Contributing Writer

WOOD RIVER JUNCTION – 

It was May 2, 1922. In just two weeks, Marion (Enos) Perkins would be celebrating the first birthday of her son Robert, the youngest of her three children. 

Twenty-four-year-old Marion was the wife of William Franklin Perkins, a sawmill lumberman. The family had resided in South Kingstown before just recently relocating to a two-family tenement house in Wood River Junction.

The Perkins family lived on the second floor of the tenement house while the ground floor was taken up by 30-year-old Nathan Alfred Collins Jr., a grocer at a general store, his wife and children. 

That afternoon, Marion’s three-year-old son and two-year-old daughter approached her and asked if they might have some toothpicks. Obligingly, she told them where the toothpicks were.

The two children then left the house and entered the barn on the back part of the property. What they had taken from the house was not toothpicks, however, but matches.

Before long, Marion heard her daughter loudly crying. She followed the sound out to the barn and, when she went inside, saw a fire was blazing. The little girl’s clothing had become accidentally caught on something inside the structure and she couldn’t pull herself free.

Marion ran inside and pulled loose her daughter’s clothing. Her son, William Jr., was further back in the barn and the flames between them were quickly becoming so thick, there was no way she could reach him.

Helpless and hysterical, Marion could nothing as, just minutes later, the entire structure was violently aflame. Sparks, carried on the wind, traveled halfway to Carolina, where they landed and ignited brush fires. The Richmond fire truck sped out to the scene to help quell the burning grassland. But the tenement house barn was a total loss.

Once the inferno had been reduced to ash, William Jr. was found lying face-down in a far corner, unrecognizable. It was believed that, while playing with the matches, he had set his own clothing on fire and, in a panic, ran further into the barn rather than out of it. He was laid to rest in Fernwood Cemetery in South Kingstown.

William Sr. and Marion are also buried in Fernwood. Its noted that three young children are buried with them, although they are not named. While we know for certain that one is William Jr., it can be surmised that one of the other two might be the little girl who was in the barn with him that day. While she survived the fire, no mention of her is ever seen again in family records.

At the time of the fire, Nathan Collins, his wife Norma (Matteson) and their children were not home. The horrific event must have felt like a recurring nightmare for Nathan. His little brother, Raymond, had accidentally hanged himself in a Wood River Junction barn, thirteen years earlier.  

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