March 29, 2020
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Maine man struggles to recover after watching his historic home burn

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Johnnie Walker waves a seltzer can toward the empty lot in Woolwich where his house used to stand. The historic building, formerly known as Sebenoa Hall, burned down last fall.

WOOLWICH, Maine — On Sept. 24, 2018, John Walker stood outside his home in the historic Sebenoa Hall that once held fairs, suppers and dances, and watched it burn to the ground.

As Walker stood outside the burning structure that day, he watched his life go up in flames. But he could never have imagined the following eight months would bring even more heartache as he struggled to clean up the property and comply with town ordinances.

After several neighbors complained that the condition of the property violated a town ordinance giving a landowner 60 days from a fire to remove the ‘ruins,” Woolwich Codes Enforcement Officer Bruce Engert sent Walker a letter in December 2018 ordering him to comply.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Woolwich resident Johnnie Walker stands at the empty lot on Hall Road where his house used to stand. It burned to the ground last fall.

Walker spent $65,000 and bought an excavator, determined to do the work himself. Retired from the U.S. Navy after 20 years, he had worked as a handyman for a local resident, but quit his job to focus on his property.

“My life was buried there,” he said.

Walker spent two days on his hands and knees in the ashes near the bedroom where he and his wife, Jerri, slept.

Courtesy of Johnnie Walker
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker
Flames engulf the former Sebenoa Hall in Woolwich last fall. At the time it burned, it was the home of Johnnie Walker. Since then, walker has had a tough time meeting site cleanup regulations put forth by the town.

“I found my wife’s engagement ring and wedding band — I bought it right out of high school,” he said. “We just cried on the phone.”

Walker lived in a camper on a neighbor’s lot across the street. In December, when his mother, who has Parkinson’s disease, fell, Walker’s wife Jerri went to help.

“I told her the town has all this pressure on me,” he said. “We wanted to keep the property here because we thought this was a good town.”

Courtesy of Johnnie Walker
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker
Johnnie Walker of Woolwich snapped this photo of his wife's engagement ring. Walker found it last fall while rooting in the rubble of his burned home.

In March, the Planning Board and Board of Selectmen granted him another 60 days to finish removing the debris. The extension required that the work be completed by May 31.

Town Administrator Kim Dalton said Friday that Engert and Selectman Dale Chadbourne visited the property on Tuesday and found Walker “had most of it picked up.”

Walker said Friday that he received a verbal OK from Engert on Thursday, and that the entire property was covered, seeded and mulched.

Courtesy of Johnnie Walker
Courtesy of Johnnie Walker
A pile of charred remains were all that was left when fire brought down the home of Johnnie Walker in Woolwich last fall. The historic building used to be known as Sebenoa Hall.

“I told him that from my perspective, it looked appropriate, but that nothing would be official until the selectboard gave their seal of approval, and then I would incorporate their opinion in a written approval or disapproval depending on what the selectboard felt,” Engert said.

Engert said it’s hard to understand what took Walker so long to complete “something that could have been done, without any question, within a week,” but that Walker chose to do the work himself rather than hire someone, and perhaps spent time looking for personal belongings. In addition, rain and snow throughout the fall, winter and spring didn’t help.

“At this point I think it will probably be resolved satisfactorily to all parties involved in accordance with ordinance,” Engert said.

Courtesy of the Woolwich Historical Society
Courtesy of the Woolwich Historical Society
Woolwich's Sebenoa Hall is seen in this undated historical photo. The hall became a private residence around 1947 and burned to the ground last September.

On Monday, prior to the Board of Selectmen meeting, selectmen will visit the property and then address the issue at their regular meeting, Dalton said.

But Walker said the stress from cleaning up the property — and from dealing with the town — has caused chest pains.

“My stress has been overwhelming because of the pressure of the town on top of losing my whole life, everything I’ve worked for,” Walker said. “I bought a $65,000 piece of equipment to take care of cleaning my property. What would happen if a man only had a shovel? What would he do? Nobody needs this pressure. I was working every day I could to take care of my business.”

 


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