Scouts unveil grave markers for 1945 Auburn fire victims

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LEWISTON — It took only a month for Auburn’s Cub Scout Pack 111 to raise money for a special project remembering the victims of a 1945 fire that killed one adult and 16 children. It took longer to make sure they had all the names right before they set them in stone.

On Saturday, the Scouts showed off new grave markers at St. Peter’s Cemetery to a handful of brothers, sisters and cousins of the dead, along with one man who had escaped that fire.

Then, they left for Evergreen Cemetery in Auburn to clear brush and dig the hole for the grave marker for the last fire victim.

“I’m very proud of them, they really got into it,” said Cameron Hartley, a Cub Scout dad and the project’s organizer. “At first I was a little unsure this would be a great project for boys that young, but it really turned out well.”

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All 17 victims died in the Lacoste Babies Home fire on Jan. 31, 1945, in Auburn. Lacoste was a boarding house and day care center used by mothers who were working in local mills while the children’s fathers were off fighting in World War II. The fire started with an explosion in the kitchen at dawn, according to news reports at the time. Only seven people made it out alive.

The 16 children ranged in age from 3 months to 5 years.

Hartley, who as a teenager discovered his infant aunt had died in that fire, said 14 of the victims were buried at St. Peter’s, half in unmarked graves.

To raise money for 10 grave markers and a bronze plaque with all of the victims’ names, Scouts sold cotton candy and went door to door for a bottle drive.

“It didn’t really hit me until we started doing the bottle drive that so many people remembered,” said Thomas Brann, 12.

They raised $2,500. Hartley said markers were ordered through the Fortin Group at a steep discount. 

He did a lot of the background research, checking cemetery burial records and death certificates. In a few cases, the parents hadn’t been married. In others, babies were in the process of being adopted.

“We did have to reach out to some relatives,” Hartley said. “We felt pretty good in the end. The few that we weren’t sure about, the family said, ‘That’s how we want it,’ so it worked out great.”

Five rectangular markers were laid at St. Peter’s next to six existing fire victims’ markers. Another marker for Rosa Cote, who worked at the home, and her 5-year-old son, Robert, was placed in another part of the cemetery.

Markers were also laid at Evergreen Cemetery, Mt. Hope Cemetery in Lewiston and Mt. Hope Cemetery in Bangor. 

A formal public ceremony is planned on the 70th anniversary of the fire on Jan. 31 inside a mausoleum at St. Peter’s.

Brann said he heard a few thank-yous to the Scouts Saturday morning. 

“I think it’s important to remember to honor the people who died that night, especially the adult and other kids who were trying to save the babies,” he said. “I’m going to remember this the rest of my life and love that I did this.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com 

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