President Carol Radford was confident that the St. Clair Historical Museum would rise from the ashes following the fire that destroyed the building and the majority of its contents on Sunday, Feb. 23.
She was correct.
After nearly a week of almost nothing but bad news relating to the two-alarm fire that torched the museum at 280 Hibbard St. and burned and/or charred almost everything inside, a light at the end of the tunnel was provided by local businesswoman Sue Lindemann and her husband, Steve.
The Lindemanns, who own the St. Clair Health Mart Pharmacy, 855 N. Commercial Ave., have agreed to donate office space next door to their business for at least six months so the museum can get back on its feet.
“The historical museum is one of St. Clair’s prized assets,” Lindemann told The Missourian on Monday. “Many of our citizens, both past and present, have volunteered countless hours creating the museum and maintaining our community’s historical records and exhibits. It’s important that we preserve what we can after the fire as best as possible and move forward.”
And, Radford couldn’t be happier that people are supporting the cause.
“We’re thrilled that people in St. Clair are rallying behind us,” Radford told The Missourian. “It’s people like Sue Lindemann who will allow the museum to get back on its feet.
“What she’s doing is more than we could ask. We needed at least an interim place, and she came through.
“We couldn’t be more pleased — and thankful.”
The museum also has set up a donation fund at Farmers & Merchants Bank. Any individual who wishes to make a monetary donation may stop there and do so.
“We need donations,” Radford said. “We’re going to need money if we want to come back like we hope.
“We’re going to need a lot of help.”
Radford said only liability insurance was taken out on the museum. The building itself and its contents were uninsured.
“The building was old,” she said of the former Odd Fellows building built in 1899 that was donated to the museum in 1989. “And how do you insure the contents?
“We just ...”
Radford couldn’t finish the sentence.
The building, which was a total loss, was razed on Monday afternoon less than 24 hours after the fire.
Before it was demolished, Radford, museum volunteer Pat Todd and a few others tried to salvage as many things as they could from the site.
On Sunday night, both during and after the fire, some of the contents were pulled from the building, including two file cabinets in the office that contained critical documents and records chronicling information about the city and some of its families, businesses and schools.
Two small trailer loads of items were pulled and loaded on Sunday night while a few more loads were salvaged on Monday morning.
On Sunday night after the fire basically was extinguished, St. Clair and other firefighters formed a chain gang of sorts and pulled items out of the building. Radford said some of those things may be salvageable, but others were not.
She and Todd estimated that about 90 percent of the artifacts and display items were destroyed.
However, some things survived, including the 1917 diorama of the city; an ore cart; some of the mining equipment; a few pharmaceutical items; some of the bank furniture, including the old teller cage; a small amount of the Odd Fellows paraphernalia; some of the general store display, including the cast-iron stove and a metal spittoon; some post office memorabilia; a few signs from the Route 66 display; the old school bell; photos from the Moselle area; Confederate money; and a cast iron wash stove and pot.
A second Bible also was saved, joining a large, leather-bound family Bible that was pulled from the building on Sunday night.
In addition, most of the photos that were featured in the museum had been archived.
In an ironic twist, one of the only documents recovered other than those inside the file cabinets was one listing a history of St. Clair’s fires.
“We couldn’t believe we found that,” Radford said.
“But, most of the things from most of the displays are gone,” she said.
Radford specifically mentioned the Historic Route 66, American Indian, Victorian era and physician exhibits.
“We also lost all of our vintage clothing and almost all of our old toys,” Radford said. “And there was so much small stuff.”
Since the fire, Radford and Todd have been trying to go through the items pulled from the building, but that task has been difficult.
“So much of it is burned or charred,” Radford said. “And, because it all got wet and it’s cold, some of it is frozen.
“We can’t quite tell yet what we actually do have.”
Most of the recovered items have been stored in a garage.
The 10 days or so since the fire have been difficult ones, the ladies said.
“I’m still grieving,” Radford told The Missourian late last week. “That museum was so much a part of me. But I’m trying to remember that we need to carry on.”
“For me, it’s like being in the labor stage of birth,” Todd said. “It’s tough, but we know some of the pain will go away and we’ll have the birth of a new museum.”
Both Radford and Todd are hopeful they can start working in the new location next to Health Mart Pharmacy as early as this week. Some arranging and minor preparations need to be done.
“I know it’s been difficult for these volunteers to wrap their heads around everything,” Lindemann said about Radford, Todd and the others associated with the museum. “I admire their positive outlook and passion to keep the museum going.
“I’m just glad we’re in a position to help. This is our community. We take care of each other.”
The women believe the new museum may open as early as later this month. The first item that may be on display is the 1917 diorama of the city.
“That’s basically intact,” Radford said. “It has to be looked at more closely, and a new base has to be built, but it looks like it came through OK.”
All of the salvaged items will need to be cleaned and restored.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” Radford said.
The women said their greatest need is financial donations. Volunteers will be sought in the future as will items for exhibits.
“We’ll take donations of any size,” Todd said.
Something else that was “saved” was the $2 someone had placed in the donation box.
“I think we’ll have those framed,” Radford said of the dollar bills.
The museum’s officers are planning a meeting for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 11, in the conference room at Budget Lodging to begin organizing and planning the new museum. Radford said the public is invited and encouraged to attend.
“We’re going to do some brainstorming,” Radford said. “We’re going to start putting things back together.”
Night of the Fire
Radford, who had been at the museum earlier in the day on Feb. 23 serving as host to a special Black History Month exhibit, was called shortly after 9 p.m. about the fire.
Todd also received a phone call saying that the museum was burning.
“I knew it was bad when I could see smoke and flames when I got on Commercial Avenue,” said Todd, who lives in the Moselle area.
“When I saw that, I told my husband, ‘It’s gone.’
“When I actually got there, my first thought was ‘Oh no.’”
She said she then prayed.
Radford said she doesn’t remember what she was thinking after she arrived and watched the museum burn.
“I think I had gone into shock,” she said. “I was horrified.”
She said when she first arrived, she walked up to the nearest firefighter in an effort to find out any tidbit of information, but was told to retreat to a safer distance.
“Then, I just stood there,” she said.
Many other area residents and passersby gathered at the scene, including Mayor Ron Blum and other city officials.
The fire first was reported at about 9 p.m.
The museum is located about a block from St. Clair Fire House 1, so firefighters were on the scene immediately.
But, because the fire probably had smoldered and burned for quite a while before being detected from the outside, the fight was a losing battle.
At the height of the fire, flames reached several feet above the roof of the structure and could be seen from all four sides and from blocks away. Heavy smoke billowed from the building for hours.
It took firefighters more than two hours to bring the blaze under control, In all, about 60-70 emergency responders from several districts were on the scene.
For quite a while, the inside of the building was too hot and the fire too intense for firefighters to enter.
Some firefighters remained well into the early morning hours on Monday, and then returned later that day to continue with mop-up procedures.
The building was razed late Monday afternoon.
No one was inside the museum when the fire started. There were no injuries.
Franklin County Arson Investigator Jim Schuhmacher determined the fire was accidental and probably started in a light fixture ballast. He said because of the way the building was constructed, with a void area between the ceiling of the first floor and the floor of the second story, the fire could have burned for quite a while.
The remains of the building still must be inspected for the presence of hazardous materials, including asbestos. Todd said she was sure there was asbestos in the 115-year-old building.
The pile of rubble will be removed after the inspections take place, the women said.
“We’re still horrified with what happened,” Todd said. “But we’re also thankful that people are coming together to help.
“We’re coming back.”