BANGOR, Maine — Although all that remains of the family homestead is a burned-out shell, members of 81-year-old Norris Nealley’s family were able to find several treasured family mementos in the rubble.
Nealley’s nearly 200-year-old home was destroyed in a fire that began Wednesday night in the chimney and then spread up the walls to the attic and roof. Despite efforts of area fire crews, the house at 10 Croxford Road, just off the Kennebec Road, could not be saved.
According to Nealley’s nephew David Getchell and sister Joyce Clark, Getchell’s former wife, Karen Getchell, and friend Pat Rideout saw smoke coming from the house while driving by and stopped to investigate. They wound up pulling Nealley out of the home.
Nealley, whose eyesight is failing, was disoriented by the smoke and likely would not have made it out on his own, Clark said Wednesday night.
Family members called it a miracle that Nealley got out of the house unharmed. Getchell said that had another three minutes passed, the outcome would have been tragic.
After the ashes cooled on Thursday, Nealley’s nephews David and Tim Getchell, and Karen Getchell returned to the house to salvage what remained. What they found surprised them.
“It was absolutely amazing. You know when a hurricane hits, how one house will be totally destroyed and the one next door doesn’t even have its mailbox opened? That’s what the fire did,” David Getchell said Thursday.
Despite heavy fire damage throughout the house, they found unscathed a box of family photos, some dating as far back as the 1880s, when the family operated Nealley Studios. The collection of photographs, many of them printed on tin, includes a portrait of former Maine Gov. Percival Baxter, Getchell said.
Also found undamaged were Nealley’s birth certificate from 1929, the Getchells’ great-grandmother’s silverware set, and family Bibles from the 1930s.
“We even found our grandfather’s old teamster’s coat,” Getchell said, adding that the coat was stored in the basement in a thick cardboard wardrobe.
“The roof fell right on top of it and millions of gallons of water fell right on top of it, but it didn’t even smell like smoke,” Getchell said, adding that despite the loss of the house, the family is grateful that Nealley got out unharmed.
“There was no loss of life, no loss of pets, so we’re all good,” he said.
According to Amos Kimball of Newburgh, a historic architectural and antiquarian consultant, Nealley’s house was built around 1816 — three years before Newburgh, then known as Plantation No. 2, First Range, was incorporated. Kennebec Road was Kennebec Path at that time, an unpaved trail serving as a travel route between the Penobscot and Kennebec rivers.
“It was one of the oldest landmarks in the town,” Kimball said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Kimball said the house, built in the traditional Cape Cod style, originally belonged to the Croxford family, for whom the road it sits along is named.
“The construction, of course, would have been of hand-hewn timber,” he said, adding that the house originally would have had a large central chimney.
It then was acquired by the Porter Luskin family and later by Fred and Emma Johnston who lived there until Norris Nealley’s parents, Millard and Edith Nealley, bought it.
Kimball said Nealley’s house was one of perhaps half a dozen of its age still standing in Newburgh.
David Getchell said he and his brother, who lost their father at a young age, spent much of their childhood years living in the house. He said he considered his Uncle Norris a mentor.
Come spring, Getchell said, what remains of the house will be razed and a new, smaller house will be built for Nealley.
In the meantime, Nealley will live with him at his house, around the corner on Kennebec Road, Getchell said. Getchell said he is happy to have Nealley with him.
“He’s my buddy,” Getchell said. Despite his advanced age and declining eyesight, he said, Nealley remains strong, stubborn and independent.
“Last year,” Getchell said, “he put up 12 cords of firewood by himself.”