H.C. Lester Home | Henry County, Martinsville, VA

Fire Levels Old H.C. Lester Property At corner Of Lester And Main Streets
February 25, 1946
30 Roomers At Boarding House Lose Most All Their Personal Property and Belongings

Three large chimneys were all that remained standing today after a disastrous fire which destroyed the large rooming house known as "Girls' Dormitory" at the corner of Lester and Main streets early this morning, wiping out one of Martinsville's oldest and best-built landmarks.

Burned with the building were most of the household goods and personal property of the 30 persons who roomed there. The place was owned by Rives S. Brown and operated for the last several years as a rooming house by Mrs. Doris Millikan.

Some of the roomers were forced to escape the burning building by descending ladders from the porch roof above the first floor, but firemen said these people could have made their exit by using the stairs had they not tried to save their property. No one was hurt but Mrs. Millikan was taken to Shackelford hospital for the night. She was suffering from shock.

When the firemen answered the call to the house at 2:50 a.m. they found a fierce blaze raging in the viciniy of the kitchen, which was in the rear, eastern end of the building which fronted on Lester street. A stiff wind was blowing and swept the fire into a roaring mass with large sparks from the shingled roof carrying as far east as Starling avenue. Since the fire was quickly beyond control, firemen concentrated on saving adjacent property. Streams of water were poured on the Rives theatre and Kroger Grocery Co. roofs.

Homes Endangered
A number of homes were endangered by the sparks, particularly those of J.C. Kearfott, Miss Flora Whittle, the Keesee homeplace and the residence of Mrs. G.A. Brown and others. Firemen patrolled the area constantly and in some instances owners used garden hoses to sprinkle their homes. These efforts prevented the blaze from spreading.

Two service stations more than a block away were also threatened.

The building, which was erected before the turn of the century, was made of excellent hard pine lumber. Between two wooden walls was a layer of thick brick, firemen said, which made it difficult to extinguish the flames. But the firemen added that the blaze made such swift headway and burned so fiercely they could not have controlled it even if it had been of ordinary construction.

When erected by Henry C. Lester, the house was reported the finest in Martinsville. It contained 22 rooms. John R. Smith said that, if his recollection is correct, the home was built by Mr. Lester when he first moved to Martinsville around 1885. Mr. Lester was a farmer, sawmiller and tobacconist.

Lester hired George Pearson, a contractor from England to build the house, which was also noted for its fancy gables. On the Lester side of the street is brick well and an iron gate which is reminiscent of English homes. These are still standing since they were several yards from the place where the house stood and the wind was blowing from east to west.

Many Left Homeless
This brick wall once extended from the home to Church street and around the property where the Union Bus station and Rives theatre and Kroger store now stand. It was torn down when the present owner, Mr. Brown, decided to .... [end of clipping]

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On hearing the screams of other occupants of the boarding house, she had paused only to grab a chenille housecoat, and, luckily, on second thought her fur coat.

Less fortunate was barefoot James Murphy, of Rocky Mount, who came to Martinsville three months ago to work for W.M. Bassett Furniture Co.

"I heard the women downstairs screaming," he said, "and my first thought on being awakened was that someone was being robbed or something."

"Without stopping to get my shoes," he continued, "I rushed down to the second floor. (The house contained three floors.) The smoke was boiling up, so I knew the house was burning. Someone's little boy had been left behind, so I carried him out and then started back to try saving some of my clothes and to see if anyone else was left inside. But it was too late. The fire was in the halls, and I couldn't get through."

Miss Irene Hall, of Axton, a 21 year old employee of the DuPont plant, said she was awakened only a few minutes before 3 a.m.

"When I heard the word 'fire', I grabbed my coat and ran down to the second floor. There was a lot of smoke already in the hall, but I was able to get out before the flames got to the front of the house."

Likewise, Van Hoy, 31, an employee of the W.A. Brown Plastering Co. of Staunton, said he had time only to get on some clothes and run.

Research of old fire deparatment records by Fire Chief Jerry W. Brock reveals:
Date of the fire: February 25, 1946
Time: 2:50 a.m.
Location: 22 Lester Street
Used 1000 feet of 2 and 1/2 inch firehose and 300 feet of 1 and 1/2 inch firehose
13 firement responded.

Article submitted by James "Nubby" Coleman, 2011

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