Alicia Carter
WOUB File Photo

Nelsonville Fire Rekindles Memories Of Past Blazes

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“I cried,” is how Judy Sinnott of Nelsonville described her reaction when the Public Square was hit Saturday night by a fire, a blaze that Sinnott said also fueled “a ton of flashbacks.”

She and others in the community couldn’t help but recall the 1980 fire that all but destroyed Stuart’s Opera House, located beside the site of Saturday’s fire.

“All of us had the same memory of 1980,” said Nelsonville resident Betty Jo Parsley.

The 1980 fire gutted the opera house, and it came after years of efforts to restore the building — a project that was still under way at the time of the fire. The Messenger’s reporting of the fire referred to the building as the “former Stuart’s Opera House,” and one headline read,” Dreams of Future Die.”

Community members would not let the restoration project die, however.

Although the fire was a harsh setback and money problems continued to hinder and delay the restoration effort, the restored opera house had its grand opening in 1997.

Sinnott said Saturday’s fire also made her think of her brother, the late Rex Maiden. Maiden, an engineer, was instrumental in coming up with a plan in 1980 to retain as much of the remaining opera house as possible so that the restoration could continue.

Parsley recalled two other fires that either damaged for destroyed buildings on the Public Square — fires at First National Bank and at Miller Grocery.

“The biggest crowd since the Parade of the Hills” is how The Messenger described the spectators who had gathered to watch firefighters battle the blaze at First National Bank on Feb. 19, 1968.

Although the bank suffered extensive damage, firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading to the offices on the upper two floors of the building. Three firefighters suffered from smoke inhalation and two others were injured. One of the firefighters treated for smoke inhalation was Richard Anders, who fought the fire while on leave from the Army. Less than two months later he was killed in the Vietnam War.

Almost immediately after the 1968 fire, then-executive vice president Alton Scarborough announced that the bank would temporarily relocate across the Public Square to the Preston Building — which burned Saturday night.

A Feb. 1, 1966 fire destroyed Center Cafe and Miller Grocery, located at the corner of Hocking (Rocky Boots Way) and Columbus Streets, where the office of Nelsonville TV Cable is now located. The fire was caused by a space heater in the cafe.

Several people lived in the cafe building — including an 80-year-old woman — and a police officer had to kick down a door to gain access and alert the residents to evacuate the building.

Although not quite as dramatic, Parsley took action Saturday night to ensure that residents living near Saturday’s fire would remain safe. She went to three houses behind the opera house to alert the residents so they could evacuate their homes and move their cars in case the fire spread.

Parsley and Sinnott agreed that firefighters deserve kudos for their efforts to stop the fire from spreading.

“Our team of firefighters that were there can’t be recognized enough,” Sinnott said. “They saved the Public Square, they saved the opera house.”

Although not on the Public Square proper, another building — the Elks Lodge at Fayette and Hocking Streets — was also hit by a fire, Sinnott recalled.

The June 24, 1969 fire destroyed the second floor, which was utilized by the Elks. Water used to fight the fire poured into the ground floor, including into Chris Bookman’s barber shop and the Elks dining hall.

The fire was discovered  at 3:30 a.m. by a passerby who ran to the now-former City Hall, where the fire department was located.

Another fire in the downtown area, but not on the Public Square, was the Feb. 19, 1974 fire that destroy a major portion of the Warner Building at West Columbus and Fulton Streets.