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Landmark bar, arcade burns

Firefighters respond to a blaze Monday at D-Bar & Grill in Wheaton. A fire started in the bar and spread to an adjoining building. AP Photo/ Wheaton Gazette, Jim Smoger

WHEATON -- Todd Schmitz said his sister-in-law had no idea what sparked the massive blaze that burned her bar and arcade business to the ground and gutted a former jewelry store here Monday.

But one thing was certain, he said: Even with insurance, it will be "very difficult" to rebuild D-Bar and Grill in sparsely populated Traverse County, which has lost more than half its residents since 1960, according to the latest U.S. Census estimate.

"It's so hard to make ends meet for all these businesses on Main Street," Schmitz said. "It's so difficult. We just don't have the numbers that we used to."

Deputy State Fire Marshal John Steinbach was investigating the cause of the fire that destroyed the bar and vacant Grosland's Jewelry store building.

Authorities found "no obvious signs of any foul play whatsoever," said Wheaton Police Chief Michael Johannsen, who saw the flames towering 20 to 30 feet above the structures from his bedroom window three blocks away.

Johannsen said a person opening a grocery store down the street from the bar reported the fire at 5:04 a.m., and the bar was fully engulfed when he arrived six or seven minutes later.

The Wheaton Fire Department kept the flames from spreading north to nearby homes and a grain elevator, thanks to mutual aid from Browns Valley, Dumont, Graceville, Herman, Tintah and Wahpeton, N.D., which brought a ladder truck to douse the flames from above.

More than 60 firefighters in all fought the inferno, officials said.

The intense heat caused a tree to catch fire almost a block away and melted the plastic siding on the senior dining center across the street to the south, despite a strong wind blowing north, Johannsen said.

"I can't thank these other departments enough," he said.

Bar owner Dawn Julson escaped unharmed from her second-floor apartment next door to the bar, said Schmitz, who is married to Julson's sister. Julson was extremely distressed by the fire and unable to talk to the media, he said.

Her apartment, in a former bank building, sustained broken windows and smoke damage but was "very repairable," he said.

"She'll have plenty of places to stay," he said.

Julson bought the bar in 1996 from Schmitz's parents, David and Carole Schmitz, who owned and operated it as Dave's Bar & Arcade for 31 years. They dined at the bar on Sunday for Mother's Day.

Monday morning, the couple could only watch from across the street as crews shot water onto their smoldering past.

"It's just a sad, sad day," Carole Schmitz said. "It's sad for our Main Street. The memories, they flash through your head."

The bar and arcade were popular hangouts for kids and parents, who would go together, part ways at the door and then rendezvous when it was time to go home, she said.

Todd Schmitz said Julson worked hard to build up her business. The single mother rarely took vacations while raising her two sons, who helped out at the business, he said.

Johannsen, a lifelong resident of the city 75 miles south of Moorhead on Highway 75, said the business was "kind of a landmark," where residents gathered to have coffee, drinks, eat and play cards.

"It's going to be missed," he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.