By Terry Rogers
On May 30, 2003, around 3 PM, a fire began in an apartment over Wilkins Fuel & Appliances, believed to have been caused by an unattended candle. The fire soon spread to neighboring apartments and businesses. By the next afternoon, seven businesses, a storefront church and three apartments in the center of town had been destroyed.
More than 200 firefighters battled the blaze that was fast moving. The buildings destroyed were historic, many had been standing on Walnut Street for over 100 years. A woman, who lived in the apartment where the fire started, was injured and six firefighters treated for minor heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation. The woman was rescued by employees of the hardware store. According to fire officials, crumbling walls and collapsing roofs made ti difficult to reach interior structures where the fire raged. The old buildings contained paper, books and cardboard boxes that had been stored for long periods, adding to the combustible materials that fed the fire.
“It’s just so old, and the fire load is too big,” Charlie Vanaman , then chief of Carlisle Fire Company, said in an interview with Firehouse Magazine at the time of the blaze. “This is probably one of the oldest sections in town.” Lloyd Golt, who helped rescue the injured woman, said that the flames came across so quickly, “it was unbelievable. It was like the wall wasn’t even there.”
Then-Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who is a native of Milford, joined many of the spectators watching the blaze. Governor Minner wore a Carlisle Fire Company jacket and helmet as she surveyed the scene, water from fire hoses spraying her as she watched. While watching, she recalled that the store that now houses Coolspring Cottage was the Acme Store when she was a child. At the time of the fire, the store was a secondhand bookstore called “Secondhand Prose.”
The roof of the Delaware Music School caved in during the fire and Wilkins Fuel and Appliances was completely gutted, along with buildings on either side. Smoke filled the entire downtown area as far as North Walnut Street near Walnut Knoll.
Although the fire was devastating to the downtown area it was actually the catalyst for improving the downtown area which had fallen into disrepair over the years. With shopping centers on DuPont Highway attracting shoppers, stores in the downtown area began to close and buildings were not maintained as well.
A year later, hammers and saws echoed through the downtown area as crews worked to repair the $3 million in damages caused by the fire. The building next to Wiley’s was eventually torn down as it was beyond repair and the Wiley building was renovated. Today, the building houses Georgia House who uses the vacant area next to the restaurant as an outdoor patio. Milford Tavern, that was heavily damaged by the fire, was also renovated. The owner, Rich Hoomans, displays items saved after the fire along a shelf above the bar.
Through the efforts of Downtown Milford Inc., the area damaged by fire is now vibrant and growing. Businesses like Petite Sweets have moved into the area while other businesses rebuilt and remain there, like the Delaware Music School.