Osceola is rallying to help fire-damaged art and music stores

Bob Brace, owner of the Red Bird Music Store in Osceola, Wisconsin, was just minutes away from a guitar lesson last week when he heard a popping sound from the back of the store.

Brace said he looked at his student and asked, “What was that?”

He wandered to the back of the store and saw movement, “like an orange,” he said. “And then the smoke started coming.”

The space filled with black smoke as Brace, 69, emptied several fire extinguishers. It was too late; flames tore their way through the walls of the century-old building into an attic full of guitar cases. By morning, his store was gone, including more than 200 guitars, mandolins, banjos and ukuleles; original artwork and t-shirts; and his collection of around 6,000 new, reissued, used and vintage vinyl records.

The Jan. 18 fire also destroyed the adjacent Natural Heritage Art Center. Owners Jessica Turtle and David Aichinger just opened the gallery, performance space and artist workshop in November.

A one-two punch for Osceola’s arts community was met with an outpouring of support.

Fundraising is currently underway. Some businesses will donate a portion of their sales next Friday. The local bar, PY’s, is holding a meat raffle. Two GoFundMe accounts have raised thousands of dollars. Local businesswoman Gwen Wright has set up a Facebook page with fundraising updates, along with a local bank account through her nonprofit We Are One.

“It’s huge,” said Brace, who said he was moved to tears by the outpouring of help. “It’s a big silver lining around a little dark cloud.”

Brace didn’t realize the extent of the fire at first because he was taken in an ambulance for smoke inhalation. He initially told the Osceola Volunteer Fire Department that he thought he had put it out, not realizing the fire had made its way into the walls.

He returned the next morning to find the front wall standing, its windows black with soot.

“I opened the door and saw the sky,” he said. The roof had caved in. The back of the shop was gutted. Chest-deep water in the basement ruined everything he had stored there. His cat Beavis died in the fire.

His losses included a huge record collection, including about $4,000 worth of new factory-sealed editions he had just purchased. He also had one of the few copies of an album by The Litter, a 1960s Minneapolis psychedelic group. Some of the instruments lost in the fire included classical, acoustic, electric and 12-string guitars. A friend’s vintage guitar worth $1,000 was in Brace’s shop for repair, and that’s gone, too.

It is unclear whether Brace will be able to recover. He wants to, but expects a bunch of hurdles, including costs and rules governing what can be replaced by the historic building he owns.

The art center just opened

On the night of the fire, Eichinger was in Stillwater with his snow sculpting team, House of Thune, who were competing in the World Snow Sculpting Championships.

It was the first day of the four-day competition and Eichinger was attending an evening reception when his partner, Tortoise, called with news of the fire.

Eichinger raced a few miles upriver to their home in Osceola, where he and Turtle had opened the Center for the Arts in November.

Their passion project was going up in smoke and water from the battle at Brace’s music store. The two shops share a common wall and roof.

Eichinger said he wasn’t sure what he would find, but as he crossed the St. Croix River in Osceola, “the whole river valley smelled like smoke,” he said.

They launched the Art Center after Turtle spent years focusing on public art, including time in the Twin Cities and with AZ Gallery in Lower St. Paul. During the pandemic, she said she felt the need to create a space where people could gather.

She and Eichinger moved to Osceola in 2016 with their son. When they opened the Arts Center, the hope was that they could use multiple revenue streams to create a sustainable arts organization. They sold a lot of work over the holidays, Tortoise said. They were surprised by the turnout and passion when they held an open mic night for music and another for poetry.

“I think the thing that’s probably the hardest thing for me is losing the dream is that we don’t know that we have the resources to rebuild it,” Turtle said. She and Eichinger had put everything they had into the business. They were insured and are working with fire officials and the insurance company this week to determine what will happen.

From ashes to victory

After it became clear that their arts center was a loss, Turtle said she told Eichinger to return to Stillwater and the snow sculpting competition. “I told him he had to win,” she said.

Eichinger said his teammates, brothers Kelly and Dusty Thune, cut, scraped and shaved their 10-ton mound of snow into a sculpture that depicts two figures standing back to back.

Figures are missing parts or have been removed. It represents the difficult journey that everyone has been on over the past few years. “It’s how we lose parts of ourselves or fall apart, and maybe we take those parts that have fallen out and try to put them back together,” Eichinger said.

“We planned this months ago,” Eichinger said. “Little did I know…”

On Saturday, when a call was sent out for snow sculpting teams to put down their tools, “Journey” was ranked as the winner by the other sculptors.

It’s the highest-level competition his team has won, Eichinger said.

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