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Downtown Garrettsville was changed forever Saturday afternoon as a massive fire leveled a block of businesses on Main Street including a 160-year-old village landmark that recently was the focus of a revitalization effort.
Thirteen businesses located in three buildings on the north side of Main Street -- spanning the entire block between High and Center streets -- were destroyed in the village of 2,000 residents, located in northern Portage County about 13 miles northeast of Ravenna.
Mayor Rick Patrick said there were no deaths or serious injuries in the blaze, which broke out shortly after 1 p.m. and burned for several hours as firefighters fought to contain it. One firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation, Patrick said hours after the fire, but "from what I heard he's doing OK."
The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Patrick said the Portage County Fire Investigation Unit and the State Fire Marshal's Office will be investigating.
An estimate on the monetary damages wasn't available. Fire crews remained at the scene late Saturday.
Firefighters and equipment from more than 30 fire departments in Portage, Geauga and Trumbull counties responded. Tankers shuttled water to the scene for fire crews after the village water system apparently was overwhelmed.
Clouds of smoke billowing in the downtown were visible several miles away. A large crowd of spectators gathered as the flames consumed the structures. Many took photos and captured the collapse of the three-story frame building dating to the 1850s that had housed Irwin Hardware for nearly 50 years until it closed about a decade ago.
"In recent years, this is the worst fire we've had," said Hiram Fire Chief Byers, who was at the scene Saturday. "It is a great loss."
"There were people on Main Street crying. They're upset. It's really a sad day," Patrick said.
Witnesses said the fire started around 1 p.m. with smoke coming from the back corner of the buildings.
Sherry Quiggle, manager of The Pasta House at 8126 Main St., said flames were coming out the front of the buildings 10 minutes after the fire started. Business owners and workers were led out of the buildings before the fire spread.
Destroyed, according to Patrick and other witnesses, were Chic and Shabby Resale; Shaker Tree; Miller Lawn & Garden; New Hearing; Shiffer Clock Repair; The Barber of G'ville; T&B Tools; One Real Peach, a home decor shop; Foot and Ankle Center; and the law offices of attorneys Dan Timmons, S. Kim Kohli and Robert E. Mishler.
Stephanie Dietelbach, owner of One Real Peach, watched as her store burned to the ground before her eyes.
"This is not just a job," she said. "We loved this place. It is a part of your soul."
Shaker Tree posted a Facebook status update late Saturday:
"Devastating day. Shaker Tree has burnt to the ground. Not sure what the future holds."
As the blaze grew, downtown Garrettsville was packed with onlookers standing behind yellow caution tape.
Among them were Meghan Hoofring and Cara Tompot, Hiram College seniors. "We're here all the time," Tompot said. "I used to buy Christmas gifts at Shaker Tree."
Some of the businesses destroyed in the fire has just recently opened as part of Garrettsville Ventures LLC and developer Mike Maschek's plans for the 160-year-old former Irwin Hardware building at the corner of Main and Center streets.
Patrick said the village bought the building three or four years ago following years of vacancy and neglect, then sold it to Maschek, who began renovating it in 2012.
Maschek "put all the money into it, new siding and windows, made it look like it did, made it real nice," Patrick said. The developer also lost an office in the blaze.
The Nelson Garrettsville Community Cupboard, a local food bank, reportedly lost everything. Clients may call the Center of Hope in Ravenna at 330-297-5454 until the pantry rebuilds, according to Anne Marie Mann-Noble, director of emergency outreach services for Family & Community Services Inc.
The former hardware store was housed in a building known as the Buckeye Block in the 19th Century. Its upper floor included the Buckeye Hall, which once housed a 400-seat auditiorium.
Garrettsville Curtains Up Theatre had plans for Buckeye Hall, which once hosted a speech by James A. Garfield before his presidency, according to Jackie Rinearson. The theatre group was "so, so close" to making the hall its home at the time of the fire, she said.
"We were working with the state to obtain money, and had an investor we were working with to renovate the hall and use it for our theater, live music acts, entertainment and musicians to bring live music and art to Garrettsville," Rinearson said. "I just have absolutely no idea what we're going to do. The businesses have insurance ... but the Buckeye Hall had nothing, and you can't replace that history."
Even as the buildings burned, residents of the town came together to help those trying to save their livelihoods and history.
Assisting Garrettsville-Freedom-Nelson firefighters were firefighters from the Portage County communities of Atwater, Aurora, Charlestown, Deerfield, Edinburg, Hiram, Palmyra, Paris, Ravenna city, Rootstown, Streetsboro and Windham.
Lori Friess, wife of Garrettsville-Freedom-Nelson Fire Chief Dave Friess, was helping distribute aid and supplies to firefighters. She said she could "easily say" at least 100 people were doing the same.
"They started bringing food to the firefighters, water, coffee, everything," Patrick said. "It's a close-knit community and we're here for each other."
Other Portage County mayors and the Portage County Sheriff's Office also approached Patrick with offers of help, he said.
The fire took place during the 150th anniversary year of Garrettsville being incorporated as a village, and Patrick expressed hope that the rebuilding could start soon.
"For the amount of firefighters and people out there, it's pretty remarkable the way that thing was going that no one was hurt," Patrick said. "It could've been a lot worse ... Hopefully, we'll be able to rebuild, and I'm hoping all those businesses will come back."
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