By Ed Runyan
Dozens of people streamed into town Monday to look at the block-long destruction of some of the town’s oldest buildings that resulted from a fire Saturday afternoon on Main Street.
Michelle Doherty of Newton Falls was among them. Doherty, who grew up in Garrettsville, was shooting a video on her iPad to show relatives that a former hardware store and several other popular storefronts had become a charred pile of rubble.
“The devastation is terrible,” she said. “It used to be a five-and-dime when I was a kid,” she said. “We used to buy beads and penny candy.”
Meanwhile, fire officials say the Buckeye Block building, where the fire apparently started, is both one of the town’s most historic buildings and one of its most dangerous.
The building was the former home of a popular hardware store and a historic upstairs dance and meeting hall where future presidents William McKinley and James A. Garfield spoke.
Fire Chief Dave Friess of the Garrettsville, Freedom, Nelson Volunteer Fire Department said the building was full of “hot, black smoke” when his crews arrived.
Investigators say that a roofer’s torch may have started the blaze on a 150-year-old building that was in the process of being renovated, according to Vindicator broadcast news partner 21 WFMJ-TV. Friess said he doesn’t yet have a dollar estimate of the damage.
In spite of help from 34 fire departments, some providing additional water to augment the public water supply, the blaze consumed the Buckeye Block and three more buildings, most or all of them wooden structures built in the 1800s.
The Buckeye Block was built in 1868 and 1869, according to the James A. Garfield Historical Society.
Friess said the fire was “just amazing,” in part because the Buckeye Block had been remodeled so many times over its nearly 150-year history, leaving it with “double roofs, triple roofs, multiple ceiling levels” and void spaces that increased the fire’s volatility.
The village nearly demolished the building in 2011 because of its deteriorated state, but officials found a buyer, local developer Mike Maschek, who renovated the first floor, according to the Villager, the Garrettsville weekly newspaper.
The upper floors of the Buckeye Block had not been renovated, so there were no requirements to upgrade or modernize them, Fire Chief Friess said.
Some of the current stores near the Buckeye Block — One Real Peach, Shaker Tree and Chic and Shabby Resale Shop — provided Main Street with unique shops that attracted lots of visitors to the quaint, small town, said Kit Semplak, president of the historical society.
Irwin’s Hardware store in the Buckeye Block had been vacant more than 10 years at the time of the fire, but other spaces were being used by stores such as Shiffer’s Clock Repair and Miller’s Lawn and Garden. Garrettsville Hardware also used to operate there.
The main issues that made the fire hard to fight were the construction materials, the chief said, adding that it’s a “gray area” as to whether the upper floors met fire and building codes.
The proper permits were secured to renovate the bottom floor, but the upper floors were original, Friess said.
Two firefirefighers were treated for smoke inhalation, but their injuries were not serious, and none of the roughly 50 customers and employees inside the 13 businesses when the fire began were injured, officials said.
The fire did not destroy a one-story brick law office next to the Buckeye Block, but it had an addition on the back, which did catch fire. The fire continued west from there to other structures, Friess said.