March 22 • 09:30 AM

History goes up in smoke

Imlay's 1930s-era grandstands at Grettenberger Field destroyed by flames

Bruce Swihart, Sue Romine, Marilyn Swihart, Tom Romine and Deby Smith survey the scene on Wednesday morning at R. A. Grettenberger field grandstands after the historic structure succumbed to flames, less than two weeks before a special dedication ceremony was planned. photo by Randy Jorgensen.

September 09, 2009
IMLAY CITY — This Saturday's dedication ceremony at the R.A. Grettenberger grandstands promised to be unique and historic. Sadly, an early morning fire on Sept. 2 cancelled those plans and instead of school officials, alumni and donors gathering to celebrate the landmark's restoration, fire investigators have been sifting through the remains.

"We are devastated," Alumni Association Secretary Marilyn Swihart said.

The association led a campaign to restore the crumbling structure built in the 1930s.

"It stood there for 73 years and we came so close. We had a really nice ceremony planned."

Fire Chief Kip Reaves said the investigation is ongoing but arson has been ruled out as a possible cause. An investigator with the Michigan State Police was on scene last week and determined early that there were no signs of entry or anything suspicious.

On Thursday, an investigator with the school district's insurance company joined the state police investigator on scene. Reaves said they will first look for the origin of the fire and then survey the debris for a possible cause.

Reaves said a W. First Street neighbor reported the blaze around 3:15 a.m., saying she could see and smell smoke and heard crackling from the area.

Imlay City Police Officer Kevin Homer was first on scene and relayed to firefighters that flames had already spread from the middle of the heavy timber structure to the roof. Reaves said that by the time his department was on scene the 22 by 50 foot structure was fully involved.

The Goodland Township Fire Department and Lapeer County Sheriff's Department assisted on scene.

Reaves said firefighters began to suppress the fire but their efforts were complicated when the roof collapsed. A 'pancake effect' was created as a result.

"Having a burning surface on top of another burning surface (made) it hard to get to the middle of the fire," Reaves said.

"This collapse also made the building unsafe structurally, so firefighters were pulled back to a safe zone and fought the fire from the outside."

Reaves said a damage estimate has yet to be determined.

The Imlay City Alumni Association undertook the nearly two year campaign, raising more than $33,000 to save the structure, which had been deemed structurally unsafe and headed for demolition. The school district didn't have the money to make the repairs themselves. They were built in 1936 by a Works Progress Administration crew.

Swihart said the association received 170 individual donations and six grants for the restoration work done by builder Rick Duthler.

"He put his heart and soul into it, donated a lot of his labor and made some very helpful suggestions in keeping with the historical integrity of the original building," Swihart said of Duthler.

The Imlay City Rotary Club donated a new sign for the building.

On Monday, Schutz's Tree Farm completed a landscaping project around the grandstand and on Tuesday, Swihart said they had decided where to put a historical marker slated to be unveiled at Saturday's ceremony.

"We just have to look to the future and stay positive," Swihart said.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the historical marker but schools' Superintendent Gary Richards said their insurance provider has given the okay for the debris to be cleared away and for the school to solicit bids for the construction of a new grandstand. Richards said they'll likely hold off on cleaning up the site immediately so that contractors can survey the structure and hopefully rebuild its likeness.

Reaves said the first responders were well aware of the efforts to restore the structure while battling the flames.

"We all feel bad about the fire and what was lost. Many of us grew up here, played on those fields and had a history with the grandstand," Reaves said.

"As the morning turned to daylight, many residents, city officials, school officials and former students came to look at the damaged structure. We saw a lot of tears."

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