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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 12:09 am

Blaze brings out the best

Thanks to many, dealership survives

Despite an Aug. 8 fire that destroyed nearly 150 classic cars, Russ and Anita Noel remain in business alongside Interstate 55 in Staunton.
Photo BY BRUCE RUSHTON

 

Just two days after a massive fire lit the sky for miles, Classic Country Cars in Staunton was back in business.

Approximately 100 firefighters from more than a dozen departments helped battle the blaze at the landmark antique car dealership alongside Interstate 55 between Springfield and St. Louis. Nearly 150 vehicles housed in a storage building measuring more than 26,000 square feet were destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire. Without hydrants, or walls or other fire stops inside the structure, to slow the blaze, it was a lost cause from the beginning, according to Staunton Fire Chief Rick Haase, who said it was the largest fire his department has handled in the past 10 to 20 years.

Owners Russ and Anita Noel, who’ve been married for 41 years, said that they saw the blaze light the sky as they rushed to their business from their home south of Staunton after getting a call shortly after 8 p.m. “We could see it from 10 miles away,” Anita Noel recalled. “We knew it wouldn’t be good. We were crying.”

Why, then, were the Noels smiling one week after the fire? Call it a case of counting blessings.

“We had a fire Tuesday,” Russ Noel says. “We were selling cars on Thursday morning.” Noel and his wife credit firefighters, family, customers and neighbors for keeping their business going in the wake of near disaster.

The Noels say that fire investigators have determined that the blaze started near the center of the giant structure, but a cause hasn’t been established. While nearly a quarter of the 600 or so classic cars that are on the site at any given time were destroyed, much was saved, not the least being titles for every vehicle on the property that’s been home since 1999 to the dealership that ships cars to Switzerland, France, Australia and other destinations around the world. Without titles, the Noels said, they would have been forced to close. And so the business that has eight employees remains a viable operation.

Anita Noel says firefighters were quick to retrieve the paperwork from the office once the fire was declared under control but before hot spots were extinguished. Haase says that titles were in an office some distance away from where the blaze began, but Anita Noel and her husband say it was more than location that kept the precious paperwork intact.

“What they (firefighters) did for us, they kept our office sopping wet (during the fire),” Anita Noel says. “It was going to go up in flames.”

The Noels also praise the Illinois Secretary of State’s office. Without being called, officials from the secretary of state got in touch after the fire to offer assistance in replacing titles.

“They assumed our titles were all lost,” Anita Noel says.

Rolls Royces and Model T’s and Studebakers and vintage muscle cars come and go, and many dozens were destroyed in the conflagration, but generosity is something else. Offers to help poured in from around the nation, the Noels say, and customers have called from around the world.

“Everybody says ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’” Russ Noel says.

While their office in the building that’s a total loss was destroyed, the Noels had another one within a day, courtesy of Dennis Ahrens, who works in sales at a nearby farm equipment business. After hearing of the Noel’s plight from a friend, Ahrens offered the use of a 30-foot trailer for a temporary office.

“I called Dennis: ‘What do you want for it?’” Russ Noel says. “He said ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He brought it up here that afternoon.”

Ahrens said that his business once went through a fire, and so he sympathized.

“That’s old school – that’s the way it used to be done,” Ahrens said in explaining his kindness. “I know what kind of a mess it is for anybody to deal with a fire. We went through the same thing down here.”

Russ Noel acquires his automotive treasures from auctions, barns and other sources, traveling hundreds of miles. Soon after the fire, he got a call from an auction business in Wisconsin.

“’You come and buy cars and you can pay me in three or four months,’” Noel says the auctioneer told him. “That made me cry right then.”

And so the business the Noels began from their farm in 1994, about 15 miles south of the dealership will continue. The fire that had them crying a week ago, they say, will not keep them down.

“It’s a little bit of a speed bump for us,” Russ Noel says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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