In my previous post, I wrote about Downtown Petoskey's Ghost Walk. That event took place last night and a great, ghoulish time was had by all. It did rain but that did not seem to dampen the spirits of the participants who turned out in large numbers (over 100 people) to tour Downtown Petoskey and hear stories about the local ghosts who inhabit our town.
Now that the event is over, I can reveal the tale of the Artists Markets very own ghost, one of the spectral biographies presented on the tour:
For the last six years residents and visitors have been coming to 445 East Mitchell to buy the creations of local Northern Michigan artists but that was not always so. This address has been important to Downtown Petoskey residents for many many years. Long before it was an art gallery it was a Montgomery Wards Department store and even longer ago it was a car dealership selling Studebakers from South Bend Indiana.
Many happy and tragic things have happened between these walls over all those years but one of the most dramatic took place on a chilly evening in October back in 1961. Late that afternoon, a customer in the Women's Clothing Department of Montgomery Wards told a young sales clerk that she smelled smoke. The clerk called the fire department and an older, red-headed fireman came to the store and searched all the nooks and crannies of the building and the A&P Grocery that was then next door in the attached building at 441 East Mitchell. He carried a lantern in his left hand and a fire axe in his right. Despite looking for about two hours, he was unable to find the source of the smoky smell and left.
Early the next morning, about 3:00 a.m., a truck driver delivering groceries to the A&P noticed a fire in the loading dock area in the back of the building. Soon there was heavy smoke and and flames shooting out the side of the building on all floors. Fire fighters fought the blaze for several hours but were unable to prevent over $100,000 damage to the A&P. They were able to keep the blaze itself from spreading to the Montgomery Wards but in the process the future home of the Northern Michigan Artists Market was filled with smoke and water reached a foot deep in the basement.
Accounts of the fire in the News Review the next day do not report the deaths of any firefighters in the incident. There is no mention of the red-headed fireman who had searched the building in vain earlier in the day. In fact, people say that they cannot recall there being any red-headed Petoskey firefighters at all at that time but several people reported seeing a man in a firefighter uniform carrying a lantern and a fire axe running into the building as the flames raged, saying that the blaze was all his fault. No one saw him come out of the building that night.
Now every year on chilly evenings in late October, just after dusk when the sky is dark and the Artist Market lights are dimmed, people walking by the Artists Market have reported a slight but distinct smell of smoke and some have said that they thought they saw in the window what looked like an older, red-headed fireman holding a lantern high in his left hand and a fire axe in his right searching the nooks and crannies of the building trying to find the source of the smoke smell and still trying to prevent the A&P fire of 1961.
The First Responder himself did appear last night during the Ghost Walk as one of the guides and raconteurs and is expected to materialize again today at the Artists Market where he is scheduled to distribute candy to the young trick-or-treaters who will be going from store to store. (Any slight resemblance between myself and the First Responder is, of course, entirely coincidental.)
The Ghost Walk, by the way, was a brand new event for Downtown Petoskey. Due to the fantastic turnout and enthusiastic response, the tour will likely reappear in the future on the Downtown schedule.