Priscilla and her younger sister Betty were swimming in the Sedgeunkedunk Stream when they heard hollering from their grandparents’ dairy farm up the road. As they ran up the hill to the farm, they saw the smoke — and then the flames.
It was Aug. 28, 1940, and East Orrington didn’t have a fire department. By the time the Brewer fire trucks reached the farm, the milk room was a lost cause and firefighters had to subdue the flames before they reached the adjoining main house of the Crook Dairy Farm (then owned by Milo and Ida Crook). Priscilla and Betty, then 9 and 7 years old, stood in sopping-wet bathing suits and watched with terror as neighbors caught possessions being thrown from the windows.
Among the many people at the scene was renowned painter Waldo Peirce, who had followed fire trucks in hopes to capture the action. When he was done translating the event onto canvas, including the sisters in their bathing suits, he packed up his art supplies and left the farm, unnoticed by the frantic Crook family.
On Tuesday, Aug. 9, more than 70 years later, descendants of the Crook family traveled to the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland to view the painting, “Fire at East Orrington,” for the first time.
Only two people painted into the scene are alive to tell the tale. Priscilla Washburn, 80, lives just a few doors down from her sister Betty Renaud, 78, at a retirement home in Brewer.
“I remember kicking and digging in the dirt,” said Priscilla.
She and Betty had stood in the vegetable garden as the flames licked the sky, squirming their toes in the soil and screaming and crying, she recalls.
“Most everything we did was on the farm,” explained Betty, who lived just up the road with Priscilla, her older brother, Jack, her mother, Elizabeth and father, Athelbert.
Hired help Timothy Bishop was in the milk room cleaning bottles when a fire broke out around the chimney. The sisters heard him yelling to his brother, Bob, who was tending the horses nearby.
A Bangor Daily News article published Aug. 28, 1940, relayed that “Mrs. Crook [Ida] and her daughter, Dorothy, were attending a farm bureau meeting, and Mr. Crook [Milo] and his son, Athelbert, were at the latter’s home piling wood.”
The Bangor Daily News was accurate, save for one small detail, which the sisters would like to set straight.
The article states that during the fire, “Mrs. Crook noticed she had lost a valuable diamond ring from her finger. A few minutes later, a small boy brought her the ring, which he had found in the front lawn.”
It was 8-year-old Gene McHale who found the ring. Gene, a friend of Betty and Priscilla, was mortified when she saw that the paper had called her a boy.
The fire consumed the milk room, kitchen, ell and the porch where the summer help would often sleep, sheltered by vines. Firefighters and neighbors stopped the blaze before it razed the main house.
“I can remember as a kid, the milk bottles were melted,” said Betty.
After the fire, her grandparents and the farm workers moved to the vestry of the nearby East Orrington Congregational Church, where they hung blankets for privacy and waited for months while the milk room and kitchen were rebuilt. The girls visited their grandparents at the vestry that Christmas to exchange gifts and listen to programs on the radio. Neighboring diary farmers offered their milk rooms for putting up their milk.
By the time the rooms were rebuilt, the sisters were old enough to work in the new milk room and help with deliveries. Their father, who had always been fire conscious, became the fire chief of the new Orrington fire department.
It wasn’t until several years later that Jack Crook, the sisters’ older brother, spotted an image of Peirce’s “Fire at East Orrington” in a magazine and recognized the burning house as the Crook Dairy Farm. A short investigation led him to the Farnsworth Art Museum, which currently has 11 paintings and 10 works on paper by Peirce.
The museum gave the Crook family a negative of the painting, which they made into several framed copies that continue to circulate throughout the family.
“Fire at East Orrington” is fairly accurate. To the left, a row of three girls wearing bathing suits stand, watching the fire as people run around the house, jumping over the hoses snaking across the lawn. Betty, identifiable by her blond hair, stands between Priscilla and her friend in the bottom-left corner.
“He put an extra window in there,” said Priscilla, pointing at the right window of the house.
The Crook property in Orrington was extensive, and the sisters remember their father owning land on Brewer Lake Road, Johnson Mill Road and Fowler Road. He sold the farm in the late ’60s. It burned two additional times before the farmhouse was torn down. The Crook Meadow Subdivision is now located on a piece of the family’s former land.
The sisters have no explanation why their family never visited the Farnsworth to see the original painting before, besides that time passes quickly.
“My daughter [Cathy Buck] was the one, in particular, who wanted to see it,” said Betty. “So we figured we’d do it this year.”
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 9, 12 members of the family met at the Farnsworth to view the original 27-inch-by 40-inch oil painting, which is much larger than Betty had expected it to be. The curatorial staff brought it out of storage so the family could have 30 minutes with the painting, a relic of family history.
“About time,” said Priscilla, laughing with her sister at her home in Brewer. “How many years has it been?”
For information about the Farnsworth Art Museum at 16 Museum St. in Rockland, visit farnsworthmuseum.org or call 596-6457.