Helen’s Destroyed by Fire

By Ruth Leubecker

Photo by  Phil Roberts

Helen’s Restaurant, venerated dining destination of celebrities and locals alike, was obliterated by flames in the early hours of last Friday morning. “We’re still fighting it,” said Machias Fire Chief Joey Dennison at 4 p.m. that afternoon, after a lengthy emotional night of watching the Machias landmark disappear. “We’ll probably be here another five hours.”

Although by then a controlled burn, lower Main Street continued to be cordoned off by fire and police vehicles, as workers fought to contain the smoldering ruins and prevent onlookers from entering the scene. Up until 6 p.m. wives and other relatives of the firemen occasionally brought food, water and dry clothes to the men who had been fighting the blaze since 2 a.m.

A family operation owned by David and Julie Barker, the restaurant had been operated by family since 1976 when Larry and Helen Mugnai sold the popular eatery to Bob and Joan Carter. In 1983 the Carters moved Helen’s to its present location, handicap-accessibility and parking being the prime motivation. Four years later the Carters built the Machias Motor Inn, running both businesses for a year before selling Helen’s to Gary and Judy Hanscom (David’s mother and Joan’s sister) in June 1988. Several years later the Barkers bought the business to continue a family tradition.

According to the fire department’s log, the fire was reported at 1:50 a.m. by a passerby. Crews from Roque Bluffs, Jonesboro, Machiasport, Marshfield and East Machias joined the Machias team to battle the blaze.

“Everyone did a good job. We really appreciated the help,” said Dennison, who says it was one tough battle, beginning to end.

Over 300,000 gallons of water, not easy to come by, were used to finally bring the fire under control. Helen’s metal roof contained the fire, causing temperatures to reach 900 degrees inside the building. A main hydrant malfunction and low tide (preventing seawater as a secondary source), preceded an effort to truck water from a standpipe near the hospital. The trek to upper Court Street for water revealed a tank that was only half full.

The cause of the fire remains undetermined, according to the Fire Marshall’s Office. “The fire started under the floor,” explained Dennison, who hastens to quell assumptions of faulty wiring. “Old wiring shouldn’t have been active. That’s not the case here.”

Although Route 1 by Helen’s was closed all day, the road was opened at 5 p.m., with the last firemen leaving the scene at 7.

Throughout the day and beyond, many reminisced about the iconic restaurant, so much a part of the lives of so many - and so many generations.

“Wow! The H. Blaine Davis building is gone. For those of you who don’t know, that was the lumberyard that previously occupied that building when Helen’s was up on Main Street,” said Jeff MacLauchlan, 55, from Potomac, Maryland, after reading of the demise of Helen’s online. “I remember going in the old one many times, once to say good-bye to Margaret (Gardner) as we were leaving town. She was a waitress there for awhile.”

“I started coming here in the ‘50s when my parents came for a week of hunting, and then a week of fishing. The only vacations they ever took,” says Sen. Dave Burns, 65. “One of my earliest memories was standing in line outside of Helen’s on Main Street. We moved here in 1965 when my father retired from BIW. I’ve patronized the place ever since, just like all locals. Helen’s has not only fed a lot of locals and travelers over the years, but has supported many families. As a state trooper they fed us after hours on those long nights. The last three owners have been close friends. My kids have worked there. Everybody in the legislature knows about Helen’s!”

“This is a sad day for Washington County. Helen’s has been part of my life since I married a Washington County resident 50 years ago, and we looked forward to going there for the strawberry pie,” reminisced Rep. Joyce Maker. “I wish the Barkers the best and hope they decide to rebuild to make it part of our future.”

“It was a week all about community, starting with tremendous Fourth of July celebrations in many towns,” said Rep. Katherine Cassidy. “Then came the storm, with neighbors helping one another. Then came the Helen’s fire, with outpourings of response and goodwill on remarkable levels.”

Helen’s celebrated 55 years in 2005 with Sen. Susan Collins coming to town to say happy birthday. “Helen’s has always been here for the community,” said Collins, who assisted in recognizing 11 employees who had worked at Helen’s more than five years, and several more more than 20. “I remember the Ice Storm of 1998 when they cooked by generators. And during 9/11 it was Helen’s that put together a benefit for first responders.”

From its humble beginning in 1950, Helen’s was popular. It all began from one small, not-user-friendly, high take-out window dispensing only ice cream. Helen Mugnai eventually decided to try a couple of small tables and chairs outside the window on Main Street. Then the space, once sandwiched between two buildings, took over the building. More tables and chairs appeared. The menu expanded. The business grew, always responsive to customers, whether they were on the scene or simply passing through. It was not uncommon to see Larry “Lunk” Mugnai, short legs a- scurrying, running across the street from the A&P with an armload of porterhouse steaks, because he’d run out and there were customers to be served. Not a sight one would see today; that selection would just be fini; pick another entree.

There were high spots, such as tournament time and the filming of Sunrise at Campobello that brought significant business to Helen’s. Life bestowed Best Blueberry Pie in America, and Margaret Chase Smith dropped in a few times. It didn’t matter if you were Maude Doten or Eleanor Roosevelt, Carl Davis or Ralph Bellamy, somehow everyone found their way to Helen’s.

For pie, for friendly chatter, for the companionable passage of time, or simply for sharing the trials of everyday life.

Helen’s employees, numbering 50 during this peak 2014 summer season, will be offered help during the coming week at the Machias CareerCenter.

Organized by the Rapid Response team of Maine’s Department of Labor, the CareerCenter will be the focal point for offering assistance to Helen’s employees. Staff, in conjunction with the Barkers, will set up informational sessions at the center on Prescott Drive. Further information is also available on the CareerCenter website, or by calling Julie Rabinowitz, 207-621-5009.

So far, with a goal of $20,000, a caring community has contributed over $18,500 for the purpose of showing love and support to Helen’s family.

An earlier goal of $10,000 was met the first day due to the generosity of 252 donors.