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September 08, 2000 Alabama/Alabama's Home on the Net

Alabama/The Mobile News
In Burnt Corn, historic treasures go up in smoke, and arson is suspected

Register Staff Reporter

BURNT CORN - Oppressive heat hangs in the air but cool breezes steal through from deep lush forests along the Old Federal Road. Cicadas buzz in nearby trees as birds call and crows caw.

It could be any summer day, but for the smell of charred heart pine and the sickening sight of twisted tin and blackened rubble where a historical treasure stood for 170 years.

"It's like a death in the family," said Kathy McCoy, Monroe County Heritage Museums director. One of the five houses burned in the last week in a string of possible arson fires was the Betts-Nash House, an old stagecoach stop that was to be added to the museum's property in coming months.

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Investigators are trying to determine if all the fires were deliberately set. Monroe County Sheriff Tom Tate said he believes at least some were.

"There is evidence of possible arson," Tate said. "The large number of fires at the same time lead us to investigate as though arson was a dominate factor."

Several of the homes burned were more than a century old. The Betts-Nash House was the last of its architectural style left in the state. The fires come just a year after a rash of similar fires in the area claimed other historical treasures.

"The people of Conecuh and Monroe counties work so hard to preserve these places - for some it's their life's work," McCoy said. "So much is destroyed by accident. For these to have been intentionally destroyed is so senseless."

Pines and fruit trees nearby were left blackened by the heat of the blaze, their leaves brown and withered against the green forest around them.

People looked as they passed on the old road, then shook their heads. Most are angry about the fires and angry that they have to live their lives "on guard" against vandalism and violence.

They remember the suspicious fires last summer, and they remember a field littered with 30 deer carcasses shot during the night and left to rot about the same time as those burnings.

Some residents declined to talk with the Register. They said they believed the outside attention would only make matters worse, if that could be possible. With precious little industry left along the Old Federal Road known as the "Gateway to the West," people here cling proudly to their past. Some hope tourism will help their town regain its frontier prominence.

"I sure hated to hear it," said Ray Welch who runs the Lowery Trust Store near where the Betts-Nash house burned. "I came over here when they called and told me about the fire. We were watching them put water on it when we saw the sky was lit up across the way. They had another one burning. We had people from everywhere who came to Burnt Corn to look at that house."

The Hawthorne House in Belleville was home to Alamo hero William Barrett Travis' uncle. During the Civil War, Confederate veterans would stop by the house to eat and rest. The chimney bore the names of Confederates who had etched their names into the bricks.

Tate said his officers, the state fire marshal and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation are combing through the rubble of the old homes and stepping up patrols at other sites in the wake of the fires. Dozens of citizens have joined patrols guarding against further losses.

Built in 1901, the English House at the edge of Monroeville, which burned Sunday, "could have been a showplace" according to neighbor Joe Hornady.

Now crumbling beams and lonely chimneys are all that remain standing of the old farmhouse.

"It had 10-inch cedar boards in the attic where they would store their winter clothes," Hornady said Friday, almost a week after the blaze. He described the people who lived there, even the width of the boards in the hardwood floors. "If it had been fully restored, it would have been the showplace of Monroeville.

"There are so many of these old places burning now. I can't understand it. People's minds who do this are not like everyone else's. And the Betts House. Who in the world would have a reason to burn something like that?"

Hornady said he saw the fire explode from the center of the English place just as the fire trucks were pulling up. Underbrush and a tall hedge blocks the view of the house from his place just a few dozen yards away.

Monroeville police Officer F.E. Wells was the first to arrive at the English House after a city resident called authorities to report a house fire.

"We could see people standing across the street crying," Wells said, recalling the night of the fire. "It's hard to prove who's responsible, but it's a shame to lose places like this. It's made people more aware of things. They are watching now. They've had 30 or more every night watching places now. I'll be glad when this is over."

© 2000 Mobile Register. Used with permission.

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