Century-old flag rekindles memories of local fire

AT 11 AM ON SEPTEMBER 18, 1918, a maid working at the elegant Bash Bish Inn in Copake Falls, stopped in her own room to get something. The inn, owned by famed restaurateur Louis Moquin, was in one of New York state’s most scenic areas, next to the Bash Bish Brook along an old Indian pass of the Taconic Range. It was also just minutes away from a trail that led up to the beautiful Bash Bish Falls, the subject of paintings by Hudson River School painter John Frederick Kensett and many other artists. Of the inn itself, little is recorded, but a document from the Smithsonian Institution noted of one of the inn’s nearby bungalows, “These structures were well suited to country living, for they could be placed on slopes and rugged terrains.

While in her room, the maid whose name was not recorded, knocked over an alcohol lamp and started a fire. Initially she tried to beat it out by herself. Only after becoming severely burned did she finally call out for help, by which time it was too late. The inn was totally destroyed.

This 1953 photo shows the Bash Bish Inn flag circa as it was displayed in the town of Valdese, NC. Photo contributed

On the very same date President Woodrow Wilson urged a joint session of Congress to guarantee women the right to vote. That story, of course, was reported in the nation’s largest newspapers. But understandably the story of the Bash Bish Inn’s fire received only brief mention in a couple of local newspapers. With that brief reporting, for the folks of the Roe Jan area the story ended–or so it appeared. However, this past December, almost a full century later, a North Carolina man named Pierre Dalmas sent a message to my Copake History Facebook page:

“My ‘Grandpere,’ Jean Pierre Auguste Dalmas, was born in Villar Pellice, a small French-speaking community in the Cottian Alps in Italy. Grandpere and his fellow townsmen were Waldensians, members of a Protestant sect founded in the late 12th century. In 1900 Grandpere immigrated to the U.S. and eight years later he was the head waiter at a hotel in Copake in 1918 when a fire broke out. At the last minute, he climbed up on the hotel’s roof and rescued its flag. I was wondering if you can tell us about the fire.”

After a quick search of the Internet I called Pierre. An old newspaper account revealed that fortunately most of the guests were outside at the time the fire began, enjoying the area’s lovely natural beauty. The inn’s staff quickly evacuated those guests who were inside, including a state Supreme Court judge’s wife who, feeling ill, had taken to bed. In the end, the fire did an estimated $200,000 of damage including the guests’ losses.

In the conversation with Pierre it came out that after the fire his grandfather settled in the North Carolina town of Valdese, where Pierre lives. The town had become a haven for Waldensians. His grandfather brought with him the rescued flag, a large, 48-star one, 10’ by 12.’ Sometime after his grandfather settled in North Carolina, he received a letter from his own father back in Italy. An account of Jean Pierre’s heroic act had somehow gotten into an Italian newspaper and his own father wrote to Jean Pierre, “How dare you, the father of five children, to have risked your life for a flag.”

Pierre also mentioned that every year on the 4th of July, Jean Pierre displayed his proudly acquired flag. It had become a great source of pride to the Dalmas family, though a 1953 photo shows that by then the flag was showing its age.

I inquired whether the Dalmas family might consider restoring the flag to the community from which it came. “I’ll bring it up with the family,” he replied. Two weeks later, at Christmastime, he emailed back: “The flag is Copake’s if Copake wants it.”

In the spring of this year, Pierre’s sister Jeanne mailed the flag me and I brought to a textile conservator. The conservator’s detailed eight page report on the work needed to conserve the flag recommends that that the flag not be restored to its original condition but should be conserved so that it remains more authentic but does not deteriorate further. It will never be able to be flown again but could be sewn against a strong cloth backing and attached to a wall with Velcro as a way of displaying it. The total cost will be slightly over $11,000.

Because Jean Dalmas, the flag’s donor, had pledged a thousand dollars for the conservation of the flag, the amount needed to be raised was that much less.

Inspired by the story of the flag, a small group of Roe Jan area citizens is planning to raise funds to have the flag conserved so it can be displayed at appropriate times. They are also attempting to find an appropriate institution to take ownership of the flag. Over the years, in addition to the destruction of the Bash Bish Inn, fire, particularly arson, has wreaked havoc in Copake, including destruction of the town’s much beloved movie theater in the 1990s. The hope is that, as occurred several years ago when townspeople banded together to repair their beloved town clock, the return and conservation of the flag might also serve a rallying point for the town’s revival.

Anyone interested in supporting the effort to bring the hundred-year-old historic Bash Bish Inn flag back home, should email .

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