PAXTON — A collection of antique vehicles, many of which had historical significance to the community of Paxton, went up in flames when the storage building they were in caught fire Tuesday night and again early Wednesday morning.
"We lost a lot of Paxton history," said Royce Baier, a local historical preservationist who owns the vehicles and the metal building on the city’s east side. "A lot of those vehicles were original Paxton vehicles that were bought new here and never left this town. My dad (Maurie) and I worked hard to save those over the years, so it really breaks your heart."
Baier said that 18 vehicles, most considered antiques, sustained damage in the fire, and only a couple may still be salvageable.
An estimated 15 to 20 firefighters from Paxton and 12 from Loda responded to the blaze just north of the intersection of Holmes and Vermilion streets at 6:53 p.m. Tuesday, finding smoke pouring out of the storage shed’s roof upon arrival, Paxton Fire Chief Denny Kingren said.
"I could see it eight blocks away, so I knew we had something pretty significant," Kingren said. "It probably had been burning for some time before we even got a call."
After getting the fire under control, firefighters pulled the three most extensively damaged vehicles out of the shed before eventually clearing the scene around 9:45 p.m., Kingren said. Baier had planned to remove the rest of the vehicles — most of which sustained some heat damage — the following day, hoping some might still be salvageable, Baier said.
"When I left there last night, we had lost four of the trucks (in the shed), but most of the vehicles toward the south (end of the building) just had paint bubbling on some of them but were still salvageable, and a couple of them had no damage at all," Baier said.
While firefighters felt "comfortable" the fire was sufficiently extinguished, they asked a Paxton police officer, as a precaution, to periodically check the fire scene while on patrol overnight, Kingren said.
It was at 2:53 a.m. Wednesday — about 45 minutes after the officer’s last pass by the scene — when firefighters responded to a report that the fire had rekindled and smoke and flames were again pouring out of the shed’s roof, Kingren said.
In the end, the shed and the 15 vehicles that remained in it were a total loss.
"I heard eruptions — like propane tanks or gas tanks going off," Kingren said. "So I knew it was a major fire again. We’re totally up in the air on what got it going so rapidly the second time."
An investigator for the state fire marshal’s office spent Wednesday probing the scene to determine the fire’s origin and cause.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Kingren said the investigator had concluded his investigation but was unable to either pinpoint or rule out any specific cause, so he left it "undetermined."
Kingren said he suspects an issue with an "electrical line" may have caused the blaze, but he said the damage was too great to determine whether that was the case.
Baier said the 40-by-100-foot shed, built in 1984, and the vehicles inside were insured. Some of the vehicles, however, were extremely rare, if not one-of-a-kind, and cannot be replaced, Baier said.
"Sure they were old cars and they were just materialistic things, but they were an important part of the history of this town," Baier said.
Many of the vehicles were part of a collection started by Baier’s father, who died in 2000.
"Probably half of the cars in there were cars he had collected — maybe a little bit more than that," Baier said.
Among the vehicles destroyed were:
— A 1936 Chevrolet coupe, which was "one of the very first cars in the collection," Baier said. "Dad drove that car to work every day for years."
— A 1934 Dodge sedan with only 19,000 miles on it. The car had been previously owned by a woman who built a house next to the Baier Funeral Home on East Pells Street.
— A 1951 Dodge with only 10,000 miles on it.
— A 1974 high-tip ambulance van, which Baier’s father had special-ordered for his local ambulance service. "When we got out of the ambulance business in 2003, I kept it and put all of its original equipment back in it," Baier said. "It was all equipped."
— A 1968 Chevrolet truck that Baier bought last fall with plans to use it to give historical tours.
— A 1967 Ford firetruck that Baier purchased from the Paxton fire department. "It was right where the fire started," Baier said. "It burned up. I really wanted to save that for the community."
— A 1974 Cadillac hearse, which Baier said was "the only ’74 hearse made with Mohair wool interior."
— A 1965 Chevrolet truck that was once used for the Baier family’s furniture business.
— A 1990 Ford bucket truck.
— A 1998 Dodge van regularly used by Baier’s funeral home.
— And an enclosed trailer that was only "a couple of years old" and was used to transport Baier’s antique vehicles.
News of the fire prompted hundreds of messages of support for Baier on social media sites, and Baier is thankful for that support — and more.
"I’m just totally overwhelmed with the people who have stepped up, like on Facebook and all of that," Baier said, "but I’m grateful also that it wasn’t my house or that it wasn’t the funeral home building and that our house didn’t catch on fire while we were sleeping in it. It could have been so much worse. Yeah, we lost a big chunk of our car collection, but we’ll just pick up the pieces and go from here."
Baier tried his best to keep his sense of humor Wednesday despite the situation.
"At least the second fire finished my work for me. There’s nothing to sort through today," Baier said. "I woke up this morning thinking, ‘Now I’ve got to go over there and determine what’s salvageable — what I want to salvage and what’s worth salvaging — and then I’ve got to find somebody to do the work.’ But when they called me this morning and said the whole damn building is burnt, I don’t have any of that work to do anymore."