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Barker officials vow to rebuild Village Hall: 'It's crazy that so much is gone'

People in the eastern Niagara County village of Barker, population 535, will remember for decades the night that fire destroyed the Village Hall and public library.

No one was hurt in the blaze, but the village's history took a beating in the flames that erupted just before midnight Sunday and swept through a building that predated the incorporation of the county's smallest municipality in 1908.

The Main Street building, which housed both the village administrative offices and the library, was declared a total loss by the Niagara County Sheriff's Office.

"Right now, we're in the process of taking this all in," Mayor Aaron S. Nellist said Monday. "It's quite a devastating thing that happened. None of us were prepared for this."

But the village had insurance. After an emergency meeting Monday morning in the home of Deputy Mayor Gregory P. Kerth, the Village Board vowed to rebuild on the same site.

Nellist said he does not know how much will be covered by insurance, for a simple reason: "All of our records were inside."

Firefighters battle a blaze Sunday and early Monday at Barker Village Hall. (Larry Kensinger/Special to The News)

"That's the entire town's history," said Michael Upton, who works at Pizza, Wings & Things in Barker. "It's crazy that so much is gone."

But Clerk-Treasurer Amanda Detschner said the village accounting software was backed up off-site. She said the Village Hall had an 8-foot-by-10-foot "fireproof" room, which held a variety of meeting minutes, election records, newsletters, payrolls, financial records and other materials dating to 1908.

Detschner said that room probably wasn't designed to survive a fire as severe and as long as the one that broke out Sunday night. However, as she looked at the wreckage with a reporter Monday, she saw several seemingly intact volumes of assessment records dating back to the 1940s. It appeared that some other books might have survived, too.

But that didn't seem to be the case for the public library, which occupied about 60 percent of the one-story building.

Seanna Corwin-Bradley, a Village Board member and president of the library board, said the library housed 15,858 pieces of printed material. Its loss was a blow to this tiny community and its collective memory.

"Every year they had the school art show there," recalled Eadie Fuerch, a worker at Pizza, Wings & Things.

"The wife's upset, because she used the library a lot," Gary Waas of Somerset said as he sat at the lunch counter in Thee Barker Store, a block from the library.

"It was a highly utilized aspect of the village, and it's disappointing that we're going to have to find another way to provide that service," Nellist said.

Barker officials look over the remains of their Village Hall on Monday. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Also destroyed was a painting by local artist Mark Weld of the Village Hall in its original state as a railroad station, built in 1900. The building was renovated in 1963, Detschner said. In 1967, the village offices moved in, followed by the library in 1969.

Although there's a small hole in it, the Village Hall sign Weld created was saved. "Our Fire Department did everything they could to save that sign," Detschner said.

Now, village offices will move into the Police Department, which is in a separate building at 1697 East Ave. Normal office hours will begin Tuesday, according to a village news release.

The village's Public Works Department also had a separate location, so its equipment also was unscathed.

"Our services will not be disrupted and will continue as usual; this includes police services, snow removal and refuse," the statement said.

Board meetings probably will be held in the Lions Club building at the east end of Main Street, Nellist said. But it's possible that Monday's session might have to be held somewhere else. Nellist said he expects it to be better-attended than usual.

Nellist said Barker has discussed dissolution and folding itself into the surrounding Town of Somerset, but he said a majority of residents don't support that notion, and he doesn't expect the fire to change their views.

"No, not at all. I think our village residents are pretty happy with the services they're provided," Nellist said.

"I think we need another Village Hall," said Maria Cantella, who works at Thee Barker Store. "The library did a lot for the community."

"I think it's going to be a community project to bring both back up," Corwin-Bradley said.

An old book of assessment rolls remained unscathed in the fire that burned down Barker's Village Hall and library. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Many residents rushed to the scene after hearing the sirens and seeing the smoke and flames.

Michael Upton, who works at Pizza, Wings & Things about a block from the fire scene, was one of them.

"You could see the flames shoot probably higher than the pizza shop, probably 30 feet in the air," Upton said.

"In the front of the building, it was all sparks," said Ben Taylor, the pizza shop manager, who also witnessed the blaze.

Several locals spoke of a "power surge," with lights flickering off and on, shortly before the fire was reported at 11:55 p.m. Jonathan F. Schultz, Niagara County fire coordinator, said the cause and origin of the fire remain under investigation. He said he heard about the "power surge" reports and is seeking information from National Grid about it.

Dave Bertola, a spokesman for National Grid, said the company's records show the Barker area was included in an outage affecting 13,000 customers between 10:17 and 10:57 p.m.

"There were no power lines down and the power was restored an hour before (the fire)," he said.

Schultz said about 50 firefighters from the Barker, Lyndonville, Gasport and Olcott fire companies were at the scene for more than four hours, battling subzero cold and high winds to extinguish the inferno.

Schultz confirmed Nellist's report that a hydrant froze in the open position, that three pumper trucks froze, and that there was a delay in folding the ladder on a Gasport truck after the fire because of ice.

"It was minus-6 degrees when I left," said Schultz, who was at the scene until after 4 a.m. "Definitely the cold and the high winds made it tough last night. But I'll tell you what: The guys and girls up there were real champs. They did a phenomenal job with what they were faced with."

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