STAUNTON • There are still a few remnants at Country Classic Cars from the fire that lit up the sky in this rural Illinois town the night of Aug. 8.
Concrete floors in the classic car business off old Route 66 remain warped and blackened in spots. A vault that kept the titles for some 600 classic vehicles safe from the towering flames is marked in places. And two cars that burned in the fire still sit on the lot, black and brown crisps of their former glory.
The cause of the massive fire is still considered undetermined, but the Illinois Fire Marshal narrowed down the source to the wiring in one of five vehicles stored in the business’s main building.
The flames lasted about three hours, mangled the building’s roof and scorched 143 classic vehicles, mostly American cars dating back as far as the 1920s.
It took 13 local fire departments to eventually stop the blaze, and the damage likely totaled in the millions.
But owner Russ Noel, 73, and his wife, Anita Noel, have worked to rebuild the business, located about 40 minutes northeast of St. Louis.
“My first reaction was, well let’s get her cleaned up. What’s the holdup?” said Russ Noel.
Russ Noel said he even sold three cars the day after the fire.
In the months since, an Amish work crew rebuilt the 528-foot building that burned and insurance covered the majority of the business’s costs.
But there are some things the Noels will never be able to replace: a rare 1936 Ford pickup Russ was given from a friend; Anita’s extensive Glen Campbell memorabilia collection; and car collectibles accrued over some 20 years in business.
After the fire, the Noels’ grandchildren drew colorful pictures of cars to replace some of the memorabilia their grandparents lost.
Under a marker-drawn picture of a vintage red pickup, there is a handwritten note with the phrase Russ Noel kept repeating after the fire: “It’s no hill for a climber.”
‘All we could do was watch it burn’
The Noels opened Country Classic Cars in 1999 after Russ Noel spent most of his career as a hay farmer near Edwardsville.
The company grew to sell from 35 to 45 cars a month, including some unusual finds such as vintage cabs, hearses and firetrucks. The company makes most sales online and ships all over the world.
Russ Noel spends most weekends of the year on the road, hunting for cars.
“It’s sure more fun and better money than farming,” he said.
The Noels first heard something was wrong about 8 p.m. the night of the fire.
An employee who oversees the property called and said the building that held the biggest share of the business’s 610 cars and all its paperwork was on fire.
As they drove from their home, the Noels could see the fire from miles away, Anita Noel said.
“All we could do was watch it burn,” she said. “We built this business from one car, so it was devastating. It’s hard to talk about.”
Anita Noel says she can still remember the flames lighting up the sky and the popping of tires and gas canisters in the heat.
The next day, all that was left of the building was rows and rows of burnt cars. Firefighters were able to save piles of papers, file cabinet drawers of company records and a vault full of car titles from the office.
“If it hadn’t been for that I don’t know what we would have done,” said Anita Noel. “We used that to rebuild everything.”
Putting the pieces back together
After the fire, Country Classic Cars was left with about 600 sets of keys that were stored in the burnt building, but all the labels had burned off in the heat.
“Our guys had to match each key to every single car and find out what we lost and what we still had,” said Anita Noel. “They’d just hold up the key and go: ‘Well, this one looks like a Chevy.’”
The business sold the majority of the burnt vehicles for scrap metal, but kept 10 that still had a few usable parts. All but two have sold so far.
After the fire, Russ Noel immediately went to work rebuilding his stock of cars by traveling to sales. Today they have about 590 cars, compared to the 610 they had before the fire.
“I keep buying and buying, but we just keep selling ’em,” Russ Noel said. “I guess that’s a good problem to have.”
Inside the new building and office, the Noels plan to hang two posters they had printed with the sales pictures for all 143 vehicles lost in the fire.
“I want to show people there was a real loss here,” said Anita Noel as she spread the posters out on a table in the new office. “My husband worked hard to find and buy every single one of those. They all had stories from the people who owned them. People had to take care of them or else they wouldn’t have been in such good shape all these years. It’s a big, big loss.”
The Noels say business has been steady since the fire. They hope to pass down Country Classic Cars when they retire.
“I already have cars picked out for all my grandchildren,” said Russ Noel. “Except one that I’m working on now. But he’s 10 months old ... so I guess I have time.”