'The one thing that kept the spirit of this community alive': Lake Church neighbors devastated after historic building lost in fire

NOW: ’The one thing that kept the spirit of this community alive’: Lake Church neighbors devastated after historic building lost in fire

LAKE CHURCH, Wis. (CBS 58) -- An Ozaukee County landmark is gone after a fire Tuesday night, and Wisconsin has lost one of the state's oldest taverns.

Officials confirmed Wednesday the Lake Church Inn is a complete loss after a fire that took 22 fire departments more than six hours to extinguish. Those who showed up Wednesday didn't official word because the sight of their gathering place reduced to a pile of rubble said it all.

Kevin Wester wrote a book outlining the history of this small, unincorporated community just east of Belgium. Wester said the Lake Church Inn, which ownership claims dates back to 1848 -- the year Wisconsin became a state -- had long served as a social center. 

"There were four generations before me that used to go here, to the bar and the general store," Wester said. "We went there as kids. I was here eating at the restaurant just two weeks ago."

Wester said after St. Mary's Church, the community's namesake, closed in 2018, the tavern was the last remaining thread tying together those generations.

"I wrote at the end of the book: When I drive past here, and I see cars at the Lake Church Inn, at the bar, it's sort of like the spirit of the community is still alive," he said. "So that's what hit me last night and today. It's like the one thing that kept the spirit of this community alive, now that's gone."

The Ozaukee County Sheriff's Office said the fire started shortly after 5:30 Tuesday night. It began near the kitchen and spread quickly.

Owner Dave Maiman estimated about 8-10 customers and employees were inside at the time, and everyone got out safely. Officials said one worker was evaluated for smoke inhalation.

High winds made conditions even more dangerous for firefighters, who eventually decided partially demolishing the building was necessary in order to completely extinguish the flames. 

"They tried to save her," Maiman said. "But that heavy wind -- and it was electrical, started in a back wall, and they couldn't."

The sheriff's office said it took more than six hours to put out the fire, and it was finally out shortly after midnight. Investigators said there wasn't anything suspicious about the fire. The property also included a separate motel on the other side of a driveway, which was not damaged at all. 

Throughout the day, people pulled up to see the rubble for themselves. Often, they'd spot Maiman and approach him to offer their condolences and give him a hug.

Jamie Moran said she once worked at the tavern as a bartender and hosted her son's 21st birthday party there.

"It's devastating. I was actually going through pictures and stuff, just memories of us being in there, and that building is just historic," she said. "Even last night, in my bedroom, I had my windows open, and I could smell the fire, and it just broke my heart."

Moran arrived with Barbara Ernster, who said she also frequented the tavern. They both stood briefly with Maiman, looking at what was left of the building.

"I compare it to 'Cheers,' where everybody knows your name," Ernster said. "It was amazing. You'd walk in here, you'd have the worst day, and it'd put a smile on your face. It was very nostalgic.

Maiman said he was waiting for insurance adjusters to finish their work Wednesday before wading into the rubble.

He said he hoped to recover any artifacts that might still be intact somewhere in the pile, particularly pieces of the original bar and tin ceiling.

"I'm sure there will be a few things," Maiman said. 

While Maiman was confident there were some parts of the property he could salvage, he said he wasn't thinking about that too much on Wednesday. Instead, the day was full of phone calls, in-person chats and reflection.

"It was kind of my life the last 20 years, so, it's all about the people," Maiman said. "All the nice people that pass through and a lot of people were here long before I was."

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