On July 15, 2013, a fire ravaged Prophetstown, one of the prettiest little communities in all of northern Illinois. It was devastating.
An entire block, eight 150-year-old-plus buildings on Washington Street, including the town’s Historical Society – scores of irreplaceable documents and artifacts – were reduced to smoking ash; two others were damaged.
Most housed paycheck-to-paycheck mom-and-pop businesses. People lived above many of them.
It was set in the middle of the night by two brothers, then 16 and 12, visiting family from out town and goofing around, knocking on doors, setting fire to a plastic recycling bin near the library before setting another fire to the plastic bin behind Cindy Jean’s Restaurant. They took off their shirts and threw them in, to make the flames burn brighter.
That’s the one that got out of control, that ripped the heart right out of downtown Prophetstown, scorching it to its core.
It didn’t touch its soul, though.
Less than 36 hours later, residents began to show what they were made of. Prophetstown Strong signs started popping up. Fundraisers were started. Meetings were held, plans were formulated, sleeves were rolled up.
In true Midwestern spirit, self-pity was in short supply. Self-reliance ruled the day. The mess was cleaned up in 6 weeks.
“I think these people have recovered quickly,” Mayor Steve Swanson said at the time. “They’re sad, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve heard very few negative points, mostly positive. That, ‘We can do this, and we can do that.’”
“You can destroy things and stuff,” said the Rev. Cheri Stewart, of the aptly named Prophetstown United Methodist Church. “You can’t destroy people’s spirits.”
The boys, who were turned in by family members who nonetheless stood by and supported them, were not excoriated by the displaced. No one called for their heads on a stick; no one wanted them burned at the stake.
Each got 5 years’ probation, which, if they behaved themselves, should be about up. Let’s hope the boys, now young men, have learned their lesson.
On the 1-year anniversary of the fire, this tough little town actually came together, to break bread, and to mark what Stewart called its defining moment. Eight new businesses had opened by then, and ground was being broken on the first business to rebuild, the IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union.
“I don’t think, as a community, we’ll ever put this behind us. I don’t think we’ll ever truly be unified in all the hope, unless we let it go,” Stewart said that night. “We have to let it go.”
“Forgiveness is the most valuable gift we can give to the boys, to their family. And it’s a gift to the community.”
“This small community has struggled, but because there is so much pride, we realized it was worth saving,” Prophetstown Main Street’s Eileen Detra said recently. Her organization has been instrumental in the work to rebuild and renew, and in 2015, Prophetstown received an award at the Illinois Main Street and Historic Preservation Conference created just for the town.
It’s been a difficult 5 years, and the work is not over. No one thinks otherwise.
Prophetstown’s character, though, wasn’t tempered by that calamity; it wasn’t forged in those flames. What that awful fire did was simply illuminate the qualities its 2,100 or so townspeople have had all along: fortitude and mercy, courage and kindness, backbone and grit.
What an amazing example for the rest of us to follow.