Memories, but no people, hurt as VanPatten homestead burns on Friday

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Firefighters work from overhead as an old, charred Guilderland home near 84 Lumber is sprayed with water into the evening Sept. 4.

GUILDERLAND — History went up in flames on Friday.

A mid-19th-Century farmhouse, at 4773 Western Turnpike in rural Guilderland, caught on fire.

No one was hurt but the residents lost all their worldly goods. Two people set up campaigns to raise funds for the fire survivors.

Sheryl LaFlash set up a GoFundMe page to help her sister and her family who lived in the now-burned house.

“My sister Breea, along with other family members, lost everything they have in a house fire,” LaFlash wrote. “She was lucky to make it out at all. She was not able to grab anything but her purse and is in need of clothes, toiletries and bedding.”

Anthony Fitzgerald set up a GoFundMe page for his father and sister.

“My Father, Peter Fitzgerald and little sister Anna Fitzgerald have lost everything they owned today. From their clothes to their furniture, it’s all gone,” wrote Anthony Fitzgerald. “Everyone was fortunate enough to get out safe thanks to a good friend (Joe Stone) who happened to be at his storage unit. We appreciate all the help and support everyone has given on such a horrific day. If anyone would like to donate and help my dad and sister get back on their feet, it would mean the world to all of us.”

On Friday afternoon, a call came in for a porch fire, said Christopher Dvorscak, the fire chief for the Guilderland Center Fire Department. 

Billows of smoke could be seen from the Guilderland Town Hall, two miles east.

No one was hurt, Dvorscak said. He wasn’t sure if anyone was in the building at the time of the fire but when firefighters arrived, there was one person on the scene, he said.

By evening, the two-story clapboard house looked like a gutted shell. Firefighters were spraying down the roofline from an aerial truck and from the ground.

The structure seems like a total loss but that needs to be assessed, Dvorscak said. He also said he was grateful for all of the neighboring volunteer fire departments that came to the scene to help.



Chris VanPatten of Duanesburg has fond memories of growing up in the farmhouse. This was before 84 Lumber was built nearby and before Route 20 was widened, he said.

A century ago, in 1920, his grandfather, Emerson VanPatten, bought the property, which at the time included about 50 acres and several Dutch barns across the street, he said.

Chris VanPatten’s father, also named Emerson, grew up there, and after World War II brought his bride to the family homestead.

 Elizabeth and Emerson Van Patten met while both of them served in the Army Air Corps in San Francisco during the war.

Elizabeth, who was raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, enlisted when she was 17. She met Emerson, who wanted to be a pilot, after he suffered an ear injury during shooting practice and so ended up serving in a telegraph office, which Elizabeth supervised.

Chris Van Patten was raised in the homestead along with his three brothers and two sisters. When he was young, he and his brother slept in one room, in bunk beds.

His fondest memories are of the many family gatherings at the house. His mother’s relatives from Brooklyn would visit in the warm months and everyone gathered for birthdays and Christmas celebrations, he said.

One particular Christmas celebration stands out in Chris VanPatten’s memory.

“My oldest brother Emerson III — J.J. is his nickname — was in the Army during the Vietnam war,” he recalled. “One year, we kept the Christmas tree up until his scheduled return back to the States until August. We actually had to get another tree because the one we tried to keep up had no needles at all by around May.”

Chris VanPatten’s grandfather, a handyman, continued to live in the house and liked preparing his meals in “Pa’s kitchen.” Elizabeth VanPatten prepared meals for everyone in a separate, larger kitchen.

“There were five or six bedrooms,” recalled VanPatten. “The house all flowed together.”

There was a big garden and his father, who worked in car sales, and his grandfather “got very big into Shetland ponies,” VanPatten said.

The family leased most of the acreage to the Knaggs brothers, farmers who lived nearby and grew alfalfa and corn in the fields across the street from the farmhouse.

Chris VanPatten moved out of the family homestead in 1985, shortly before he got married, he said.

That same year, Elizabeth and Emerson VanPatten sold the property across the street to James and Joyce Besha who are building a vineyard there, Chris VanPatten said.

Five years ago, after his mother died, Chris VanPatten said, the remaining property, with the house, was sold to Metro Movers. Storage units were built behind the house and VanPatten believes a manager lived in the farmhouse.

“Among the six siblings, no one had the money to improve or maintain the property,” said Van Patten. “It was hard to sell.”

— Marcello Iaia contributed reporting from the fire scene with comments from Chief Christopher Dvorscak.


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