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150 Years of History, Gone in 10 Hours: The Day Garrettsville Went Up in Flames 

The gray-haired barber had just clipped, snipped and buzzed his way through another typical Saturday-morning rush of regulars in his one-man barbershop in the small town of Garrettsville. Jim Reppy had chatted with customers about the Browns and Buckeyes and the Tribe with the same second-nature dexterity with which he delivered their 12-buck haircuts — inevitably the same cuts to the same guys every few weeks for years, to sons and fathers who'd been coming the Barber of G'Ville since his father-in-law moved the shop onto Main Street back in 1959.

It was around 1 p.m. on March 22, 2014, by the time the rush slowed down and the barber leaned on a big barber's chair and gazed out the window. There was a girl on the street, college age, looking alternately at the barber through the window and up toward the roof of the building next door. She approached the door.

"I don't know if you know this or not," the young women said, "but I think that building's on fire."

Reppy walked out into the street and looked up. Black smoke was already billowing from a few doors down. He walked back into his shop and quickly grabbed some cash, financial records, anything he could carry. By the time he was back on the street and ready to drive to the police station, crowds had gathered to watch the fire which by now had spread, sending even larger plumes of black smoke rising into the sky.

He took another look at his barbershop. It'd be the last time he'd see it standing.

Twelve other businesses would burn that day. Thirty-five fire departments would work to put out the flames. One hundred and fifty years of history would be turned into ashes despite their efforts. And small-town Garrettsville wondered whether it would ever be the same.

***

Garrettsville is a tight-knit, blue-collar town just 45 minutes from Cleveland, and three miles, navigated through hills and gorgeous farmland, from Hiram College. A couple thousand folks live in just a few square miles tucked away in Portage County. The town's kids attend schools each named after former president and area resident James A. Garfield.

With a McDonald's, a Dairy Queen, a Domino's, a car dealership, a liquor store and a gas station, much of downtown Garrettsville could as well be any other downtown, duplicated across the state by way of repeated dollops of recognizable brand names.

But further down Main Street is a block steeped in history, one protected and revitalized with varying degrees of success over the years, full of small, independent family businesses operating out of the first floors of a cluster of Civil War-era buildings.

At the center of that 150-year history was a large, three-story, 30,000-square-foot structure known as the Buckeye Building that took up nearly half the block. Renovations had come and gone over the years, but the layout remained mostly the same as always: storefronts on the first floor, a stage and meeting room on the second, and storage on the third.

Local developer Mike Maschek bought the building in 2012 for a bunch of reasons, but the history certainly didn't hurt.

"The second floor housed what was called the Buckeye Block Theater," says Maschek. "That's where James Garfield spoke; William McKinley too. It was still the way it looked back in the mid-1800s."

It had less honorable historical significance too, especially for a rural Ohio town in the post-Civil War era.

"The ladies' Ku Klux Klan used to meet there. The men would meet over there, the women would meet over here, and up there they'd have minstrels, those musical things," says Maschek. "They had little plays and sing-alongs and would cram 300 to 350 people up there."

Resident Estelle R. Brown wrote about the building's history in a November 2013 story for the Villager, the town's free weekly paper.

Garrettsville officially became a village in 1864, and the Buckeye Block was the first large building to be constructed in the municipality. Built by Asa Nelson and Eugene Francis Case, it housed a hardware business operated by A.A. Barber and Enos Smith. Additional stores opened up on the main floor, and Buckeye Hall, a 400-seat auditorium, was unveiled on the second floor in the fall of 1868. Dances and live musical and theatrical performances were held there as late as 1925, with Layer's Grocery operating beneath it for many years thereafter.

For decades after, it fell into disrepair, lacking modern updates or restorations. Awnings over the first floor businesses were old and dirty. Siding on the upper floors had been left to wither away. But two years ago, things changed. The Villager continues:

A little before-and-after reminder is in order, now that the buildings are beautiful, lights are twinkling, and businesses are bustling.

Just three short years ago, Main Street was in shambles. The sagging Buckeye Block Building was so dilapidated, it was a public hazard and about to be demolished. Its shabby appearance did not help neighboring establishments in their efforts to attract customers, and businesses housed in the buildings were barely hanging on. Serious decline began when the building's largest occupant, Irwin Hardware, sold out in 2002. The new buyer sat on the property, leaving it vacant and subject to deterioration for a decade.

Maschek's son had wanted to sell his podiatry shop in the building to become a medical missionary in Peru, so Maschek bought his business. He then bought the space from the owner of the vacant hardware store (and later, the lawn and garden shop). By 2012, he owned the whole building except for the first-floor clock repair shop, and he moved the offices of Maschek Construction to the vacant storefront.

"The county wanted to condemn the building," he explains. "I bought my son's portion of the building and said to them: Why don't you let me buy the remaining portion of the building for a nominal amount and I promise to have it all done (restored) in two years. Well, I did it in four months. I put all new siding on, new windows, new awnings in the front, I redid the whole first floor, remodeled everything, brought it all up to code. I went from having four units in there with people renting to eight units; we brought more business to the community."

***

Six months ago, there was a leak on the first floor roof at the back of the Buckeye Block Building, above the spot used by Miller Lawn & Garden. The roofers Mike Maschek usually used mainly worked on pitched roofs, so he hired a local guy he had used previously to fix the building's flat roof. That guy hired two guys to help him.

"I met them here in the morning, got them started, went home, which is about 15 minutes away from here, and came back around noon just to see how they were doing," recalls Maschek. The roofers were loading up roofing paper, heat-activated roofing cement, blowtorches and propane tanks. "Everything was going fine, they had no problem, so I grabbed a sandwich and went home."

An hour later one of the shop owners renting space in the Buckeye Block Building — Stephanie Dietelbach, the owner of the One Real Peach — called Maschek.

"Mike, your building's on fire," she said.

He quickly hopped in his truck while still thinking, "You have to be kidding me."

But as he turned on Route 88 from Mumford Road and Garrettsville came into view, "I said that's got to be the building. It was an unbelievable amount of smoke. Dark black smoke, just dark black smoke." Firefighters were already on scene starting the long battle.

According to state fire marshal reports, the roofers noticed smoke coming out of the building's soffit and quickly got off the roof. One of them ran to the nearby police station to report a fire; police told them to warn everybody in the shops out front. Dispatch alerted the tiny fire department just a few blocks away, and one ladder truck and one water tanker began fighting the growing fire six minutes later.

"The only place I could go was to the police station, so I pulled in there and came out front, only to see fire coming out of the top windows, and I couldn't believe how fast it was going up," he says. "To me, it was just like a dream: I couldn't believe it was happening."

Everybody got out safely. The buildings weren't so lucky. But it wasn't for lack of effort. It was partly due to the buildings' history. One snippet from the official fire marshal report:

We assembled multiple chainsaws, vent saws, and rotary saws for [trench cuts]. As soon as a blade would become dull or come off the bar another would take its place. The roof was opened only to discover that there was another roof under that roof. We sent the crews inside and began to pull ceilings under the same area that we cut open the roof. The ceiling was pulled and it was discovered that there was a metal ceiling above that.

Thirty-four fire departments came to help Garrettsville, flocking in from other small towns in Portage, Trumbull, Summit, Geauga and Cuyahoga counties, bringing in 142 firefighters in all. They'd work over the course of Saturday and into Sunday morning to quell the flames.

Eventually, "an estimated 1.5 million gallons of water was pumped, and 428.5 gallons of diesel fuel was used in the 50 hours and 36 minutes the fire department was present at the scene," according to a press release from Garrettsville-Freedom-Nelson's fire chief David Friess.

In the end, though, the fire destroyed the entire city block anyway, taking down every generations-old building on the town's main strip. There were no fire alarms, no sprinklers, no chance, really, that could stop the fire once it got going. It ripped through the old wooden buildings with force, leaving the city no choice afterward but to demolish everything it had touched.. Along with the Barber of G'Ville, destroyed in the fire were home decor shops Chic & Shabby and One Real Peach, antique shop Shaker Tree, Shiffer's Clock Repair, food bank Nelson Garrettsville Community Cupboard, hardware store T&B Tools, the Maschek Construction office, hearing aid shop New Hearing Sales & Services, Miller Lawn & Garden, the Garrettsville Foot & Ankle Clinic, and the law offices for attorneys Dann Timmons, Kim Kohli and Robert Mishler.

***

Investigators' first hurried hours on March 22 found them searching for the roofers: They'd disappeared after reporting the fire and warning some business owners.

But Garrettsville police did notice a familiar face in the crowd of onlookers. A 20-year-old who'd been arrested by the state fire marshal for torching an acquaintance's house in nearby Windham a few years back was in the crowd, recording the conflagration with his video camera. But that was a coincidence, and after a short questioning and polygraph test, he was released.

It wasn't until 6:20 p.m., five hours after the fire had started, that the 44-year-old roofer came to the station to be interviewed. A 24-minute recording of the conversation shows a man truly shaken, silent for long stretches and confused about and reluctant to release basic information about who his fellow roofers were and what they were doing. He admits to having had some beers prior to coming in, and his speech is sometimes circular and stunted as he tries to explain how the fire started.

"We were working," the roofer says in a strained voice, "there was a wall, we were probably halfway done. We were rolling the roofing up against the wall."

"You were laying the tar paper down or flashing?" an investigator says.

"We were putting the roofing on and rolling it up against the wall. We didn't want it to leak. I'd say about 10 or 15 minutes later, we noticed smoke coming out of the soffit."

"Ok, were you guys hot sealing that?"

"Yeah."

"And then what did you guys do?"

"Ran down and grabbed my cell phone, called 911, the police station told my work to go run and tell the place the building's on fire." He chokes up a little bit. "I just felt so helpless! Go in the building, tell everybody the building's on fire."

"It was an accident," another investigator says. "It was an accident, okay? That's what it was, I know it's not fun and it's upsetting, but nobody got hurt — that we're aware of. Maybe one minor thing, but the person was released, okay, nothing serious though."

"I mean you were roofing," the first investigator says. "It's an accident, correct? It's not like you did this on purpose."

"No, I didn't. I mean, we looked up, there was smoke pouring out of the thing. I just felt so helpless."

Reppy felt helpless too. Paralyzed, really, and in disbelief.

"I was standing in the back alley with my landlord Randy — he had the business next to me, closer to the fire. And although we couldn't see a lot of what was going on in there, we thought there could only be one reason they were cutting open that roof and it's because they gave up on saving it," says Reppy. "That's when I started realizing... you're numb, you're literally numb. I got in my car and everybody was looking at me like, 'Jim, what are ya gonna do?' It was a cold day and at one point I went and sat in my car, behind the police station, and I was just kinda looking at people because it had become an event. I was just thinking this was never going to be the same; it's a sudden realization that everything is totally changed and you aren't ready for that change."

That note of surreal devastation struck not only business owners but the residents who watched Main Street spring to life through the passion and action of their neighbors and friends.

"This is a small town. We take this personally. We know these business owners by name. We care what becomes of them. And we miss the sense of community they helped create along Main Street," says writer and Garrettsville resident Estelle Brown to Scene. "The day of the fire, we just couldn't believe what we were witnessing. Those of us who saw the fire shortly after it started figured it would be put out shortly, and there would be minimal damage. But soon we realized water was no match for this ravenous blaze.

"Then it became a devastating historic event we couldn't pull ourselves away from. It was like watching a beautiful dream die a violent death. This block of shops had been the brightest spot on Main Street. It was a rare place of fulfilled promise in an otherwise struggling village. It was set to lead the way for the rest of the downtown's revitalization in the wake of the recession.

"Witnessing the fire rage through the windows, then seeing the front face of the cypress-green building buckle and collapse as the flames and black smoke overtook the structure caused people around me to cry out and burst into tears. More and more people crowded as close as police and firemen would allow, calling out to one another on the streets, giving play-by-plays on their phones, snapping pictures and taking video. It was like a macabre carnival atmosphere."

***

In addition to the business lost, the Nelson Garrettsville Community Cupboard, a food bank serving two villages, was destroyed. It had been serving 200 families prior to the fire, according to Joe Leonard, who heads the operation. Freezers, refrigerators, and a stockpile of food was lost.

But the community support quickly helped those helping those in need.

"The donations just poured in," says Leonard. "It was incredible. It's such a generous community."

Help came from all over the state and from the unlikeliest of sources, including an 11-year-old girl in Stow who started a fundraiser at her church. Some kids gave allowance money. A group of Amish did renovations on a new space for free.

It was a far cry from that Saturday when Leonard talked to the fire chief, who said, "My worst nightmare just came true."

"We were back up and running within two weeks," says Leonard. They're now serving 300 families.

***

Six months later, the half-block plot where the Buckeye Building used to stand is just a grass field. The other half block is gravel and cement. The lone structure bears telltale signs of fire damage on its exterior walls, which would be the only hint to newcomers that this isn't always how Main Street looked.

Businesses are still adjusting to a new normal, including Maschek, who recently bought a 19th-century mill alongside the river downtown. Crews are currently working to restore what had been one of Garrettsville's biggest eyesores into something charming that could help drive economic, and emotional, recovery.

But Maschek's priority is the now-vacant lot. He says he started planning its future the day after the fire.

"The thing right now is just getting the grant money to be able to do what we want to do," he says, noting if he took out a big enough loan, he'd have to charge tenants more than they could afford to recoup the costs of the outlay. A grant would allow store owners to rent space cheaply.

He'd like to double occupancy from eight businesses to 16 and bring back something like the old Buckeye Hall. "If you could have a place with maybe a small concert hall," he says, "boy, would that just bring people in here from all over.

Maschek's enthusiasm is hard to hide as he highlights county grant opportunities, funds from the "Garrettsville Strong" fund that raised money in the aftermath of the fire, and the possibility of a serious chunk of change that may come from a private former resident. If that last bit of philanthropic dough comes in, work could get started soon. Regardless, momentum didn't stop once the ashes cooled. It was just beginning.

"I talked to [Hiram College president] Tom Chema and said, 'Tom, how can you help me on this?' Hiram doesn't have architecture, but Chema knows the guy who runs it at Kent State."

Kent State students and faculty did a couple of town hall meetings and although the plans probably won't be used, the energy gathered from the university's involvement has helped boost spirits.

"A lot of people showed up to see the ideas — some of them were far fetched, but they were ideas," says Maschek. "It keeps the people in town enthused, that there is something going on."

***

It's about 1 p.m. on a Monday, six months after Jim Reppy watched his barbershop burn to the ground. Clumps of hair scatter around a single barber chair in his new shop.

That night in March, 62-year-old Reppy thought about calling it quits. Only for a brief moment, though.

The very next day, Sunday, March 23, he was already talking to Dan Meyers, whose hearing aid store was also destroyed, about where they could open up shop next.

"I'm close to retirement age, and I'd say for a split second I thought of retiring, then I thought I'm not ready to do that," Reppy says. "The Monday after, Dan and I got together and we found this building. There was a big beauty shop, and they were moving to Windham. So we talked to the landlord, who just bought it, and the whole building was just too much for either of us, so he decided we could just split it."

Things simply haven't been the same for Reppy, even with the new home. The steady string of customers has slowed.

"The only sad thing is that this is off the beaten path, and people haven't found me," he says. "I don't have as many customers now as I did over there. But a lot of it is people just don't know where I'm at. And the longer you're out of their sight, the more comfortable they get somewhere else. I don't know if I'll get them back or not."

He's placed ads in the local papers, put a sign on the fence that used to border the rubble, and his kids got the shop on Facebook and Yelp. But most of the people who have found his new spot have relied on word-of-mouth. And nothing can beat a prime spot in town.

You can tell he hasn't been in the place very long. The old shop was charmingly cluttered with old sports relics — memories of great Cleveland and Ohio State teams — that can only come from decades of continual collecting. The walls here are bare now, with a fresh coat of white paint and clean wood floors, causing an echo that annoys the hell out of Reppy.

"Somebody told me to get pictures with canvas to deaden the echo," he says. "That's what they tell me. What's frustrating now is that some of those guys haven't come back. I knew so much about them and we would just talk — I don't care if it was about hunting deer, or their kid that had an accident, or whatever, you talk to them about it. Then you don't see it anymore, and you wonder what happened to them. That's what I'll remember most about the shop: It seemed like there was a comfort there.

"I'm sitting here talking to you now because nobody's come in for, what, a half hour now?" he says. "I didn't sit alone by myself a lot over there."

But then a customer walks in.

"Scotty!" Reppy says as he gets up and heads over to the big chair to get his clippers out.

"What's going on, Jimbo?"

The guy's a regular, and for the moment at least, it's back to business as usual.

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