History lost; hope remains

GARRETTSVILLE – On the south side of Main Street stands a row of charming three-story brick buildings; their historic storefronts hearken back to the 1800s. One shop’s sign is even complete with the image of a penny farthing.

The north side of the street had mirrored it with tall, mint green and white-sided stores. That is until a fire Saturday reduced the block of 13 businesses to cinders and rubble. Thirty-four departments responded to the blaze about 1 p.m. and spent 10 hours putting it out.

The juxtaposition between the two sides of the street was staggering for those who made a pilgrimage to gawk at the remnants Sunday afternoon.

“It’s just so hard to believe that something that stood for that long, just one fell swoop and it’s all gone,” said Barbara Kolenc.

She and her husband, Joseph Kolenc, of neighboring Hiram, have spent 42 years in the area. Just last week she said he was getting his hair cut at the barber shop that was among those destroyed. She recalled at the visit questioning the structure of the wooden building.

“We lost a lot of history, but nothing in this life is permanent,” she said.

Patrons and business owners were evacuated at the start of the fire, and no one was reported injured beyond a firefighter transported for smoke inhalation. About 6 p.m., crews began pulling items from the stores, including a historic sewing machine, antique clocks from a repair shop and the pole from outside the barber shop. Then the demolition began, allowing firefighters to put out blazes deeper inside the structures.

Rick Collins, 53, of the Garrettsville Fire Department, was one of the firefighters who responded. He continued his guard Sunday near the ruins.

“When I got the call, three of us were out working in the township, and we knew we had something big BIG going on,” he said.

The firefighters worked late into the night ensuring the fire was completely extinguished. The fire’s cause, he said, remains under investigation.

Sherry Quiggle watched the weekend’s events from her restaurant The Pasta House, on the south side of Main Street. From the front window she could see it all.

“It was just horrifying, frightening. Everyone’s dreams they ever had burning to the ground,” she said.

Sunday afternoon, she opened the restaurant to provide free coffee and tea to firefighters and onlookers. Of the fellow business owners she said they are “numb, but determined;” some are already posting on their Facebook pages that they are ready to rebuild.

A vein of resolve and hopefulness ran through the onlookers as well.

“I’d like to say they’ll rebuild, I’d like to say, they’ll need some time” said Russell Oliver from Nelson.

On Thursday, he was also having a haircut at the barber shop on the block. Other businesses lost in the blaze included a theater where it is said both presidents James Garfield and William McKinley spoke, a recently remodeled insurance agency and the local food pantry Nelson Food Cupboard.

“At least that building was lucky,” Daniel Csernik, 9, said pointing to the only brick building among the remains.

He sat on a bench with his father, Rick Csernik, 53, of Boardman, as they viewed what was left of the block. Rick fondly remembered several of the stores.

“It’s unbelievable, for this nice little historic town, it’s almost like a bomb went off,” Csernik said.

Neighboring the rubble is the untouched building that houses the village’s historical society. A sign in the front window reads “history matters” and the current display shows off a set of old fireman’s boots, a worn water bucket and a captain’s hat.

For a village set on saving their history, the loss is large, yet the chatter on Facebook by local businesses and residents has turned already to rebuilding. #Garrettsvillestrong is trending among the locals, several fundraisers are under way and a meeting has been set to walk business owners through insurance claims.

Information on several fundraisers in available online at www.tribtoday.com.