I might never have met Elroy Gregory had it not been for the terrible fire that destroyed his old house the morning of March 22. Nearly 50 firefighters from Sebago, Naples, Bridgton, Standish, Baldwin, and Casco fought unsuccessfully to save the weathered old farmhouse, the only home that Elroy has ever known. In the aftermath of the fire I have met and talked with Elroy a couple of times amid the rubble of his home as plans are made to rebuild.
Elroy lost nearly everything in the fire. A lifetime of family treasures, pictures - everything was wiped out in a few hours. Home was a special place for Elroy. I have been told that Elroy had spent only two nights in his life away from his family home until the fire. He is 76 years old.
The farm has been in the Gregory family since his grandfather bought it about 100 years ago. Elroy doesn't remember when that was but he points proudly to the date over the barn door. "That barn was built in 1912 by my grandfather Albert and father Vernie" he proudly told me. "The house was here before then."
His brother Donald told me that the original house was a small, one story affair. Their grandfather added a rear section, a second story, and an attached shed out back. This was done sometime before the barn was built. It was a fine old place with lots of rooms. All that remains of the farmhouse now are the split granite foundation and the shed.
When you talk with Elroy his quiet Yankee strength comes through. His character is as solid as the Maine granite boulders on the Gregory farm. This strength, along with the support of his family and friends, is allowing him to deal with the tragedy.
Elroy was not insured. His financial loss was great, but the emotional impact to him must be staggering. It is hard to tell, because Elroy is not one to whine about what life has dealt him - he just deals with it as best he can.
I looked at an old yearbook from Potter Academy, Sebago's high school for many years. In the 1945 edition of "The Wreath" Elroy was a sophomore and was voted "most bashful boy" by the student body. His description read:
And is never, never bad."
He graduated from Potter Academy in 1947. While his younger brother Donald and sister Eleanor went on to become teachers, Elroy elected to stay home and work in the woods and on the farm with his father. Elroy's older brother John was in the Army and was killed in World War II.
Like the Potter Academy sophomore, Elroy is still shy and has been content to live his life on his own. As far as I know he never married. He keeps to himself, but he is not a recluse. He is sharp as a tack and when you get him talking he is full of tales about Sebago and the people he has known over the years. He remembers going to school with Richard Howard and Dot Davis who used to own the farmhouse where we live.
Over the years he has cut and hauled logs for the local sawmills. Every year he cuts and splits 10 cords of firewood to heat his home. This active outdoor life has helped keep him fit and he doesn't look his 76 years.
Everyone I know has a yarn to tell about Elroy or his family, always complementary, like the time his father Vernie pulled a fellow out of Sebago Lake when they were cutting ice. Vernie just reached out and plucked the fellow from the water effortlessly with one hand. "My dad was real strong" Elroy told me. "Once he picked up a boulder as big as a pig like it was nothing at all." Elroy added "We'd all cut ice during Christmas holidays and store the blocks of ice in the icehouse next to the barn. We'd sell it to the summer folks. I remember when the war ended there was a big crowd of people here after ice for their celebration drinks."
I have heard that during the depression it was the logs that Vernie Gregory cut and hauled to a local sawmill that kept it in business. There was no money to pay for the logs until much later, and because of Vernie's kindness to a neighbor in need the mill has bought logs from the Gregory family for years, even when they weren't buying from other loggers.
Elroy is independent and resourceful showing traits he must have picked up from his father. Elroy is one of that breed of quiet Maine Yankees who believes in taking care of yourself and taking responsibility for what you do. That breed, unfortunately, seems to be dieing out.
Elroy is unassuming almost to a fault. When his house caught on fire he battled in vain to put out the flames by himself until a neighbor saw the smoke and told him to call the fire department. "I didn't want to bother the fire department" Elroy said, "I was afraid that one of those boys might get hurt!" That concern is not something you run into very often.
After a lifetime of doing for himself it is now Elroy's turn to allow the community to help him. The outpouring of financial support and offers of services and supplies have been overwhelming. Within a month there will be a "house raising" and Elroy will have a completely new house where the old farmhouse stood. Donations can be made in care of the Gregory Fire Fund c/o the Sebago Community Fire Company, PO Box 179, Sebago, ME 04029. FMI contact Firefighter Bruce Knowlton at 642-5045 .
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on April 8, 2004 under the title "Community rallies around resident who lost home in fire".