A heartfelt Thanksgiving
A heartfelt Thanksgiving
By Mike Van Sickle
The smoke and flames may have swiftly consumed their businesses, but almost as rapidly, the trio of merchants most affected by the devastating Nov. 5 downtown West Union fire began to sense the caring support of an entire community
From the quick response to the scene by members of the West Union Fire Department and other emergency personnel to the kind words and various acts of compassion from local residents, the business owners quickly realized they were surrounded by an extended family.
“It all began with the firefighters,” said Roy Guenther, who watched curbside from across the street as his Top Hat Tavern was lost to the flames. “I know those guys, and I could almost sense their frustration as they realized their efforts were futile in saving the building. I know it was a difficult decision for them to knock down the walls (to the Top Hat) in order to save the other buildings down the street.
“The firemen’s response was awesome. For them to come into a situation like that and do what they do…there would most likely be nothing downtown without them. They are some great people,” added Justin Steinlage of Unionland Feed & Supply, the business at which the fire originated.
From the very first minutes after the fire call went out, Justin and his father, Gary, witnessed the support of the community.
As previously reported, Justin had barely finished pulling his delivery truck from the rear of the burning building when, thanks to the first act of random kindness from a local man who had seen the rising smoke, he was able to quickly save the business computer.
With the flames far from being extinguished, Gary was also receiving phone calls from the various vendors whose products were sold from the West Union store.
“Nick (Francios) of Kent Feed, Bob (Howard) from Country View Dairy, and Dan and Melissa Fagle of Fagle View Farms and Meats were among the many vendors who almost immediately offered to do anything to assist us in getting back on our feet,” he explained.
As was the case when they first opened in 2005, the Steinlages not only handle seed stock, but primarily focus on providing “family and friends” items to their customers. While carrying the traditional livestock and pet supplies, the family-operated business especially values the opportunity to promote locally grown products ranging from meats and poultry to dairy, fruits, and vegetables.
“Much like any locally owned business, our customers are not a number in our store,” he added. “It’s that personal touch. It’s just who we are. These local entrepreneurs out there help support community groups and organizations. They keep our communities unique and many times invest back in their respective community.
“We certainly couldn’t do this without the support we have received in return from them and our customers,” he continued. “I bet by the end of the evening (of the fire) we had 20 places that we could have chosen from to use as temporary storage for our various delivery supplies.
“Tom Poe (of Crystal Distribution) was already looking for us early on that night. He was great to work with and was definitely a main reason we were able to get moved (into the former H&H building) and back on our feet so quickly,” said the elder Steinlage.
Justin acknowledged it wasn’t until the next morning that he began to think of the little things lost to the flames, including his large college/university T-shirt collection.
Upon hearing of the communitywide effort soon after the fire to help him begin a new collection, he admits to becoming choked up.
“This community is simply awesome. We couldn’t be where we’re at without them. I don’t think people realize how lucky they are to call West Union home. This is what it’s all about,” he closed.
Still home at the Top Hat
The Top Hat Tavern has been owned and operated by members of the Guenther family since 1967, when it was purchased by Roy’s uncle Gerald Guenther from George “The Greek” Ambeges.
Roy’s late father, Robert, and uncle Lyle (Louie) Guenther worked for Gerald until they leased it from him in 1974. Louie had also previously worked with “The Greek.”
At the age of 20, Roy joined Robert, or “Big Bob” as he was affectionately known, in partnership in 1977. Father and son worked together for 14 years until Big Bob’s death in 1991.
In 1999 Roy commented during the community’s Sesquicentennial celebration, “One of the best things about doing business in West Union is the ability to build long-term friendships with customers. Even those who move away feel compelled to come to The Top Hat when coming back to West Union.”
Without a doubt they are sentiments that continue today, Roy admitted, while noting, “From the night of the fire to now, people have been continuously providing kind words and support to me and my family.”
Noting that West Union Fire Chief Roger Gamm shared his concerns in regard to the depression that fire victims and emergency personnel may go through following such disasters, Roy said the quick reopening allowed him to be occupied with other things rather than just sitting around the house.
After suffering a stroke in April and a break-in at the former Top Hat, Roy had already worked hard to overcome hurdles in 2013. Ironically, among the very few items discovered while poking through the remains of the former Top Hat was the Pat Benatar record “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”
Noting he had also wrenched his knee and ankle after falling outside his home on the day of the fire, Guenther said, “I feel I’ve always been one to look for new challenges, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to begin putting the smiles back on the faces of others.”
While praising former Longbranch owner Keith Butterfield for the leasing of the building, Guenther reported that volunteers quickly helped begin the cleanup effort for the Top Hat’s new location. Soon after the interior was repainted, Red Line Vending provided a pool table and video games, while Larry Barker of Bemiss Distributing delivered new lights to the Top Hat.
In addition to his wife, Belle, and son, Levi, Roy expressed his heartfelt appreciation toward his daughter Bobbi-Jo’s invaluable efforts, including stenciling the front door of the new Top Hat and keeping his faithful patrons posted with updates on the Top Hat Facebook page.
“I guess you could say that the word of our new home has spread like wild fire,” said Guenther with a wry smile. “While I’m especially grateful to the firemen and their valiant efforts, I’m also extremely thankful for the kind words of the community and serious labor provided by countless people of West Union and the surrounding area.”
Special delivery for McJ’s
“The fire has brought the community back to how I remember when I returned here 30-some years ago. With all of the trials and tribulations we’ve witnessed over the past few years, this has just been a great response from everyone,” said McJ’s building owner Norm Einck on Friday.
Bob and Jessica Sadler had just relocated McJ’s Embroidery from its original location at Sims TV & Electronics to E. Elm Street in January 2013 before being forced to evacuate the property due to heavy smoke damage
With the help of Kevin Cline, the Sadlers have been able to temporarily move their West Union business to the former Good Shepherd Church (on Highway 150 South, across from Moss Roofing).
In addition to the support quickly shown by Bob’s employer, Dave Melchert at Suckow United Dairy, the Sadlers first experienced the caring support of fellow business owners Jack Cline and Joni Spies of NAPA Auto Parts when they requested the use of empty boxes to be utilized to fill with smoke-damaged clothing and supplies.
“We were expecting to only use a few (boxes) from them, but they just kept coming from their store with armfuls of boxes upon boxes,” said Bob.
Also among the first on the scene to help clean up and pack for the store’s fire sale held on Nov. 15 were former McJ’s business owners Gary and Jane Blumhagen and Carolyn Havenstrite.
Community and family members helping to wash clothing and/or packing boxes over the next couple days included Marc and Andrea Rue, Roger and Amy Ameling, Melissa Fagle, Joyce White, Jason and Jennifer Everett, Neil and Julie Lansing, Marla and Tim Feldman, and Robin Drechsel.
“On the Sunday following the fire alone, we had approximately 20 volunteers show up and help us box things up to be transported to our new location,” said Jessica. “Within two hours we had everything here. It went unbelievably fast.” North Fayette Valley Transportation Director Kevin Weidemann helped approve and prepare the school district’s bus barn for the fire sale. In addition to Jessica’s grandma Joyce White working as cashier, Denise Nelson bagged the purchased products during the successful event.
The Sadlers are also greatly appreciative of the emotional support shared by Carolyn Szemkus, Ann Hutchens, Mary Johannsen, and Dick Woodard. Family friends Aaron and Eileen Haines also shared their well-wishes by shipping wine from their Pennsylvania home.
While each of the three business/property owners awaits insurance reports before making official plans for the future, the families shared their appreciation on Thursday with the community members who first provided them with reason to give thanks this Thanksgiving holiday – the West Union Fire Department.
Although the traditional turkey was replaced with a gluttonous supply of pizzas provided by the Steinlages, Guenthers, Sadlers, and Eincks, the smiles and laughter shared by all in attendance at the local fire department was a tribute to the entire community.
(Editor’s note: Understandably, due to the community’s widespread support, each of the business owners apologizes to any of the good Samaritans they may have forgotten to mention.)