DREW PLANTATION, Maine — A Drew Plantation couple is struggling to come to grips with a massive June 8 fire that destroyed their home and toy-making business.
The Smalleys’ home and business were built in a remote part of the state — about 45 miles south of Houlton, on the border of Aroostook and Penobscot counties, and 45 miles north of Lincoln, putting the property smack in the middle of Maine’s remote wilderness — which suited the couple just fine.
But that remoteness cost them dearly, and meant waiting for what seemed like an eternity for volunteer firefighters to come douse the flames.
David and Susan Smalley operated Elves & Angels, where they have made heirloom-quality, wooden toys on their property at 53 Andrews Road for 33 years. But in the early morning hours of June 8, David Smalley woke to the sound of the family dog barking. Sensing something was wrong, he looked out the window and saw flames pouring out of his workshop.
This fire marks the second time the Smalleys’ workshop and home have burned at Drew Plantation. Now the couple hopes to resurrect their business a bit farther north in the greater Houlton area. In order to make that happen, the family wants to buy back some of the pieces they had made and sold so they can be used as templates. All of their existing patterns were lost in the fire.
“The first thing I saw were flames shooting probably 30 to 40 feet into the air out of the workshop,” David Smalley said.
The fire destroyed not only the family business, but also spread to their nearby home and claimed the life of one of their family pets.
The couple tried calling 911 on their landline phone, since cellphone reception can be spotty.
“But the fire started hitting the electrical system, so the phones kept cutting out,” David Smalley said. “Then it got dark when the lights went out. We never really knew if the call actually went through.”
He made his way to the next closest house approximately 1,000 feet away on the dirt road where they lived, seeking help from neighbors, and by the time he returned, the fire had spread to their home, he said.
“It was so surreal,” he said. “The wind was blowing sawdust into the sky, and the flames were igniting it. It was like some kind of war movie.”
The fire’s cause was never determined, and the couple have been living with one of their adult children in Hodgdon.
In 2004, just before Thanksgiving, the family toy-making business and a portion of their home was destroyed the first time. Because of that fire, the family found it practically impossible to get insurance on their rebuilt business and home.
For about 33 years, the Smalleys operated Elves & Angels from their workshop adjacent to their home in Drew Plantation. Prior to retreating to rural Maine, the Smalleys operated their business in Scarborough for about three years, before rising costs forced them out of the area.
“I don’t even remember how we found this place,” Susan Smalley said. “It was before the internet.”
David Smalley said their mortgage was only $300 when they bought the property.
“That certainly helped to get our business off the ground. We got busy very fast,” he said.
Prior to the advent of the internet, the Smalleys sold their products at toy shows and events as far away as New York City. Today their goods are in such high demand, thanks to online orders, that the business turned into a year-round venture.
David Smalley started building toy homes after developing arthritis in his elbows at an early age. Faced with having to reinvent himself, he decided he wanted to stay in the home-building line, only on a much smaller scale.
That’s when Elves & Angels was started. Susan Smalley still recalls the very first piece her husband made. He had crafted a kitchen stove for his daughter Priscilla’s fifth birthday. They wound up naming the piece after their daughter, and most of the pieces in the collection are named for one of their 12 children.
From there, the creations expanded to include wooden castles, dollhouses and even small tables and chairs for children to play with.
“We pride ourselves on making generational toys that can be passed down from one generation to the next,” David Smalley said. “We hear from people all the time who have kitchens that are 25 to 30 years old and are now with grandchildren.”
A GoFundMe page was created by one of the Smalleys’ adult children to help her parents rebuild their business.