Thin Ice

Picture of Davel’s store that accompanied an article on the history of Stratford,Wisconsin, written by Kris Leonhardt for Marshfield News Herald. The large structure was build in 1920 and was destroyed by fire on November 15, 1959.

A classmate squeezed beside me into the school’s main entrance, chattering excitedly about the big fire the night before. We slowly started up the crowded steps towards our third-grade classroom on the second floor. As I listened to my friend, I looked at the beautiful black and white saddle shoes worn by the little girl ahead of us. They looked pretty and I wanted a pair, too.

         The whole school was buzzing. The atmosphere reminded me of when heavy snow was falling and we might be sent home early. The excitement and buzzing today wasn’t about a big snowfall, but about our small town’s largest grocery store burning down during the night. Everyone wanted to tell how they had found out or about seeing the disaster in progress.

         I had my own story. Last night my family and I had been enjoying a quiet Sunday evening together. The November night was cold and snow covered the ground outside, but my family and I were warm and cozy in the farmhouse. Unexpectedly, one of my big brothers burst into the house and breathlessly announced that Davel’s store was on fire. I felt shocked and frightened. How could that familiar store burn down? I’d been in it many times with Mom. That store was like my own home!

         Mom and Dad agreed they wanted to see the fire. It would be amazing because of how big the store was. Davel’s not only sold groceries, but shoes, hardware and household items. The building housed a theater, the post office, an agricultural office, bar and bowling alley. Several families lived in the top floor apartments.

         We hastily bundled up and drove the three miles into Stratford. The whole time I sat in the car’s backseat whining, “I’m scared. Don’t go too close to the fire.”

         Daddy parked about a block and a half from the store. The streets were crowded, everyone who had heard what was happening came to town to watch the spectacle. Huge flames leapt high into the black November night sky. My brothers reported that cans of paint and ammunition could be heard exploding. Showers of sparks flew into the air whenever a part of the roof or a wall fell in. I imagined all the candy bars melting in the store and the theater where I once saw a Ma and Pa Kettle movie fill with flames.

         No one who lived in the upstairs apartments was able to save any belongings. Luckily, no one was hurt because many of the people who lived there were out visiting since it happened on a Sunday afternoon. But all their treasured heirlooms, photos, jewelry, stashed cash and accumulated comforts of home were gone.

         The following spring my brother Billy graduated from high school and was hired by the construction company rebuilding the store. He worked there all fall and into the winter until the building was restored. I was in fourth grade and some afternoons Daddy didn’t come into town to pick me up from school. He told me to wait until Billy was done working to come home with him. Since one of my friends lived in town, I spent the extra time playing with Joanie.

         One frosty early winter afternoon the parking lots and street near the school were empty by the time Joanie and I slowly left school. As we crossed the railroad tracks between our parochial school and the public high school, we discovered a skating rink beside the tracks.

         The icy surface called to us. As if with one mind, we both charged toward it, intending to leap onto the glassy surface and have a good slide. Crash! Side-by-side we broke through the window-pane thick ice. I started to scream hysterically. I thought I was going to drown.

Tottering, trying to keep my balance, I suddenly realized, with embarrassment, that the water under the ice was only four or five inches deep. We weren’t in a pond. The area was just a low spot filled with water to make a skating rink. It was a wonder we didn’t fall down. Mortified, we scurried to Joanie’s home three blocks away. We were cold and wet. My shins were bloody. It was hard to wait until Billy was ready to go home.

After Davel’s store burned down, everybody wanted to keep talking about what had happened, unlike Joanie and I after our accident. We never talked about that afternoon. After the fire I had wished for pretty black and white saddle shoes, but after the skating rink incident, I just wanted any shoes that weren’t waterlogged.

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