A massive fire engulfed the historic Benson Warehouse around 6 p.m. last Wednesday.
The fire originated in a large shed east of the original warehouse, which is located at 120 East 5th (across from Allen Bros. Feed Store).
Within minutes it had spread to the 87-year-old structure.
The shed was being leased to Allen Bros. Behind the structure was another storage area used by Wyatt Construction. The exact cause of the fire is under investigation. Earlier speculation was three-digit heat, coupled with stored hay and an electrical line running adjacent to the building could be contributing factors.
The Fire Marshall has ruled out the cause as electrical but was leaning toward the stored hay as a potential contributor. The investigation was expected to be continued Tuesday.
The property, owned by Hank and Patti Benson, was built by Nash Finch Company in 1926 as a food distribution warehouse. Hank Benson’s grandfather, Harry Garfield Benson, purchased the building in February 1939 and renamed it the Osage Building Material Warehouse. It sat vacant for several decades until 2005 when the Benson’s began extensive renovation efforts. Hank also devoted countless hours researching the building’s history and was attempting to have it listed with the State Historical Society.
According to Patti Benson, the fire destroyed years of history and five tedious years of restoration efforts.
"All of Hank’s grandfather’s ledger books, vintage dollies and other equipment were being stored in the southwest end of the building," she said.
"We spent many Saturday and Sunday afternoons working on cleaning up the warehouse area, clearing illegally dumped piles of trash, mowing the area and repairing the building. We even paid a hydrologist for advice on drainage problems created by asphalt overlay on 5th street. Although Hank and I have had very little return on our warehouse area, we believe it is better to spend money on cleaning and fixing rather than spend money on tearing down."
With updates nearing completion, the Benson’s readied the west end for a new antique store. They installed an energy-efficient HVAC system and restored the original maple wood floors. As preservationists, they repurposed the tin siding used for the late Doc Walker’s veterinary clinic as a tin ceiling for south room. They also installed a reproduction tin ceiling in the north room for the store’s new kitchen area. Replacement windows were on order from Amos Millworks out of Crane, Missouri.
"They have been our vendor for the past twenty years," said Hank Benson. "I had John come to Pawhuska to check out the old C.R. Anthony windows for Ladd and Ree Drummond."
Other building renovations included replacing 90 percent of the roof which equated to more than 120,000 pounds of weight. Bad decking was replaced. In 2012, Roth Cochran engineered new beams to the stem wall to bring the sunken part of the beams back up to original status.
"From a structure standpoint, the building was actually stronger than it was when new. From a structure and fire standpoint, the area that was closed to the fire was concrete floor with plaster ceiling. Each of the beams ran parallel east to west with access to the roof deck," Hank Benson said.
Hank said he opened the door for fireman Captain Alexander on the west end, explaining that was where the antique store and his documents were stored. Although Hank didn’t have a key to the antique store, the glass door could easily have been kicked in. Sadly, the extreme heat prevented the firefighters from being able to enter the building.
Both Hank and Patti Benson feel every downtown building in Pawhuska is an asset to the city. They believe consideration should be given to providing the fire department with information regarding building renovations, upgrades and a general idea of the building’s contents.
"This information should prove invaluable in fighting future fires," said Hank Benson. "I was there, but no one asked me.
"They did ask me if there was paint and other combustibles inside. I told them exactly where to look but they showed no interest in the other contents."
In total, 20 businesses and individuals were affected by the warehouse fire. These included Ray Anne Cocanower and Carrie Ann Watters new antique store Comin’ Home, Wyatt Construction, Allen Bros. Feed, Ron Silva, Gordon Johnston, Geraldine Enyart, Mary Kay Warren of the Osage Market, Carol Crews, mini storage customers, among others.
The Benson’s remain optimistic and will pull something positive from this experience.
"We are not sure what we can rebuild," said Hank Benson. "We will need to reassess."
As a small mom and pop operation, the Benson’s have proven to be an invaluable resource for building supplies and contacts. They also share a driving desire to preserve Pawhuska’s rich history one building at a time.