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Ellsworth loses historic city hall in Tuesday fire

Firefighters attack a fire within Ellsworth City Hall Tuesday morning from above and below. (Alyssa Sobotka / The Globe)1 / 7
A Luverne ladder truck prepares to pump from a reservoir set up by the George, Iowa Fire Department as crews battle hot spots at the Ellsworth City Hall fire Tuesday. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)2 / 7
Paul Snyder, a new Ellsworth city council member (in blue cap), visits with area fire crews as they keep watch for flare-ups during demolition of Ellsworth City Hall. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)3 / 7
Ellsworth firefighters spray water on recurring flare-ups. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)4 / 7
Luverne firefighters keep water supplied to the ladder truck during the fire at City Hall in Ellsworth. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)5 / 7
A backhoe operator skillfully knocks down the walls of Ellsworth City Hall as firefighters keep the fire under control Tuesday. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)6 / 7
A backhoe operator skillfully knocks down the walls of Ellsworth City Hall during a fire Tuesday. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)7 / 7

ELLSWORTH — Smoke and rubble was about all that remained of the historic Ellsworth City Hall Tuesday afternoon after it was gutted by fire.

Nine fire departments, hailing from neighboring communities in southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa, were dispatched to the scene shortly after smoke was reported coming from the 114-year-old building at approximately 6:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Firefighters fought the fire from the front of the building, located at the corner of Broadway Street (Minnesota 91) and Fourth Avenue. At the same time, a backhoe was brought in to begin demolition at the rear of the building. Minnesota 91 was closed to traffic for much of the day.

“It’s extremely sad and it’s very devastating,” Ellsworth Mayor Tasha Domeyer said as she watched the 1904-era building come down. Domeyer is also a firefighter on the community’s volunteer fire department.

She said the few city council members that were at the scene early Tuesday morning decided that demolition of the building was the safest way for it to come down.  

“We can’t take the chance of it tipping to the north and taking out our water tower,” she said at the scene as Henning Construction of Adrian controlled demolition of the structure.

Ellsworth firefighters continued to monitor the structure well into the afternoon, and Domeyer said the front wall was about all that remained as of 4 p.m.

“As we get toward the front (of the building), the fire keeps rekindling,” she said late Tuesday afternoon. “So we’re going to be here a little while yet.”

Domeyer said the town’s water tower remained undamaged, and noted that the official cause of the fire was still unknown. The fire department, however, suspects it began somewhere near the front of the building.

Rich Gaul, an Ellsworth fireman and member of the city council, said earlier Tuesday that he suspected the fire to be electrical in nature based on the brief time firefighters were inside the building before the fire spread.

Firefighters were inside city hall long enough to retrieve a few items from the clerk’s office, like computer systems and filing cabinets containing important documents, Domeyer said. Two pickups and a telehandler were also saved.

Longtime Ellsworth City Clerk Dawn Huisman said while some documents were saved, other old records “dating back to the beginning” were lost. The extent of lost documents won’t be known until the contents of the salvaged filing cabinets can be sorted through, she added.

Other community organizations such as the senior center and community club (formerly the optimist club) also used city hall for storage, Huisman said.

The Ellsworth City Council planned to call an emergency meeting later Tuesday, once the building was completely torn down. Domeyer said issues such as insurance and where to relocate the city’s official business would likely be discussed at the meeting.

In addition to the Ellsworth city clerk’s office and council chambers, the building also housed the city’s wastewater operator’s office, the American Legion and Vast Broadband — which caused an interruption of cable, internet and phone services to customers within the city.

The fire caused Ellsworth Public Schools — which sits one block south of city hall — to close for the day. Domeyer said the school closed due to concerns of a possible water shut-off and because the school is heated by a boiler.

Residents of Ellsworth stepped up to provide support for the firefighters throughout the day.

Ray Conklin, part owner of the Ellsworth Cafe, made complimentary hot sandwiches for firefighters on the scene while other volunteers kept the coffee pot filled and made their rounds serving the firefighters.

Domeyer said much like the town’s extended power outage during a storm last spring — as well as the ice storm of a few years ago — people from neighboring communities were willing to step in and help during Tuesday’s fire.

“You feel proud to be from a small community, where you know everybody is going to be there (when you need it),” she said.

Departments worked throughout the foggy morning running tankers back and forth between nearby towns, as the Ellsworth Fire Department’s main water filling station was a spigot that extended from city hall.

Providing mutual aid were firefighters from Adrian, Rushmore, Luverne, Magnolia and Lismore, as well as the George, Little Rock and Rock Rapids fire departments in Iowa.