending $50,000 to renovate the building and bring it up to modern safety codes, said Ricky Plummer, chief of the town’s volunteer fire department.
Wescustogo Hall was built by members of the Wescustogo Grange over a period of 11 years, and financed through fairs and bean suppers, said Katie Murphy, president of the North Yarmouth Historical Society, citing the 2006 publication “Around North Yarmouth.”
It served as the Grange hall until it was given to the town in 1996.
The hall seated about 150 people and was often rented out for weddings and other private functions.
Cumberland-North Yarmouth community recreation programs were held there, Plummer said.
He said there is no reason to believe that the origin of the fire is suspicious.
A passing driver reported the blaze at 11:57 p.m. Thursday.
Emma-Lee Baldwin, one of two students of fire science at Southern Maine Community College who sleep at the fire station — next to Wescustogo Hall — woke to the sound of her pager.
“I looked outside the window and saw the flames coming out of the front half of the building,” said Baldwin, who is from Avon, Conn., and comes from a family of firefighters.
She made sure the other student was up, and they drove an engine to the road in front of the building and connected it to a hydrant.
At that point, Plummer arrived.
“There was heavy fire coming out all the windows pretty much,” he said. Firefighters started attacking the flames from outside the building.
At one point, a pressure-release valve on a 350-pound propane tank burned off, and the igniting fuel sent flames 100 feet into the air, he said.
Firefighters sprayed water onto the tank to keep it from getting hot enough to explode, he said.
High humidity and intense heat caused some firefighters to suffer heat exhaustion, Plummer said, but they were treated at the scene and resumed fighting the fire.
The fire was brought under control by 1:30 a.m., but at 8 a.m. firefighters were still sifting through the wreckage, looking for smoldering embers that might flare up.
Soon afterward, a large excavator began demolishing the charred skeleton that remained standing.
Investigators believe the fire started on the main floor of the hall because there wasn’t as much damage in the basement, which was closed because of code violations.
Firefighters from Gray, Pownal, Yarmouth, Cumberland and Falmouth helped fight the fire, Plummer said.
The basement could accommodate 350 people, Plummer said, but had been declared off-limits because the exits were inadequate for a building of that size.
The town had hoped to upgrade them.
Several artifacts were destroyed by the fire, including a one-of-a-kind stage curtain that was painted with the names of businesses that helped to pay for it.
On Friday, Dan Panici of North Yarmouth stared thoughtfully at the remains of the building.
He said, “You never think that a building like this is really the glue that brings together people from all walks of life.”
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: