FREEPORT, Mich. (WOOD) - A fire destroyed a Barry County business that was built in 1872.
The owner of Cheesebrough Manufacturing Company in Freeport, who lives behind the business, saw the flames around 3:30 a.m. Thursday, called 911 and saved a few belongings from inside the building.
Multiple fire departments were dispatched to the scene and used the city's water system, but then switched to water from tanker trucks to douse the flames.
---- Photos: Cheesebrough Manufacturing Company ----
The company manufactured wood rakes and wooden golf flag sticks. In the early days, members of Wisconsin's cheese industry were customers, as were Hollywood movie producers who used the rakes as props in old westerns. These days, wooden rakes used to smooth out golf course sand traps and poles for greens and marker flags were produced at the mill, mostly by hand.
There was concern the flames were going to spread to nearby buildings but firefighters were able to contain the situation for the most part to the lone structure at 260 Division St. A nearby house and some nearby vehicles sustained heat damage.
The building contained a lot of old equipment, which helped fuel the flames.
Investigators may never know the cause of the fire due to the extent of the damage. They believe it is accidental.
The business is family-owned and -operated by the Van Tols. Ken Van Tol devoted 16-hour days to this company for more than two decades.
"There's a saying that we have...nobody works like a Van Tol, and then we laugh about it, but we really think that means something. Dad will work out here for hours and hours," Ken's son, John Van Tol, told 24 Hour News 8.
For his family, it wasn't just a job; it was a hobby, a place full of family memories.
"You come here and see something that all the kids and grand kids run through and they play hide and seek in the building at night," Van Tol said. "Anything that's done here is all family. And you come here and it's gone."
The same goes for the town, as the building has been a staple in the community for so long.
"The old-timers would call it the center of town because Cheesebrough is Freeport," said Ron Geiger, who owns the print shop down the street.
He grew up next door and spent his childhood with the workers and playing around the building. Now he is part of the Freeport Historical Society, learning more about his old neighbor and hoping the town doesn't forget this piece of history.
"You have a lot of memories of different things that happened there," said Geiger. "We played there a lot and just to think, oh my gosh, it feels like part of your life, and you're never going to see it again."
Geiger has offered the Van Tol family the office space in his print shop, and hopes to see the company up and running again some day.
The Cheesebrough building was not insured, and the Van Tols said they are not sure if they will rebuild or not, as it will be a family decision.
John Van Tol said he and his father wondered what will come next as they stood at the edge of the smoldering mill.
"I'm 65, looking at retiring. What about your brothers? Are we gonna do it for them? Are we gonna do it for me? Are we gonna move to a new locations? Or will we do none of the above?" he said they asked. "There's just a lot of what ifs right now."
24 Hour News 8's Joe LaFurgey contributed to this report.
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