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Local

Trial by fire: 5 years after an inferno devastated its downtown, persistence and pride have helped Prophetstown rise from the ashes

It was Ann Ford’s longtime dream to bring her beauty salon downtown.

Ford grew up in Lyndon and was a product of Prophetstown schools. She had been running the business from her home for more than 20 years and was finally ready to make the big move. An existing salon was available on Washington Street and her dream was within reach.

Fate then intervened in the early morning hours of Monday, July 15, 2013, and the town of 2,100 would never be the same.

“My husband went to work at 5 a.m. that day and called to tell me that a large part of the downtown had been destroyed by fire,” Ford said.

She lived just a couple of blocks away, so she rushed downtown to join the other residents who had already gathered and couldn’t believe their eyes.

“So many historic buildings were gone and the smell was awful,” Ford said. “It was unreal – everyone just stood around in awe.”

Eight buildings were destroyed and two others damaged in the 300 block of Washington Street. Two brothers, then 12 and 16, were in town visiting their father. They had snuck out of his house and set the fire in a recycling bin filled with trash. When all was said and done, it had wiped out an entire city block.

Ford’s downtown salon was gone, and she wondered whether her dream was, too.

“I was finally in the process of moving downtown and I was standing there looking at the empty space where my business was supposed to be,” Ford said. “I was thinking that maybe this just wasn’t meant to be.”

Five years later, Ann’s Salon and Spa is one of two new businesses at the fire site. The other is the area’s new anchor, IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union, which took three of the lots and moved from its previous site on Washington.

Ford waited until the lots were available for $1 and decided to build her dream from the ground up. Her project was financed by her neighboring credit union, which had held the groundbreaking ceremony for its new branch on the 1-year anniversary of the fire.

Ford will mark the second anniversary of her opening in August. While the path to bringing her business downtown is still difficult to comprehend, the tight-knit community rallied around her efforts.

“Everyone downtown was so supportive and the mayor did his best to try to take care of everyone,” Ford said.

Sometimes it feels as if the tragedy occurred yesterday, but some aspects of the pre-fire downtown have already begun to fade from memory, Mayor Steve Swanson said.

“This is a small town and people still talk about it a lot, but it’s only been 5 years and it can be difficult to remember where each building was,” Swanson said.

The only displaced tenant in the fire area to move to another site wasn’t a business. The Prophetstown Historical Society moved to 302-306 Washington St. in spring 2013. The family of Anita Oetzel donated the buildings to the historical society after her death.

The upper floor of the museum had been destroyed, but many items on the first floor were saved. Many volunteers helped to salvage the artifacts, a common theme in the aftermath of the blaze.

“Donations came in to help with the process, everybody came together, and the city was cleaned up in 6 weeks,” Swanson said. “Another positive is that no one was hurt or killed. We were very fortunate because it happened in the middle of the night.”

Some of the buildings had upstairs apartments. One woman, who was still asleep, had to be rescued.

The city bought all of the lots from the owners and still has three of the parcels. While the $1 lot incentive remains, the mayor admits it can be hard to justify spending the money for a new building in a small town’s business district. Some of the space has been filled in with donated pine trees that are decorated for the holidays.

“At this point, we’re open to just about everything at those sites,” Swanson said. “The pine trees are nice, but they don’t pay the bills.”

The loss of sales tax revenue was minimal but noticeable. A couple of the businesses had planned to close and the historical society and a judge’s office were among the tenants.

With many small-town mom-and-pop businesses already in survival mode, the fire added even more stress to the local economy.

“I grew up here, and when I was a kid, a majority of us stayed, but there aren’t as many places to work and kids leave and never come back,” Swanson said.

In addition to the loss of sales tax, jobs and property tax revenue were lost. Some of the people who lived in the apartments left town.

“The Walmarts and Menards have been tough on small businesses, and we’re lucky to still have a drugstore and hardware store,” Swanson said. “The fire has slowed down activity at the rest of the businesses downtown.”

The loss of Cindy Jean’s, a popular restaurant, has residents pining for another downtown eatery. Owner Cindy Eriks had considering rebuilding, but decided against it. Swanson had hoped they could have filled that void by now.

The entire downtown is in a TIF district, and parts of it also are in the enterprise zone, which Swanson hoped would spur development. The local Main Street group has made facade grants available.

Eileen Detra was the executive director at Main Street at the time of the fire and still serves on its board of directors. She vividly remembers the tragedy and how quickly residents came together to get the community back on track.

Like many other lifelong Prophetstown residents, the loss of such a large part of the historic downtown went beyond dollars and cents.

“I was born and raised here, married a Prophetstown guy and raised five kids here,” Detra said. “It was devastating to stand there and watch those buildings burn down.”

Main Street’s stated mission of helping downtown businesses had been taken to an almost overwhelming level.

“We met with the mayor and community members and we found out how strong this little town was,” Detra said. “Our mayor played an integral role in helping us survive and so many volunteers came together.”

Main Street has stepped up its efforts to sponsor events, including Arts on the Square, planned for Sept. 29 at Eclipse Square. The non-juried show will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and a pet parade and costume contest will begin at 2 p.m. on the square. The Main Street Golf Outing is planned for Sept. 8 at Prophet Hills Country Club. The 33rd annual Lighted Christmas Parade will make its run Nov. 24.

“This small community has struggled, but because there is so much pride, we realized it was worth saving,” Detra said. “We have a nursing home, a park district, a grocery store and a lot of things that many towns our size don’t have.”

In 2015, Prophetstown received an award at the Illinois Main Street and Historic Preservation Conference that was created just for them.

Prophetstown had submitted applications in two awards categories, both tied to efforts to rebuild the downtown after the fire. The awards committee decided to present a new form of recognition based on both applications, calling it the Phoenix Award.

DECIMATED DOWNTOWN

The following businesses and offices were destroyed in the July 15, 2013 fire in downtown Prophetstown. The only one that relocated was the historical society.

• Cindy Jean’s restaurant

• Twisted Scissors hair salon

• Kim’s Monograms

• The Ceramics Center

• D’s Variety and Crafts

• Prophetstown Historical Society

• Office of Judge Vicki Wright

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