Sitting on a stoop across the street from Mueth’s Tavern, Ed Holdener couldn’t believe what he was watching on Thursday afternoon.
Smoke was billowing out of the more than 100-year-old building at the southeast corner of Main and Breckenridge along the village’s main road. Every so often flames would spark again as firefighters from multiple agencies tried to keep the fire in check. A regular at the tavern, Holdener was saddened by the scene.
“I’ve made a lot of memories there and forgotten a lot of them,” the 59-year-old Holdener said. “It’s a sad day in Smithton. You just want to sit here and cry.”
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The blaze drew hundreds to the scene as seemingly everyone in the tiny village, population 3,722, stopped by at some point to see what was going on at the popular hangout. Around 4 p.m. tavern employees evacuated the building and called for emergency assistance.
Jason Autry was on his third day on the job as the cook for the tavern. He had come in early to light the fryers. At Meuth’s, Thursday night is fried chicken night, which usually draws a crowd. He went into the back of the building and started the fryers in preparation for what should have been a busy night. He went outside to say goodbye to his father and when he returned a short time later, the fire was raging.
“I told everyone to get out,” Autry said. “I don’t know if there was an explosion or not, it happened too fast. The back door to the kitchen blew open (inside the tavern) and smoke came in.”
Autry went next door to alert a neighbor living one door south of the building that she might want to evacuate. The woman grabbed her dog and joined the rest of Smithton as one of the town’s historical buildings burned.
Bartender Jessicca Mendiola had invited her friends and family out to see her on Thursday. She was hoping to have an easy night at the office.
“This was my third shift back,” said Mendiola, who previously worked at the tavern for seven years. “It’s sad, but we’ll get it fixed.”
She was thankful no one was hurt. She said she was one of five people in the tavern when the fire started. Everyone was able to escape safely. The second floor of the building was an apartment, but it has not been occupied for eight months.
Fire engines from different units lined Main Street, which is part of Illinois 159. The main road into the village was closed for hours as firefighters fought the blaze. Mike Schutzenhofer, chief of Smithton’s volunteer fire department, said the fire reached four alarms after the initial call was received at 4:08 p.m. His department received assistance from Hecker, Millstadt, Northwest, Swansea, St. Libory, New Athens, Freeburg, Signal Hill, Villa Hills, Fayetteville. At least three dozen firefighters were on scene. For about two hours, firefighters worked inside and outside the building before turning to an exterior attack around 6 p.m.
“It’s an old building that’s been added to numerous times,” Schutzenhofer said. “The fire is in the walls. ... We’ll be here a few more hours.”
As of 9 p.m., firefighters were still on the scene as machines were used to help knock the building down. Schutzenhofer said one firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion at the scene. Other than that, there were no injuries.
Rick Mueth has owned the bar since 1979. He said the business would have celebrated its 37th anniversary in December. He was surrounded by regulars as he stood across the street from the business as firefighters worked to contain the blaze.
“It was a neighborhood bar,” Mueth said. “We’d watch football and other sports. It was a sports bar. ... Someone asked me how I could be so calm. It’s gone. What am I going to do?”
Mueth said he hoped to rebuild the bar, which was filled with area sports memorabilia including many St. Louis Cardinals items.
His regulars hope Mueth’s rises from the ashes.
“It’s a good neighborhood bar,” said Steve Pfershy of Smithton. “A lot of generations have come through this bar. It’s more of like your ‘Cheers’ bar. I’ve had a lot of good times in there.”