Janesville73°

Can lodge rise from the ashes?

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
November 6, 2007
— Shattered glass still covered the sidewalk and front entry Monday at the Odd Fellows Lodge.

White fire extinguisher chemical coated floors, walls, ceilings and furniture.


New hardwood floors remained buckled from water damage.


Nearly 10,000 soda can pop tops scattered through the charred room sparkled like precious stones.


The neon sign, once a downtown beacon, no longer shined.


Books, posters, trophies, medals, scrapbooks and photo albums containing the 160-year history of the lodge—established before Wisconsin became a state—were reduced to piles of ash.


Insurance will cover damage from the vandalism and fire Saturday morning at the lodge, 22 N. Main St., but it won’t replace the lost history.


Jeremy A. Brown, 24, of Homewood, Ala., was arrested at 5 a.m. Saturday and charged Monday with burglary, misdemeanor theft and felony criminal damage to property. He remained locked in the Rock County Jail this morning; his bond was set at $7,500 cash.


Although he was arrested on a preliminary charge of arson, Brown has not yet been charged with starting the fire.


Scott Dirks, a Rock County assistant district attorney, explained that he has not yet received reports from the Janesville Fire Department on the fire and its cause.


“At this point, I don’t have complete enough information to file an arson charge,” Dirks said.


And he wasn’t sure if he will file an arson charge when he gets the reports.


Besides proving that Brown started the fire, Dirks said he also must prove that the Brown started the fire intentionally to convict him of arson.


The criminal complaint filed against Brown gives little indication to what his motive might have been. An over-the-road trucker, Brown told investigators that he had parked his truck at a truck stop on Highway 14 and took a cab to drink downtown Friday night. When the bars closed, he tried to get a ride back to his truck, but no one would help him, according to the complaint.


Brown told officers he went into the building looking for a bathroom because he did not want to urinate on the street.


A witness told officers that before he saw the fire, he saw a man matching Brown’s description throwing beer bottles and cans at a vehicle parked in front of the lodge, according to the complaint.


The complaint can be read in its entirety online at www.gazettextra.com.


“He just went crazy and started blasting everything. He ramshackled this whole place,” said Brian Davis, trustee and former recording secretary for the lodge.


Dishes pulled from cupboards were smashed into a pile. Spaghetti from the refrigerator made a slippery mess on the floor.


“This was definitely not about money. This was about rage,” Davis said as he toured the destruction. “He started the fire. He didn’t touch any of the money.”


Money was left in the till in the social quarters, in the kitchen safe and two safes in the dining hall.


Most of the fire damage was contained to the social quarters, which had been renovated about six years ago at a cost of $40,000.


Initial fire damage estimates were $15,000. But Janesville Fire Department Lead Inspector Larry Hainstock and Janesville police Detective Mark Johnson now agree fire damage alone is most likely going to be around $75,000.


Destruction to the lodge’s contents is unfathomable.


“You can’t imagine what it looks like until you get there,” Hainstock said.


An insurance agent as of Monday afternoon had not yet inspected the lodge, which is covered by $600,000 of insurance.


“It’s sad. It’s gut wrenching. It’s heartbreaking,” Davis said, standing amid the rubble.


Davis said lodge members would salvage what they can to preserve the lodge’s past.


“There was a lot of history in this building. That’s what attracted me to the Odd Fellows,” Davis said.


The Sovereign Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in Green Bay owns the three-story building. The lodge is on the second and third floors above the empty street-level storefront that once housed Janesville Sports Shop and Hall’s Studio. An apartment above the lodge’s social quarters also is empty and has not been rented for some time, Davis said.


The fire and damage also displaced the Odd Fellows’ sister group, America Rebekah Lodge 26, Davis said.


Lodge members don’t know if the city is going to let them stay open, Davis said.


A city building inspector toured the building Monday afternoon.


“They may close us down until the situation is fixed,” he said.


But “if we have to, members will meet in a cardboard box,” Davis said.


Weekly lodge meetings most likely will be in members’ homes.


Members will vote on their next move—repair the old or build a new lodge, Davis said.


“We all love this building. It’s been here for 160 years. A lot of lodge brothers will want to keep its doors open for another 160 years. But it’ll depend on the city inspectors and what it’ll cost,’’ Davis said.


“I would love to restore. But if need be we will open another lodge. We don’t ever want to close our doors,” Davis said.


“We have a lot of kids and families,” he said, “that look forward to what we do.”


TO HELP

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows Janesville Lodge No. 14 has established a fund to help recover from Saturday morning’s fire. To donate, stop in or mail a donation to AnchorBank, 100 W. Racine St., Janesville.


WHO ARE THE ODD FELLOWS?

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is one of the largest and oldest fraternal orders in the United States.


Odd Fellowship was founded in England, where it grew up during the 18th century. The Patriotic Order in England was followed by the Union of United Orders and the Loyal Order. In 1813, various lodges of the Union Order organized the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows.


American Odd Fellowship was founded as the Washington Lodge No. 1 in Baltimore in 1819.


The three links of Odd Fellowships’ symbol represent friendship, love and truth.


ODD FELLOWS BELIEFS

Odd Fellows believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.


They also believe in friendship, love and truth as basic guides to the destiny of all mankind.


They believe their home, church or temple, lodge and community deserve their best work, pride and faith and deepest loyalty as they perform duties to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan in addition to working with others to build a better world.


In spirit and in truth, members are always grateful to their Creator, faithful to their country and fraternal to their fellow man.


View an audio slideshow on fire damage at Janesville's Odd Fellows Lodge.
Read the criminal complaint [PDF]

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