Rising from the ashes

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Rising from the ashes

By Mike Van Sickle
Union editor

With the boundless support of friends, family, and entire community, three downtown West Union merchants are in the process of withstanding a devastating fire that destroyed two of the businesses and crippled the third Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Unionland Feed & Supply and Top Hat Tavern both burned to the ground following the five-alarm fire on E. Elm Street, while McJ’s Embroidery received heavy smoke damage.

“I’ve always said that Unionland (West Union area) is all about people helping people,” said Gary Steinlage of Unionland Feed & Supply. “A fire is something you don’t plan for, but from this we could quickly sense the community coming together and providing an ever-growing outpouring of support.”

“There is certainly a lot of good people here, and that is what makes West Union so great,” added Gary’s son Justin. “It has been overwhelming to talk to our customers and friends and the support they have shown us.”

“I have lost track of the number of people who have told (wife/co-owner) Jessica and I that if we need something to just give them a call. That is what makes small-town Iowa so special,” agreed McJ’s proprietor Bob Sadler.

“Everybody has continued to provide kind words and words of encouragement since the night of the fire,” added longtime Top Hat owner Roy Guenther. 

Guenther explained that a Top Hat patron actually called in the fire after witnessing smoke drifting west down Elm Street. He acknowledged that in quickly assessing the situation, he could feel an intense heat coming from the east wall, so he grabbed the day’s earnings from his till and immediately joined his customers in evacuating the building. 

Justin Steinlage explained that Jessica Sadler actually informed him that his building’s roof was on fire. He was able to pull his delivery truck from the rear of the building and with the assistance of another man saved the Steinlages’ business computer.

“By the time I tried to go into the building a third time, I couldn’t see because of the heavy smoke and the electricity went off,” he added. “The rest of the evening was like a scene from a movie. I remember hearing voices over the loudspeakers as I stood out in the rain.”

West Union firefighters arrived at the scene at approximately 3:50 p.m., and within minutes the fire departments of Clermont, Hawkeye, Fayette, and Oelwein were paged to assist.

West Union Fire Chief Roger Gamm reported that upon the arrival of the local fire department, heavy smoke was visibly escaping the southwest corner of Unionland Feed. Soon after, the interior of the building was totally engulfed.

“I wish to thank the City Water Department employees for keeping all of the (fire) departments’ pumpers up and running,” said Gamm, while explaining that approximately 400,000 gallons of water were used to extinguish the fire over a 20-hour period.

I would also like to thank Cline’s Construction, Baker Concrete, and West Union Trenching for the use of their heavy equipment to knock down walls during the fire and cleanup afterwards.

“The West Union Police Department and Fayette County Sheriff’s Office personnel were also quickly providing traffic control and making sure all of the fire trucks could immediately arrive on the scene,” he continued.

“Lastly, we (West Union firemen) are certainly appreciative of the assistance provided by each of the fire departments from the neighboring communities and any other local firemen who just happened to be in or near West Union when the call went out and came to provide assistance where needed,” Gamm closed.

Open for business

Due to an outstretched hand and generous offering of warehouse/office space provided by Tom Poe of Crystal Distributing in West Union, Unionland Feed & Supply was quickly on its way to relocating to the former H&H building on S. Vine Street in West Union.

“After letting it all soak in on Wednesday (Nov. 6), we were already back to making deliveries on Thursday,” said Justin, while explaining that the store’s new location was fully stocked by Monday, Nov. 11.

Meanwhile, the Sadlers have temporarily moved their West Union business to the former Good Shepherd Church (on Highway 150 South, across from Moss Roofing). Bob Sadler noted that he and Jessica hope to return to normal business hours at their tentative site by the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

In addition, McJ’s will host a fire sale of smoke-damaged clothing at the bus barn along Golden Road just east of West Union from noon to 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 15.

At the same time, Guenther, who had partnered with his father, the late Bob Guenther, in operating the Top Hat from 1977 to 1991, continues to weigh his future options.

“It just seems lately that for every step our community takes forward, we take two steps back. But they are things that are really out of our control,” added Guenther, an outgoing city councilman, while acknowledging that even as the fire raged, he took the time to vote in the Nov. 5 City elections.

Joining the other business owners in expressing their appreciation for the efforts of the local fire departments, Guenther said, “I would personally like to thank each and every one of the firemen who so valiantly fought this fire.”

While reporting that the fire remains under investigation, Chief Gamm admitted that due to the intense heat and destruction, a cause may never be determined.

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