In five minutes, residents try to salvage Bevier's history

Sunday, December 2, 2012 | 5:38 p.m. CST; updated 7:16 a.m. CST, Monday, December 3, 2012
An early morning fire in Bevier damaged The Pear Tree Restaurant and Black Diamond Museum.

BEVIER — With The Pear Tree Restaurant in flames, a crowd watched anxiously as the Black Diamond Museum and the town's history housed inside were threatened by the fire's inevitable spread.

Fire marshals would not let the residents of the coal-mining town in Macon County enter the museum for safety reasons. They finally budged, though, and the townspeople were given a window of five minutes to salvage what treasures they could.

The fire started early Thursday morning inside The Pear Tree Restaurant and eventually spread to the roof of the Black Diamond Museum. Both buildings were destroyed.

"The Pear Tree was a big part of our town, but the Black Diamond being gone is really getting us in the heart," Doralee Ratliff, owner of My Cup of Tea and former history teacher in Bevier, said from a bench outside her store as fire crews mopped up on Thursday afternoon.

Most of the historical artifacts were taken across the street to BJ's Country Club. That's where Black Diamond Museum curator Patty Cheever showed up at midday Thursday, relieved to find what townspeople had rescued scattered around the bar.

"For them to get what they got is really something," Cheever said. 

The townspeople gathered a fair amount of the historical artifacts, but much was still lost. 

Items preserved included a framed original document from the United Mine Workers of America, signed in 1933 by union leader John L. Lewis, commemorating Bevier's history as a coal-mining town.

"I thought about it immediately," Cheever said early Thursday afternoon. "It's one of a kind. It's history." 

Cheever is also president of the Black Diamond Historical Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Bevier's history. 

Bevier traces its legacy to coal mining. In 1860, Alexander Rector was digging for water when a pick stroke led him to a discovery that would eventually make Bevier a hub for coal mining.

The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad built a line through Bevier allowing the town to ship coal, putting it on the map. Even though the coal mining boom ran its course, strip mines still existed near Bevier up until the 1990s.

The building that housed the Black Diamond Museum was built in 1864 and donated to the Black Diamond Historical Society. In the past, the building has been used as a mining store and as a community center. 

"I remember there used to be dances in there for prom night and stuff," resident Chris Sumpter said.

Sumpter and his fiance, Mary Summers, heard sounds and noticed the flames around 12:30 a.m Thursday and called 911. 

"I ran from my house," Sumpter said. "I was probably the sixth one on the scene."

On Thursday afternoon, Sumpter and other Bevier residents were still loitering on the town's main drag where the two landmarks had been reduced to skeletons.

"I couldn't come down to see it burn," shop owner Ratliff said. "I just watched it from down the street. Everyone was crying because that was a lot of our history."

Louis Fiquet's chiropractor business stands near the museum. Luckily for Fiquet, a small field separates the two buildings, so the fire did not spread to his practice. 

"It's all very, very sad," Fiquet said. "They are both big losses to Bevier — a lot of people who worked at the Pear Tree don't have jobs now."

The Pear Tree Restaurant has been Bevier's main attraction for nearly three decades. Al Abbadessa has owned the restaurant for 28 years. He and his son Michael ran the restaurant together and also own the restaurant AJ's Eat and Drink in Macon.  

"It was special, no doubt about it," Abbadessa said. "It was one of a kind."

Buses from various places in Missouri such as Jefferson City, Hannibal, Kansas City and St. Joseph would take people to Bevier simply to eat at The Pear Tree. 

The approaching Christmas season is one of the restaurant's busiest times of year, Abbadessa said. "Fortunately, I brought my reservation book home with me the night of the fire," he said. 

Abbadessa plans to relocate as many reservations as he can to AJ's Eat and Drink. 

As for the next move, Abbadessa said on Thursday it was too early to know. He was just glad no one was hurt. 

Cheever said the Black Diamond Historical Society did not yet know where it stands financially. For now, the organization just needs to find a place to store the pieces of the town's history that were saved.

"I'm just glad to know some of it is still here," Cheever said.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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