STAUNTON • A slice of Americana went up in flames in this rural Illinois town Tuesday night.
More than 50 locals gathered on a highway overpass carrying Old Route 66 over Interstate 55 to watch the main showroom at Country Classic Cars burn. The massive fire lasted about 3 hours, mangled the roof and damaged some 150 vehicles, most of them American cars dating back as far as the 1920s.
The damage is likely to be in the millions.
Owner Russ Noel, 73, stood outside the scorched property the next day and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief.
“They just don’t make them like that any more,” he said, standing in front of the crumpled building with rows of burnt vehicles.
Noel opened the business in 1999 after spending most of his career as a hay farmer near Edwardsville. Now he simply plans to carry on with the hundreds of undamaged cars he has left.
“I think we’re going to open again tomorrow,” he said. “It’s no hill for a climber.”
Drive your dream
It wasn’t just Noel and his wife, Anita, who felt the loss Tuesday.
Dozens of residents from nearby towns made their way to the property, which is surrounded by farmland off Interstate 55, about 40 minutes from St. Louis.
They offered help and swapped stories about visiting the place.
“It almost makes me want to cry. You can’t get those cars back,” said Troy Puckett, of nearby Livingston, who has a tattoo of a 1950s Mercury on his forearm. “I would just walk around the place and dream.”
Dakota Stanger, 16, of Mount Olive, estimated he has visited more than 500 times since he was 3 years old.
“I lost sleep when I heard,” Dakota said. “I almost couldn’t look at a car this morning.”
Beyond locals, car enthusiasts from across the country and even internationally would come to buy or dream a little at Country Classic Cars. Noel regularly has about 650 cars in stock in his five showrooms and sells about 35 to 40 cars a month. He has shipped as far as Hawaii, Sweden and Switzerland, he said.
On Noel’s company truck, he put the appropriate slogan: “Drive your Dream.”
Never seen anything like it
Noel got the call about the fire just after 8 p.m. Tuesday. He rushed over to find smoke and flames filling the sky.
Spectators gathered and shared images of the fire on social media.
“You could smell the smoke clear across Staunton,” said Courtney Tusko, 18, of Mount Olive, who came to watch. “Never seen anything like it.”
“It was hard to watch,” Noel said.
Investigators had not identified a cause for the fire but said they believed it started in the center of the building and moved outward.
Noel said he was trying to stay positive and hoped to recover some of the losses through insurance.
He is grateful it didn’t spread to the four other showrooms and has come to appreciate all the people who care about the place he built nearly 20 years ago.
“I never knew I had this many friends until today,” he said.