Famous Fires In Newfield History

view from burdge HillThe photograph above shows a view of Newfield from Burdge Hill around 1890.

The Fire of 1875

In the 1850s, business was finally coming to Newfield. However, on June 17th, 1875 a disaster struck. At 5 a.m., a fire broke out on Main Street in the building housing Farrington Bros. and Company. The wind helped to aid in the fire's destruction. Blowing from the west, the wind spread flames throughout the building. The fire then spread east to a hotel occupied by J. Stamp, as well as to a number of other stores to the west. Because there was no fire department in Newfield, help from the Ithaca Fire Department was required. However, the Ithaca Fire Department was not informed of the fire until around 7 a.m. Help took even longer to arrive, because no horses were sent to the station to pull the equipment from Depot Road to the village of Newfield. A Mr. Sunderlin of Farrington Bros. and Company organized a band of workers, who covered nearby houses with carpets drenched by water to protect them from the fire. For a while, it was feared that the nearby Presbyterian Church, as well as the session house on South Street, would catch fire, but luckily the flames remained more on the south end. The fire was dying away by the time the Ithaca firemen and their equipment reached Main Street. The firemen could have arrived earlier, but when they arrived at Newfield Station there were no men meeting them to help haul the fire engine up the hill. Because of this delay, the firemen and their equipment did not arrive to the fire until around 9 o'clock. In the end, there was 80,000 dollars worth of damage to twenty buildings, which included 15 businesses. Many records of the town, including information on the Newfield Covered Bridge, were lost. The total insurance covered only $17,000 worth of the damage. It was suspected the fire was set to cover up a burglary of the Farrington Brothers and Company safe two days earlier. But, even with a reward of $500, as well as a description of the men, no one was ever caught or held accountable.


The Baptist Church fire of 1917

At the time, the Newfield Baptist Church building was one of the oldest in the county. The fire in the church began slowly, started by an overheated furnace in the basement. The fire itself was not overwhelming, smoldering for a while in the basement before catching completely on fire. However, the lack of efficient fire fighting equipment significantly increased the damage done. Witnesses of the fire said that it burned for about and hour, leaving plenty of time to put the fire out, but no help arrived from Ithaca until well after the fire had burned out. Help from the Ithaca Fire Department would have perhaps arrived sooner, but there was no obligation for their fire equipment to go beyond the city limits. In their defense, members of the Ithaca Fire Department said that the news of the fire did not arrive to Chief Reilly (the head of the Ithaca Fire Department) until almost 4 o'clock. The church later was able to purchase a new building on Bank Street called the Shirley Hotel. This building was consequently torn down and a replacement church was built in 1918.
The First Baptist Church was built in in 1842.          The First Baptist Church burning during the fire of 1917.

The Fire of 1925

On May 18th 1925, fire again struck the businesses in Newfield. DeWitt Payne's blacksmith shop caught fire, which was discovered by Payne when he returned from his dinner that night. Though help was called, Newfield's small two-wheeled chemical engine was not able to stop the blaze. This fire then spread to the Stevens' residence, as well as the residencies of Mrs. Emma King and Miss Jessie Dean who lived in near by buildings. The apartment house owned by John Underdown also caught on fire as well as the livery stable owned by DeMont Anderson. The heat from the fire was so hot that it was nearly impossible to get near the buildings to stop the fire, and it also made it difficult to protect the buildings near the fire. Firemen from Ithaca also arrived to help, but were unable to do much good due to the heat, though they did stay and tried to prevent the flames from spreading. Coroner W.A Smith's residency, 500 feet away was also destroyed, while a barn owned by John Rose also caught fire; however, a blacksmith's shop, which was located next to the Covered Bridge, survived.

The Fire of 1926

On August 28th 1926, another fire occurred, destroying the Dudley building, while also injuring Newfield resident Fred Johnson. This fire began in a cellar of the Hankinson Store, discovered by J.L. Goldsmith around 4 o'clock. The Hankinson Store was located on the west side of Main Street in a three-story brick block. Help soon arrived from the No.2 Fire Company as well as the Odessa Fire Department. The Odessa Fire Department provided a pumper engine to aid in containing and putting out the fire. However, by the time help had arrived, the fire had already gotten a good start, making it difficult for firefighters to fight the fire. Very few items were saved from the fire because of the intense heat. A store, an Opera House, and Masonic Lodge rooms were included among the list of destroyed business's and buildings. In addition, two smaller buildings were also destroyed. The cause of the fire was never determined and the damage totaled an estimated 50,000 dollars. After the fire, much criticism was given to the Ithaca Fire fighters for simply aiding the Odessa Firefighters rather than using their own equipment to help fight the fire. The Ithaca Firemen responded, stating that they were told that they would be able to place their engine near a creek to pump water, so an engine was sent down to Newfield. However, when they arrived there was no place to get water to the engine, and the water from the creek was almost impossible to get because of the weight of the engine and there was not enough water in the creek to use in the 650 gallon pump.

This blacksmith shop was next to the covered bridge. It survived the fire of 1925.

The Dudley building burned in 1926. The Dudley building is the tall brick building shown near the center of the photo.


The Methodist Church Fire of 1946

Lee Braihard first noticed the fire from his near by home. The fire was centered around a draft flue at the back of the church, and by the time help arrived there was little firefighters could do because the fire was so out of control. Brick walls were the only part of the church left standing after the fire had been put out. The inside of the church burned quickly, because it was finished in chestnut. The fire had been started by a furnace in the church, which had been left on to keep the church warm for the Epwoth League Youth Services meeting later that day. Almost all of the church furnishings were destroyed in the fire, and the cost to rebuild the church totaled 25,000 dollars. This fire was an odd coincidence, seeming that just 14 days earlier on January 27th, the church at Trumbull's Corners was destroyed by fire. The Methodist Church was later torn down and rebuilt. The Methodist Episcopal Church combined with the First Christian Church to create the Trumbull's Community Church.

The photos above show the First Methodist Church after the fire and before.

The Fire of 1959

On May 8th, 1959, a fire started in the used furniture building, which then spread to two other buildings. The exact cause of the fire was unknown, though it was speculated that perhaps a cigarette or faulty wiring could have been the cause. Fire fighters had a lucky break when fighting the fire; the wind was extremely calm that day, making it easy to fight the fire. Fire fighters from 4 communities, including Newfield, Ithaca, West Danby, and Enfield were able to put out the fire. Newfield's Fire Chief Roy Payne estimated the loss at "maybe $25,000" perhaps a little more. Luckily, the buildings were partly insured. While fighting the fire, a major concern was preventing the fire from spreading to a near by two-story brick building. During the fire, a large oil storage leak exploded, feeding the fire. Fire destroyed three buildings in all. James Hornbrook, a resident of Bank St. around midnight, first discovered it. The fire was located on the corner of Shaffer Road and Main Street. Three buildings in total were burned to the ground. Luckily, many buildings including Town Hall and the Village Library survived untouched. Unfortunately, the Town Hall and the Village Library, as well as a number of other buildings, were destroyed by fire almost ten years later on September 19th, 1969.


The brick building in this picture burned in the fire of 1969.
The building housed the Newfield Town Hall and the Public Library.

The Fire of 1969

September 19th, 1969. At 2:30 a.m. fire broke out in Newfield, doing damage to the Town Hall as well as the local library. Ithaca and Newfield firemen worked 3 hours to stop the fire, and consequently were praised for their efforts by Newfield's Town Supervisor, William M. Ostrander. It was felt that perhaps had the nearby fire hydrant been connected and operational, many of the buildings destroyed could have been saved. The fire destroyed five buildings in all. A lack of water and electrical wires in the hoses as well as the low temperature of 34 degrees also hindered firefighters efforts. Newfield's new water system had not been in operation the day of the fire, causing firemen to have to run hoses 500 yards northeast of Main Street to get enough water to fight the fire with. The fire was believed to have started in a restaurant occupying one of the buildings. Thirteen people were evacuated from the fire, and no cause was found on the start of the fire. Fortunately many rare books from the Newfield Public Library's collection were saved. These rare books are now available on microfilm. An unofficial estimate of damage caused by the fire was 50,000 dollars.

Other Fires in Newfield

Upper Mill, built in 1830 and located on Main Street, burned down in 1918.
Guests and staff pose for the camera in this photo of Burdge Hill Manor. Burdge Manor, located on Burdge Hill Road off of Route 13, was a popular hotel for people to stay at when visiting Newfield. It was quite popular when it was in existence, and even attracted people from New York City. It was later destroyed and never rebuilt.


Content provided by Jenny Harbert
(Black & white photos courtesy of the Newfield Historical Society)


Articles from the Ithaca Journal on microfilm at Cornell University's Olin Library provided nearly all of the information about the fires. The articles came from these issues of the Ithaca Journal: February 19, 1917 "Might Have Saved Newfield Church By Prompt Work"; May 18, 1925 ; August 28, 1926 "$50,000 Fire Loss at Newfield"; May 8, 1959 "Fire Destroys 3 Buildings in Newfield's Main Section"; September 19, 1969 "Five Newfield Buildings Are Destroyed By Fire"; September 20, 1969 "Newfield Cleans Up From Fire."

A hand copied account of a newspaper article dated June 17, 1875 giving the details of the "Great Fire in Newfield." This copy is from the village files at the Newfield Historical Society.