Squirrel Island Historical Society


By Clare Newbury

My father, Stewart Coey, always thought he had inadvertently caused the Casino fire. He had a key to the Casino because he was the dance teacher at that time. He took over when Emily Warren retired from her long stint as the island dance instructor.

Mrs. Warren had taught ballroom dancing to young children - the box step, rudimentary to the waltz and foxtrot, and several versions of the polka. I can still hear her voice calling out: "Heel, toe, heel, toe, slide, slide, slide, slide. She also had us play musical chairs and magic carpet, in which we marched around the dance floor in a circle, passing across an oriental throw rug laid for the purpose. Whoever was on the carpet when the music stopped was "Out", and had to sit down. The last person remaining received a small prize, sometimes a gift certificate for an ice cream cone from Grants' store. I remember Marion Wyman playing the piano to provide the music for Mrs. Warren's dance classes, but I don't remember who played the music before she did.

My dad taught the many steps of the waltz and foxtrot to teenagers, along with the rumba, cha-cha, and lindy. The music for those classes consisted of records played on an old phonograph machine.

The very front of the stage in the Casino had a channel with sunken light sockets in it containing a number of light bulbs as part of the stage lighting. The bulbs that were used to fill the channel sockets were the same as the street light bulbs, and were much brighter than necessary or desirable, so the bulbs had been removed from every other socket, rather than using lower wattage bulbs.

My father always worried about the empty sockets being both a fire hazard and a shock danger if anyone ever stuck their finger into one of them. I remember him warning me never to stick anything, especially anything metal into those sockets. He had suggested to the superintendent and at least one member of the Board of Overseers putting lower wattage bulbs into all the sockets instead of leaving any of them empty, but his advice was never taken, possibly because no one wanted to have to buy light for that purpose when they could just continue using the existing street light bulbs.

Patricia Strong was in charge of the Fete Ball decorations the summer of 1965 - a winter scene - and she had enlisted the help of the island teenagers. We had a good time and stayed out of trouble while working on a scene that consisted of a plywood sleigh, built by my father, with large stuffed effigies of a squirrel couple that I created riding in it, surrounded by many evergreen boughs and small spruce trees on the stage. We spread cotton quilt batting around to look like snow. The entire ceiling of the casino featured several hundred paper snowflakes dangling from the cross rafters on threads.

Late on the Sunday afternoon after the Fete Ball the Marion and Tom Wyman and their house guests, the Howes, wanted to see the decorations, so my dad escorted them to the Casino and turned on the electric power so they could take in the full effect. After the viewing, he turned the power back off. It had been on for somewhere between five and ten minutes.

They had barely reached our cottage and gone inside to have a cocktail when the siren went off. We all rushed outside, and saw the smoke and flames emanating from the Casino. It seemed to have literally burst into flames. It was thought that when the fire reached the oak dance floor, the many layers of wax that had been applied to it over the years caused the fire to engulf the whole floor very rapidly.

There were a number of theories as to how that fire started. Marvin Hicks was sure it involved an arsonist from the mainland. Others thought it might have been a smoldering cigarette from a Ladies' Imps meeting that Sunday morning, possibly igniting some alcohol soaked napkins left on the side porch from the dance clean-up.

Stewart's theory was that dry spruce needles and twigs, or possibly a piece of cotton batting, had fallen into one or more of the empty light sockets at the front of the stage during those few minutes the power was on to show off the decorations, and had caught fire. He figured some sparks had popped out onto the dance floor, causing the waxed surface to ignite. No one was ever able to convince him otherwise.

Everyone turned out to help fight the fire, and to carry the books out of the library. The plaster map of the island, in its glass case, was also carried out by four men, each holding a corner. The map cracked and almost broke in half in the process. It was subsequently repaired and replaced in the library which did not catch fire, but the scar of the crack remains visible across the map.

Frank Farrington and Peter Wyman climbed up onto the library roof with fire hoses and watered the building down, which may have contributed to saving it from burning. The Ross/Scovelle cottage was badly scorched on the side facing the Casino, but it too was saved by people squirting water on the insides of the kitchen and dining room walls, and upstairs walls on that side of the cottage, since it was too hot to get near the outside walls. Much of the furniture was taken out of that cottage while the Casino was burning.

Two days later, after the site had cooled down, although there were still little puffs of smoke rising in spots, some of us were poking through the rubble. Stewart kept a metal doorknob as a souvenir. I have no idea what ever became of it. Ted Wyman found the remains of his melted trombone, and my brother, Peter, found one of the cymbals from his drum set, twisted from the heat almost beyond recognition. There was much glass that had been melted into bizarre looking shapes. I kept some of the pieces for many years.