Fire destroys buildings in downtown Marquette
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
Late Monday afternoon, wreckage still smoldered and smoke drifted through the air over North Street in downtown Marquette. It was all that remained of the fire, which began around 1 a.m. on Monday, that destroyed four buildings, including the historic Marquette Hardware Store, and displaced five families. Onlookers shuffled across the sidewalk, talking to neighbors or taking photos. Others ventured closer to the rubble, hoping to get a better look, or even some answers, as to what caused the fire that at one point during the night reached above the trees.
Among the onlookers was Mary Jo Pirc, owner of the Marquette Hardware Store. Built in 1888, the building had been in her family for 69 years.
“It breaks my heart,” Pirc said. “I’m just sick about it. I haven’t been to bed yet and I’m still wearing my uniform.”
Pirc said she was at home, across the street, recently returned from her job at Lady Luck Casino, when one of her tenants alerted her to the fire.
“The kid’s banging on my door, saying it’s on fire, and I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Pirc explained.
She said the kid had no shoes or coat on, so she instructed him to bundle up, then ran across the street to help rouse her tenants and neighbors. At that point, she said, flames could be seen off the back side of the hardware store. In no time, the inferno was raging.
“It was terrible,” Pirc said. “I’ve never seen such a ball of flames. They were bigger than the trees, burning bright and hot. But no one got hurt. That’s the main thing.”
Although the fire resulted in no injuries, the surrounding buildings were not so lucky. The hardware store had four upstairs apartments, two of which were occupied. Next door, in what was once a theater, was Kirby’s Creations Salon, which opened on July 1. In December, the city held a ribbon cutting, welcoming the business to the community. On the other side of the salon, a small, white house burned down. Behind the hardware store, a duplex was also destroyed. After the fire had died down, just after 8 a.m., a smaller building to the left of the hardware store was demolished after receiving significant damage. Neighboring homes and businesses sported warped and singed siding.
Pirc said the cause of the fire has not yet been determined and that the fire inspector was due to arrive on Tuesday.
“It’s just a nightmare from hell,” she said of the wreckage. “I don’t know what they’ll find.”
She was also scheduled to meet with her adjuster on Tuesday. She said she has not yet thought about what the future holds for her or that location.
Pirc said the hole left in the Marquette cityscape is going to be difficult to see. The loss of one of the city’s few remaining historical buildings will be even tougher. Although the hardware store was historic in its own right, what it held inside was also important. Going down in the blaze was an eclectic array of items and antiques, as well as what Pirc said were stacks and boxes of historic photos and mementos that she was storing for the Marquette Depot Museum.
“That stuff is lost forever,” she lamented.
Area resident Sally Scarff said Monday’s fire reminded her of a near-identical blaze that almost took out a whole city block in that area of Marquette in the early 1940s. To the best of her knowledge, that was the last major fire to rock the city.
Without help from all of the surrounding fire departments and rescue units, this fire could have also spread. McGregor Hook and Ladder was assisted by the fire departments from Garnavillo, Monona, Elkader, Harpers Ferry, Prairie du Chien and Bridgeport. The MarMac Rescue Squad, MFL Ambulance Service and Harpers Ferry EMS also assisted, along with the Mar-Mac Police Department and Clayton County Sheriff’s Office.
“Talk about a volunteer fire department. Talk about fantastic,” Pirc said. “They fought all night, got singed and burned, then went to work. Everyone, all the volunteers, were so helpful.”
The nearby Cobblestone Inn and Suites opened their doors during the fire, allowing people to use the bathroom and get food and drinks. The Marquette Bar and Café also passed out hot chocolate.
In the aftermath, the community effort continues. Mar-Mac Friends Helping Friends has set up an account at Central State Bank in Marquette to take monetary donations for the Marquette fire victims. Checks can be made payable to Friends Helping Friends, with a note in the memo stating “fire victims.” Checks may be mailed to P.O. Box 371, McGregor, IA 52157 or dropped off at Cathy’s Office at 218 Main St. in McGregor. Clothing, toiletries and other household items people may wish to donate can be dropped off at Marquette City Hall.