Bob Brace, the owner of the Red Bird Music Store in Osceola, Wis., was just a few minutes into a guitar lesson last week when he heard a popping sound from the back of the shop.
Brace said he looked at his student and asked, "What was that?"
He wandered to the rear of the store and saw movement, "like orange," he said. "And then the smoke started coming."
The space filled with black smoke as Brace, 69, emptied several fire extinguishers. It was too late; the flames worked their way through the walls of the century-old building into a loft area filled with guitar boxes. By morning, his shop was gone, including more than 200 guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles; original artwork and T-shirts; and his collection of some 6,000 new, re-issued, used and vintage vinyl records.
The Jan. 18 fire also took out the neighboring Natural Heritage Art Centre. Owners Jessica Turtle and David Aichinger had just opened the gallery, performance space and artist workshop in November.
The one-two punch to Osceola's arts community has been met by an outpouring of support.
A fundraiser is in the works. Some businesses will donate a portion of sales this coming Friday. The local bar, PY's, is holding a meat raffle. A pair of GoFundMe accounts (Natural Heritage Art Centre and Red Bird Music) have raised thousands of dollars. Local businesswoman Gwen Wright opened a Facebook page with updates on fundraising, along with an account at a local bank through her nonprofit, We Are One.
"It's huge," said Brace, who said he's been moved to tears by the help. "It's a big silver lining around a little dark cloud."
Brace didn't realize the scope of the fire at first because he was taken to an ambulance for smoke inhalation. He initially told the Osceola Volunteer Fire Department that he thought he had extinguished it, not realizing the fire had worked its way into the walls.
He returned the following morning and found the front wall standing, its windows black with soot.
"I opened up the door and there was the sky," he said. The roof had caved in. The back of the shop was torn out. Chest-deep water in the basement ruined whatever he had stored there. His cat, Beavis, died in the fire.
His losses include a vast record collection, including some $4,000 of new factory-sealed releases he had just purchased. He also had one of the few copies of an album from the Litter, a 1960s Minneapolis psychedelic band. Some of the instruments lost in the fire include classical, acoustic, electric, and 12-string guitars. A friend's vintage guitar worth $1,000 was in Brace's shop for repairs, and that's gone, too.
It's unclear if Brace will be able to rebuild. He wants to, but he's expecting a thicket of hurdles including cost and rules governing what can go in place of the historic building he owned.
Art Centre had just opened
On the night of the fire, Aichinger was in Stillwater with his snow sculpting team, the House of Thune, competing in the World Snow Sculpting Championship.
It was the first day of the four-day competition, and Aichinger was attending an opening night reception when his partner, Turtle, called with news of the fire.
Aichinger raced a few miles upriver to their home in Osceola, where he and Turtle had opened the Art Centre in November.
Their passion project was filling with smoke and water from the battle at Brace's music store. The two shops share a wall and roof.
Aichinger said he wasn't sure what he would find, but as he crossed the St. Croix River into Osceola, "the whole river valley smelled like smoke," he said.
They started the Art Centre after Turtle spent years focused on public art, including time in the Twin Cities and with the AZ Gallery in St. Paul's Lowertown. During the pandemic, she said she felt the need to create a space where people could come together.
She and Aichinger moved to Osceola in 2016 with their son. When they opened the Art Centre, the hope was that they could leverage multiple revenue streams to create a sustainable arts organization. They sold a lot of work through the holidays, Turtle said. They were surprised by the turnout and the passion when they held an open mic night for music, and another one for poetry.
"I think the thing that's probably falling the hardest on me is the loss of the dream, is that we don't know that we have the resources to build it again," Turtle said. She and Aichinger had sunk everything they had into the business. They were insured and are working with fire adjustors and the insurance company this week to determine what will happen.
From ashes to victory
As it became clear that their Art Centre was a loss, Turtle said she told Aichinger to get back to Stillwater and the snow sculpting competition. "I told him he had to win," she said.
Aichinger said his teammates, the brothers Kelly and Dusty Thune, sawed, scraped and shaved their 10-ton mound of snow into a sculpture that depicts two figures standing back to back.
The figures have pieces missing or being removed. It represents the difficult journey everyone has been on in the past few years. "It's how we lost bits of ourselves or we fall apart, and maybe take these parts that fell out and try to fit them back in," Aichinger said.
"We planned this out months ago," Aichinger said. "Little did I know."
On Saturday, when the call went out for the snow sculpting teams to drop their tools, "Journey" was ranked the winner by the other sculptors.
It's the highest level competition his team has ever won, Aichinger said.