It was a heartwarming story: A 200-year-old general store suffers a fire, the owner can’t afford to rebuild it and the town’s historical society steps in to buy the building, hoping to make it the commercial and social hub of town once again.
It really happened. Repairs to the Putney General Store were nearly complete when fire struck again Nov. 1, destroying the post-and-beam landmark.
Now, fire investigators are calling the second fire arson, and the street corner that once symbolized Putney’s will to overcome adversity is now ground zero for second thoughts, suspicion and soul-searching.
“People want to know why, and want to know who?” said Sarah Baker, 38, who runs Putney Books, a small bookstore across the street. “So many people are so devastated at this happening again that there’s a tendency to channel that into something negative. And it’s so not what this town is about. But people just don’t know what to do about it. It’s unfathomable.”
The building, which dates to the late 1700s or early 1800s, had served as a general store since around 1830, a magnet both for locals looking for a cup of coffee and for tourists from nearby Interstate 91 who were searching for a bathroom, a meal, or a little piece of Vermont to take home _ some maple syrup, a block of cheddar, a postcard.
The first fire, in May 2008, damaged the building’s attic, but the cause was never determined. Owner Erhan Oge opted not to rebuild and the Putney Historical Society bought the property, funding the renovation with a combination of private donations, government subsidies and in-kind services.
Everyone, it seemed, was behind the idea that the Putney General Store could rise from the ashes. The historical society was in talks with an established retailer to move in and open it again as a general store. The building had no utilities and was unoccupied when the Nov. 1 fire hit.
By all accounts, it went up like a can of gasoline.
“My living room windows were glowing at 10:20 p.m. that night,” said Karen Covey, 32, a waitress at The Putney Diner who lives across the intersection. “A lot of people were saying it was probably arson, because it went up so fast.”
An investigation by the Vermont State Police, the Massachusetts State Police, the state Division of Fire Safety and two other agencies found that accelerants had been used, and the fire was labeled “intentional and criminal in nature.”
“It was a very obvious conclusion, based on their findings,” said prosecutor Tracy Shriver, who wouldn’t divulge any more detail about the clues Tuesday.
A $15,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the conviction of the person or people responsible.
Shriver wouldn’t say whether authorities will re-examine the circumstances of the 2008 fire.
“I don’t have any specific evidence linking the two. We’re investigating all possible links and connections to determine who did this this time,” she said.
Richard Jacobs, 48, who runs Offerings Jewelry _ part of a building that adjoined the Putney General Store _ seemed more shaken by the news of the arson than by the smoke and water damage his store suffered.
“The general store is the heartbeat of the town. It was a community project. If it was arson, it was an attack on the community,” he said.
Lyssa Papazian, a historic preservation consultant and historical society member who had overseen the renovation, said Tuesday the group hopes to rebuild yet again, even though there’s nothing left of the original structure.
“When something awful happens like this, you start looking for suspicious people and there aren’t any,” Papazian said. “I’ve been closer to this than anyone, and there’s no one who comes to mind. There’s been one or two who have disagreed with how we’re going about this, but they were reasonable. There’s no one I suspect. I can only hope they really can come up with the evidence,” she said.
She said the arson fire casts a pall over the rebuilding effort, though, and may hinder the historical society’s ability to get a new tenant if and when the building rises again.
“Everybody’s saying it’s bad karma over there,” said Covey. “Does somebody not want that store over there?
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