Squirrel Island Historical Society

My Memories' of the August 1965 Fete Ball and Casino Fire

By Florrie Munat

For a few days in August. 1965 when I was eighteen years old, my parents and I visited the Wyman family at their cottage on Squirrel Island. My mother (Carol Bourne Howe) and Marion ("Mande") Gilman Wyman had met at a Chicago playground when they were three-year-olds, having arrived there in perambulators pushed by their English governesses. My father (Edward Cole Howe) and Tom Wyman had met as freshmen at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, and subsequently were fraternity (Theta Delta Chi) brothers at Cornell University and co-workers at Western Electric Company in Chicago in the late 1920s and early 30s, The foursome remained fast friends. throughout their lives.

In the days preceding the Fele Ball, I accompanied Ted Wyman to a cottage where other teenagers were preparing decorations for the big dance. The theme that year was "Winter." I recall Clare Coey and Eleanor Edwards being there, among others. We constructed two four-foot high squirrels (a male and a female) out of chicken wire and filled in the spaces with crepe paper streamers or some other material. I believe we dressed the squirrels in winter apparel, with the female squirrel wearing a ratty fur coat, and the male sporting a worn fedora and woolen scarf.

On the night of the Fete Ball, "our" squirrels sat in a small sleigh on the Casino's stage. There may have been some cotton batting (meant to resemble, snow) surrounding the sleigh, We'd also placed evergreen garlands on the windowsills, and I believe greenery lay on the tables as well.

The dance was a great successs.

Late in the afternoon of following day, Tom and Marion asked their next door neighbor, Stewart Coey, if he might show them and my parents the Ball decorations because none of them had attended the dance. Stewart was happy to do so. I'm not sure what his position was, whether on SIVC or anotha group, but he had a key to the Casino. Some of the Wyman kids and I went with them to view our handiwork one last time because the decorations were to be taken down the next day. After a viewing, I have a memory of Mr. Coey going to the Casino's fuse box and telling us that he was turning off the main electrical switch. We all watched him do so.

We left and started lea up the hill to the Coey and Wyman cottages. I don't think we had reached home before a siren began to wail. Most of us ran back down to the field and saw the Casino in flames. Thus began a long night or firefighting, waiting for the Coast Guard, and patrolling the island for new fires started by wind-carried sparks from the Casino and burning branches from nearby trees.

I was quickly informed that I was expected to do something to help. So I and many others carried books our of the Davenport Library, while some young men climbed onto the library roof and began dousing it with water from a hose. We dumped armload after armload of books unceremoniously in the field. The thought, of course, was that the fire would spread to the library and it would go up in flames as well.

My mother, who had a heart condition, was ordered by Tom Wyman not to do anything physical. So she stood on the sidewalk near the Thomas cottage and snapped photos with her Zeiss Ikon camera, capturing some of the terrifyingly high flames that emanated from the Casino. [I donated these slides to the SI Historical Society years ago, and they may now be part of the Marvin Hicks Collection.]

It was evident early on - even to me, who had never witnessed a large fire - that the Casino was beyond saving. Watching it burn was frightening. I could feel the intense heat from many feet away. As I edged closer to it. the heat became a scorching, impenetrable Wall.

I recall heating that the Coast Guard had arrived at the Nellie Dock, but its hose was too short to reach the field. They maneuvered to another spot, perhaps Indian Beach. I'm not sure if their hoses had any effect. However, it seemed that every islander who could walk was there. Many had metal tanks of water ("Indian tanks") with sadly short hoses strapped to their backs. No one could get near the Casino, but many with these tanks doused fires in the grasses of the field and nearby areas. Everyone was engaged in firefighting. Eventually. I think the fire more or less burned itself out. I don't think there was much wind that day, which probably saved the island.

Brave souls stayed up all night to ensure that fires did not spread to other parts of the island. The next morning, acrid smoke hung in the air, a scary reminder of what had happened the day before. But we were grateful for what had not happened.

If there are theories as to how the fire started. I am unaware of them. I do know that the power had been turned off before the fire started. But once the fire got going, there were plenty of evergreen boughs inside the Casino to fuel it. Not to mention the building's wooden construction.

My parents and I departed Squirrel Island a few days later. On my only previous visit in 1961. I'd been in a sailing incident during which our boat capsized between Squirrel and Southport. A lobsterman saw us bobbing in the water, hauled us into his boat, and towed the sailboat back to Spring Cove.

I like to say that my first two visits to Squirrel Island were my "Trials by Water and Fire." As an adult. I've never had an experience on Squirrel Island that came close to the two "trials" I experienced during my teenage years. I will never forget the Casino Fire and will be always grateful that it was contained that day, thanks to the efforts of many islanders.

NB: These memories are mine and as such, as subject to the vagaries of time. That is. they could be erroneous. But this account is shat I remember of those days in 1965. FM