Preservationists, town administrators and archaeologists gathered at the edge of the charred pit like mourners at a graveside service. Huge, blackened timbers rested in scattered piles across the stone foundation of the 1820s Williamsville flour mill.
Douglas Perrelli said his team of archaeologists from the University at Buffalo would salvage what it could, but there was no point in sifting for artifacts with a fine-toothed comb.
"It's too far gone," he said.
For some town leaders throughout Erie County, the loss of the historic but neglected Reist Street mill in July drove home an old expression: There but for the grace of God go I.
A Buffalo News survey of the county's major suburban communities shows that local governments own 10 historic buildings that date to the Civil War or earlier. But that list is shrinking because the goals of historic preservation don't always mesh with the priorities of elected leaders who are under political pressure to hold the line on spending in a difficult economy.
"It's just too easy, when you're putting budgets together, to say, 'Hey, we don't have the money for this,' " said City of Tonawanda Mayor Ronald Pilozzi.
Preservationists and other officials hope the Reist Mill arson served as a wake-up call for officials who carelessly hold other deeds to history.
"I think the Reist Mill fire was a painful reminder of what could happen because of inaction," said Williamsville Trustee Jeffrey Kingsley.
The Reist Mill was not the first such building to die from fear of commitment; in Cheektowaga, an old settler's home dating to 1849 burned down in 2006 at the hand of arsonists. Preservationists and town officials had hoped to turn it into professional office space. But for every loss there are stories with happier endings. Community pride, political will and responsible reuse planning in places such as Clarence, Orchard Park and Tonawanda have ensured some historic places will remain for generations.
Six of the 10 buildings cataloged by The News are open to the public and cared for by local historical societies, which have become the front-line guardians of the region's historic treasures.
The buildings include the 1849 former German Evangelical Church in the Town of Tonawanda, which underwent major rehabilitation in 2002; the early 1860s Johnson-Jolls House in Orchard Park, an elegant Victorian that received extensive exterior upgrades in 2006; and the 1825 Goodrich-Landow Log Cabin in Clarence, recently restored by an army of volunteers.
The acquisition of the old log cabin was controversial in the late 1980s, when Clarence leaders debated spending taxpayer money to restore and move the small, primitive structure from its Goodrich Road location to Clarence Town Park.
Now, however, the cabin is such a source of community pride that it's the centerpiece of the town's bicentennial logo. "It's part of our identity as a town," said Alicia Braaten, curator of the town's historical museum.
Because these buildings are tax-supported and expensive to maintain, political leaders sometimes struggle with what to do with them.
That is the case in Williamsville, where the fate of the Water Mill on East Spring Street is uncertain. The 1811 building is one of the oldest standing structures in the entire region.
Village leaders acquired the parcel in 2004 and promised taxpayers that restoration funds would come entirely from outside sources. But that grant money has yet to come through.
The mill and associated buildings need hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, and maybe millions to upgrade the buildings for reuse. It has remained a political hot potato and continues to deteriorate with little public investment.
"If politics was not involved, clearly when you purchase a parcel like this, you would have allocated some money in your budget for preservation purposes," said Kingsley, who heads the Mill Restoration Committee.
John Conlin, editor of Western New York Heritage magazine, said the vacant Reist Mill was vulnerable to loss because it had no reuse plan and no active citizens group dedicated to safeguarding its future. The mill was left with no utilities, no security and no minimum safeguards to better protect it from outside dangers like vandalism, arson or bad weather, he said.
The state owned the mill, but the Town of Amherst was responsible for its upkeep.
According to the town's Planning Department, between $50,000 and $160,000 was earmarked for emergency stabilization of the mill every year for the past four years. But the money was never provided.
Now, instead of spending money to preserve the Reist Mill's legacy, the Town Board has approved $15,000 for cleanup and landfill costs.
"You wonder what are the lessons to be learned," Conlin said. "The thing's gone."
The 1829 Long Homestead, located in a waterfront park in the City of Tonawanda, has survived in city hands for more than 30 years. The restored home is open to the public and has received major infusions of city money over the years.
Yet when a resident suggested turning the house into a restaurant in 2006, the idea that the property would be returned to the tax rolls held some short-lived appeal.
"People are always worried about budgetary issues," said Mayor Pilozzi, "but not to the point where they're willing to give up the Long Homestead and what it means to people."
The former Mennonite Meeting House in Williamsville, owned by the Town of Amherst, has housed the town archives since 1995. But from 2005 through 2008, the human resources agency People Inc. had campaigned to turn it into a public museum on disability history.
When the deal fell through, that left the town with a historic structure boasting multiple roof patches and peeling lead paint. Even so, the building is still used for research and records storage and therefore is in better shape than some other landmarks in town.
It also has advocates.
"This is part of Amherst," said Town Clerk Marjorie Jaeger. "It's part of our heritage, part of our history, and to let it go by the wayside is a waste. We owe it to ourselves to fix it."
The steady loss of vacant structures shows that buildings of the past need a useful purpose in the present to better ensure their survival -- whether that means turning an 1860s West Seneca schoolhouse into a meeting place for local artists, or converting the 1840s home of Ebenezer Society leader Christian Metz into AmeriCorps headquarters in West Seneca.
"My definition of preservation is making the most of what we have, and we should be doing that in every way," Conlin said. "But first, you have to know the value of what we have, and most of the time in preservation, we don't."
Erie County's heritage
10 WNY buildings and that date back to the Civil War or earlier
Mennonite Meeting House, built in 1834, Amherst
Williamsville Water Mill, 1811, Williamsville
Long Homestead, 1829, City of Tonawanda
Town of Tonawanda Historical Society Museum, 1849, Town of Tonawanda
Centennial Art Center, 1860s, Town of Hamburg
Johnson-Jolls House, Early 1860s, Town of Orchard Park
West Seneca Historical Society and Museum, 1842, West Seneca
Christian Metz Home, Early 1840s, West Seneca
Historical Society of the Town of Clarence, Late 1840s, Clarence
Goodrich-Landow Log Cabin, 1825, Clarence