Downtown Prophetstown Rises Up Five Years After Fire

Jul 20, 2018

On July 15, 2013,  fire destroyed downtown Prophetstown in northwestern Illinois. Two boys were charged with starting the blaze. The small community has spent the last five years re-building from the devastation. On this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Jenna Dooley heads back to Prophetstown for an update.

Days after the fire, members of the Prophetstown Historical Society worked in sweltering temperatures to salvage treasures from the community's history. The fire destroyed the upper level of their building. With fans blowing in the background to overcome smoke damage, member Charlene Hanson was optimistic.

"We hope that in time something will happen," Hanson said at that time."And we will be back together and have all of our stuff on display again. Then we will know that we overcame what happened to us. We are fighters, and we are going to do what we can."

Five years later, the group is back together in a new building a few doors down and members gather each week over coffee and sweets.

Before the fire (left) soon after (center) and in 2018 (right)
Credit Guy Stephens, Chelsey Fulbright, Victoria Lunacek

Fred South has volunteered with the organization since he retired as a teacher.

"I keep all of the records and I scan everything into the computer," South explained. "We just had file cabinets full of things and I thought that’s a shame because if you get a fire you can destroy that. So I started scanning and I started back in 2005 and I’m still scanning. I’ve got over 60,000 things scanned now."

He says he is not completely surprised by the speed of the recovery in the downtown as a whole.

"We’ve had numbers of major fires," South said. "We’ve always come back and recovered and rebuilt, and out of these buildings that we lost we now have two new buildings."

He says a couple of months after the fire, the local credit union planted Christmas trees and played holiday music.

"And that was a boost to our people in Prophetstown," South said.

What he is surprised by is how quickly the years have flown by.

Credit Victoria Lunacek

In the Historical Society's new building is a display with artifacts from the 2013 fire with bricks from the fire-ravaged structures and mementos from fire department from neighboring communities that came out to help contain it.                                                                 

"I think one thing we learned is we can still get together and come back from a major disaster, because we’ve done it so many times it’s not anything new to Prophetstown," South said. "And I’ve been through other small towns where they’ve had fires. And you go through 5 or 6 years later and there’s empty lots, sometimes even still old buildings partially standing there."

Not here. And South says the city made sure it could control what went up.

"You’ll notice the two new buildings we have," he said. "They fit in really well because the city owns the lots. That gives them a great deal of authority as to who puts up a building and what the building looks like."

That means the new buildings have been re-built to look like the more historic structures.

Most importantly, he said, they have firewalls, just in case, should another fire hit Prophetstown in the future.

Scroll down for more coverage of the Prophetstown fire