BLUE RIVER - “My grandfather Clyde Berry built that about 1900, and it’s sad to see it go.”
So said Connie Mortimer about the old Blue River tobacco warehouse demolished Wednesday afternoon and Thursday of last week.
“In the early days it wasn’t so much of a hotel as a social gathering place; at least that’s what my mother said, I wasn’t around, but as old as I am I feel like I was,” Connie said. “It was kind of a social place, not a saloon, but there was a bar and tables to sit and talk. There was a dance hall upstairs, I remember, with a really solid floor.”
When Connie was attending Blue River High School in the late 1940’s the building was part of the “Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Co.” according to the fading sign across the front of the structure prior to demolition.
Joe Boak of Port Andrew was among a number of spectators on hand for last week’s demolition. He recalled that as a youngster he and his brother helped load tobacco from the building onto a pick-up truck that was then unloaded at the nearby railroad depot. He surmised the Boak brothers were probably paid “a buffalo-head nickel or two” for their efforts.
Leaf tobacco was an important crop in the area for several decades, ending in the 1950s and 60s. Numerous local women worked in the structure during tobacco harvest time.
However, the three-story building, equipped with an elevator, apparently had a history of something more romantic than a tobacco warehouse. Village Clerk Val Bailey was able to find information on the Internet, including a picture, indicating the structure was originally a hotel, built in 1902.
After its tobacco days it also served as a “surplus sale” location for a while. The village recently purchased the property from Larry and Diane Parrish of Boscobel.
Bailey said the purchase also included the metal building and lot directly north of the warehouse. She said the warehouse lot will probably be used as a parking lot, at least for the near future. There are other uses pending for the metal building.
The sidewalk adjacent to the old building has been barricaded off for several months because of the possible danger of falling bricks.
The demolition contractor was Gary Manning of Richland Center. The original plan was to start work Wednesday afternoon and complete it Thursday. However, the Wednesday schedule came to a halt when a large swarm of bees, complete with a queen bee, was discovered. Bailey said the bees had amassed about 50 pounds of honey that was removed.
An impressive number of bats also called the old structure home, some of which were described by folks on the street as “having wingspreads as large as teal!”
The bats flew off on their own, but the bees didn’t go so quietly. Apparently they didn’t appreciate their home being interrupted by a backhoe shovel going through their front door.
The hive was located between the exterior brick and interior wooden walls and measured about 10 by 20 feet.
“The backhoe went right through into the brood nest,” said Excelsior beekeeper Jason Chiasson, who was called in to remove the hive. “There was at least 50 pounds of honey, but it was ruined when they bombed that part of the building.”
Donning his protective suit, Jason tore off the exposed wooden lathe and simply scooped the bees off the wall and into a bee box.
“Most guys use a vacuum, but I didn’t have one available, so I whispered to the bees,” Jason chuckled in his Louisiana drawl.
The bees were then trucked to his home in Excelsior where they joined four other hives and appeared to be thriving on Friday, flying off to a nearby field of goldenrod and the last pollen of the season before hibernating for the winter.“I thought the queen may have been killed when they smashed the brood nest, but judging by the way they’re behaving I think she’s still in there.”