Gin Mill co-owner Tom Drazkowski saw the smoke first.
Drazkowski, who lives a mile from the rural Buffalo City strip club and bar, stepped outside around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday and saw a column of black smoke rising into the morning sky. He ran to the bar, dialing 911 on the way.
Firefighters arrived shortly before 8 a.m. and put out the blaze in 15 minutes, but it wasn't fast enough to save the bar. While the exterior was left largely intact, the roof support beams buckled and much of the floor caved into the basement. The fire melted most of the furniture and equipment inside the bar, reducing it to warped silhouettes.
Owners said the bar, which opened in 1995, was probably a total loss.
"I'm in shock right now," said co-owner Mike Seibel, standing a hundred yards from the smoldering building Wednesday morning as he watched firefighters inspect the structure.
The fire started in the basement, according to firefighters and owners, and quickly spread throughout the bar.
About 30 firefighters from four area departments responded, said Fountain City Firefighter Mike Schabacker. The cause was unknown and may not be determined for a few days or more, firefighters at the scene said. A Wisconsin fire marshal came to the site Wednesday to investigate the fire.
The bar owners also discovered that someone had attempted overnight to break into an unattached shed, which held a dozen motorcycles and other equipment. A window was smashed, but nothing was taken. The shed was not damaged by the fire.
The Buffalo County Sheriff's Department is investigating that incident. It's unknown whether the attempted break-in is connected with the fire.
Late Wednesday morning, friends of Seibel and Drazkowski began to arrive, along with the bar manager, Lee "Ringo" Drazkowski, with his wife and two children. They swapped stories about the place as the last few firefighters kept watch and waited for the fire marshal to arrive.
Seibel admitted that there would probably be some people celebrating the fire. After all, the Gin Mill is a strip club.
Still, he said, it's a livelihood several people depend on, and more than that.
"It's a bar and it's a business, but we do a great deal for the community," he said.
The Gin Mill is associated with the Road Dogs motorcycle club, which had planned to host its 19th annual POW/MIA benefit at the bar. Seibel said it's too early to know where the event will be held, but said it will happen somewhere. In the past, the event has featured rock bands such as Great White and has drawn more than 1,000 people.
Then Seibel pointed toward the basement, visible from the outside through holes the fire department had chopped in the siding, where there were barrels and boxes of charred and smoke-damaged toys and stuffed animals destined for charity.
"We'll just have to collect more," Tom Drazkowski said to him.
Brian Voerding can be reached at (507) 453-3514 or at firstname.lastname@example.org