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Jordan Block fire memories: 'Bins of bolts and buckets of memories'

Firefighters battle the Jordan block blaze in the 1998 file photo.
Firefighters battle the Jordan block blaze in the 1998 file photo.

The green wall-mounted phone rang from the kitchen about 20 minutes before eight that morning. "Jordan's is on fire," said Pat Harrison, my city editor at the then Daily Times.

So many questions came to mind. How long has it been on fire? How bad is it? What's my deadline?

At the time I was 23-years-old working at my first full-time post-college job as a reporter. Although I had moved to Carbondale for college and spent the summer in Wisconsin for an internship, Ottawa was my hometown and I was convinced I was only back long enough to be on my way to somewhere else.

A few minutes after I hung up the phone, I drove my red Chevrolet Cavalier across Veterans Memorial Bridge. The parking lot where I had worked the TCBY booth during Riverfest about six years prior was crowded with fire trucks and emergency personnel from throughout the Illinois Valley. White hoses crossed the wet pavement, creating an obstacle course. My notebook flipped open, I made note of the various departments represented — Ottawa, Grand Ridge, Utica …

Firefighters were walking around, tired and soot covered from battling the blaze since the early morning hours. One fireman from La Salle needed to make a phone call. I offered my bag phone, purchased years ago from Big Boyz Toyz after I had passed Tammy Zywicki's abandoned white Pontiac near the Utica exit on Interstate 80 on my way to class at IVCC.

Walking to the office, I ran into my uncle Donny Hartshorn standing on Main Street. He had left his insurance office down the street to watch the fire that had expanded to stores neighboring Jordan Hardware.

One building had housed Taco Bell at the time. However, I remembered it as River Front Video where both my mom, Denise Barr, and my grandma, Donna Hartshorn, would ask customers if they wanted to rent VHS or Beta.

Nearby was the old location for Smitty's Bike Shop, where I had picked out my blue three-speed bike for one of my early double-digit birthdays. Down the block was Russell's Tap where I had been happy to find my fake ID useful during my college years. And on the corner was Walgreens where I would take film to be developed. As I talked with my uncle, I began to realize the block I had known for two decades was forever changed that morning.

Writing my story on deadline, I remember using the phrase "bins of bolts and buckets of memories" to describe Jordan's, as it was known locally. I can remember shopping there with my grandpa, George Hartshorn. He must have been working on a project and I tagged along as he picked up some hardware in a small brown bag. That afternoon as I stood on the wood floor and watched him look through the rows of various sizes of nails, nuts and bolts I can remember the summer sun shining in through the river-facing window, dust motes dancing in the light. Of course I had been in the hardware store many times, but something about that moment has stuck with me throughout the years.

The newsroom was buzzing that morning. Everyone pitched in to create what went on to be award-winning spot news coverage. Of course the cub reporter in me was excited to be a part of a big news event. However, the rest of me was heartbroken for the people who lost their businesses. Twenty years later and more than a dozen years as a business owner myself, I have gained a new perspective on the loss one must feel when the business you have put so much of yourself into is ravaged by fire. When the structurally-compromised buildings were brought down with a wrecking ball, people gathered on the south courthouse lawn to watch. Yet the ruins remained for years, with the hole left by the former Jordan Hardware building hid behind wooden privacy fencing painted to promote both Ottawa and Marquette high schools.

After moving back to Ottawa I ended up living in the old Odd Fellow's bar room, above the former Book Store on the corner of Court and Main streets where my great-grandma Bertha Hartshorn sold me penny candy after school in junior high. My windows overlooked what has come to be known as the Jordan block. It seemed strange to me that I had moved on to two other newspapers, lived out of state for three years, ended up coming back home and yet the rubble could be seen from my kitchen windows. I had an aerial view as the block was transformed into the green space where I now occasionally walk my dog Lou. A small part of the tiled entryway to Russell's Tap can be found between the concrete sidewalk and the grass lawn.

The block seems small to me now. It's hard to envision space for all of the buildings that stood at the confluence of two rivers 20 years ago. Yet, stranger still, is the notion of answering a corded telephone without caller ID and the uncertainty of who will be on the other end of the line when you say hello.

  • ANNETTE BARR is a part-time photographer and former reporter at The Times newspaper. As a cub reporter, she was the first at the scene of the Jordan Hardware fire to cover the event.
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