MONTGOMERY — James Mladek was out walking about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday when he spotted smoke and several fire trucks. Then he recognized the brick structures that had been cordoned off along South First Street.
“I didn’t want it to see it. I realized it was those buildings.”
Firefighters had been fighting the downtown fire for hours before Mladek, president of Montgomery’s historical society, witnessed the damage to two of the city’s oldest downtown buildings.
“It’s sad when a small town loses a building. Chances are slim they will ever get rebuilt.”
The fire department responded to a call at 3:45 a.m. reporting the fire. Upon arrival, firefighters saw flames engulfing the second floor of the vacant building at 104 S. First St. When the fire began to spread to an adjoining structure at 102 S. First St., firefighters helped an apartment’s occupants safely leave the building. No one was injured.
Jeff and Maureen Franek’s plumbing-air conditioning business was on the main floor of the 102 S. First St. building. The fire began on the second floor of the vacant building, but its cause had not yet been determined.
The fire heavily damaged the two structures that shared a common wall and architecturally were almost identical, said Jean Keogh, the historical society’s secretary and a former mayor.
She and other members of the society have been at work for months documenting Montgomery’s downtown district, one step toward earning a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We got a Legacy grant in December, and we hoped to have our downtown designated as a historical site. Then Montgomery could be promoted as a historical attraction. Then we could say, ‘Come see us,” Keogh said.
Mladek said between 20 and 30 structures in downtown Montgomery comprise the area his group is seeking to qualify for the historical designation. Two buildings in town, the Arts and Heritage Center (Hilltop Opera House) and Pizzeria 201 (former offices for Westerman Lumber Company) are on the national registry.
“The timing of this (fire) was not good at all,” said Dale Ruhland, Montgomery’s unofficial town historian.
He was at the scene Wednesday afternoon when crews razed an exterior brick wall.
“They are two of the town’s oldest buildings,” he said describing the side-by-side twin structures that were erected around the turn of the 20th century.
Ruhland said the buildings’ original owner was an immigrant, John Schatz, who after his arrival in 1881 worked as a cattle buyer and a butcher. He operated a downtown meat market for many years.
Over the years, the 102 and 104 S. First Street addresses have been used by a saloon operator, a furniture store owner and an auto parts dealer.
“There’s a really neat history,” Ruhland said. “In 1980, the Minnesota State Historical Preservation Office identified the Schatz building (side) as the oldest family-owned business in Montgomery.”