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Fire destroys Atwater businesses; community in shock

Atwater firefighters stand Monday on Atlantic Avenue after a fire destoyred nealry ¾ of the block. Four businesses were lost in the morning fire that took crews nearly 12 hours to control. "Devastating," is how Fire Chief Gerald Schwartz described the impact of the fire to the small-town community. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

ATWATER -- An early Monday morning fire that gutted three buildings and destroyed four businesses in Atwater's main business district has left the small Kandiyohi County town in shock.

Nearly three-quarters of a block on Atlantic Avenue was wiped out in a ferocious blaze that could be seen for miles. Crews from nine fire departments battled the fast-burning fire in subzero temperatures.

There were no injuries, but firefighters did have to wrestle with frozen lines.

Power was also lost to about three-fourths of the community for about two hours because an electrical transformer was affected by the fire.

Crews were on the scene at least 12 hours later, continuing to put out hot spots and monitoring the remaining brick walls that will likely be pushed over today as a safety precaution.

The fire, which was reported at 12:45 a.m. Monday, is believed to have started at Phat Pheasant Pasta & Brew, located in one of three brick buildings built in the early 1900s in Atwater.

Fire spread quickly to two adjoining buildings, the Peterson's Hardware store building and the Holm Brothers Plumbing & Heating/Rice Lake Construction Group building, the latter of which also housed Stickerboy Signs & Designs.

"All three structures are a complete loss," said Atwater Police Chief Reed Schmidt. "Everything is gone. Everything is destroyed."

The loss is estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million, said Atwater Fire Chief Gerald Schwartz.

"Devastating," is how Schmidt described the impact of the fire to the community.

Authorities were fairly certain that the fire started at the Phat Pheasant, but a state fire marshal investigation had not yet determined the cause of the blaze.

According to its business Facebook page, the Phat Pheasant is offering a reward "for information about the robbery and fire" at the supper club.

Schmidt said the fire is being investigated but said he was not aware that a burglary may have happened or that a reward was being offered. "This is news to me," he said Monday afternoon.

The owner of Phat Pheasant, Michael Nibbe, lives in Minneapolis. In October he opened the restaurant -- which had been in business under numerous owners in recent years. He did not immediately respond to a request for information.

None of the businesses was open Sunday.

Schwartz said the owners of the destroyed businesses were "distraught."

"It's just not good at all," said City Councilman Gary Tagtow, who was watching fire crews from the street corner. "We don't have a lot of businesses in town, and when you lose a couple, it's not good."

"I don't know what the future will be at that end of town now. It's pretty sad," said Suzanne Meyerson, whose family owns the Covell Building and Atwater Bank, which were the next buildings down the block from the fire.

Those structures were not damaged and business went on as usual at the bank.

"It'll be a big gap in the downtown area," said Kimberly Holm, whose husband, Greg, owns the plumbing and heating business in the building at the end of the block -- one of the three that was destroyed. Besides the business loss, there were personal family keepsakes, like original oil paintings and trophy mounts from Africa, that are not replaceable.

When asked if they intend to rebuild, Holm said, "Most likely no."

Andy Peterson spent Monday trying to absorb the loss of his family-owned hardware store.

"It's just starting to sink in a little bit," he said Monday afternoon, while fighting exhaustion and tears.

Peterson purchased the business and inventory 11 years ago, although the building had housed the town's hardware store for decades under previous owners. The building is still owned by Roger Holm, whose family built it in 1924.

Peterson recalled being a kid and spending his allowance money at the hardware store, never knowing at that time that he would one day own the business. "There are a lot of memories," he said, adding that his own school-aged children have grown up in the business.

"There isn't much left on that street now," he said, wondering how the town will celebrate its Festival Days in June. "There won't be too much to be festive about," he said.

Peterson got a call shortly after 1 a.m., and said he could see the fire from his home which is three miles out of town.

"There wasn't much that could be done about it," said Peterson, recalling his thoughts as he watched the fire burn.

Peterson said he's thankful for the fire departments that helped and thankful for the loyal customers over the years. "We'll take it as it comes and see what happens," said Peterson, adding that he's not sure what "Plan B" will be for his family business.

The loss of four businesses in one day "is going to be tough for Atwater," he said.

At the Atwater City Hall, staff and elected officials were glum as they wandered in Monday to talk with each other about the fire.

Mayor Mark Olson said the city would do what it could to help the businesses, although he didn't know what assistance would be available.

Schwartz said he hopes the town is "vibrant enough that we can get some things back."

City Councilman Shane Hagstrom had called 911 to report the fire after dinner guests left his house and called him to say they saw smoke coming from downtown.

This isn't the first time Atwater has seen devastating fires.

One fire, referred to as the "Great Fire," destroyed much of the town, including its school and city hall and businesses on Atlantic Avenue. That fire was 120 years ago, on Jan. 15, 1891.

Mutual aid

Fire departments from a total of nine communities responded to the fire Monday in Atwater.

Besides the Atwater Fire Department, mutual aid was provided by fire departments from Grove City, Kandiyohi, Willmar, Spicer, New London, Lake Lillian, Blomkest and Prinsburg.

Atwater fires

The "Great Fire" of Atwater happened 120 years ago, on Jan. 15, 1891, when much of the town's business and civic community was destroyed.

Other fires noted in the town's history book:

- 1903 - Elevator

- 1916 - Elevator

- 1920 - Starks Furniture and Hardware

- 1931 - Atwater Grain Company

- 1944 - Atwater Mill

- 1949 - Café

- 1983 - Rierson grocery store

Source: Atwater city officials

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750