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Fire destroys beloved St. Jacobs farmers’ market, vendors hope to get back to business in days

The Martins, a local Mennonite family, watch firefighters douse any remaining hotspots with water after the St. Jacob's Market burned to the ground overnight, in St. Jacob's, Ont., Sept. 2, 2013.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

An overnight fire has destroyed the beloved St. Jacobs farmer's market building, just north of Waterloo, Ont., but plans are already being made to get the small town's market up and running by its next scheduled opening on Thursday.

Firefighters were called just before 2 a.m. Monday to put out flames engulfing the post-and-beam barn building, which housed about 60 vendors. There were no injuries, but the building has been reduced to a blackened frame. The fire destroyed cooling equipment and cooking hoods, and damages are estimated to add up to nearly $2-million.

The town of approximately 2,000 people, in the heart of Ontario's Mennonite country, is a popular tourist attraction with thousands coming to visit every week, according to mayor Todd Cowan.

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"It has been quite a shock to the community, but we'll rebuild and probably rebuild quickly," Mr. Cowan said. "Whatever the township can do to facilitate that and help clean up, we're going to be there there for them."

Fire and police officials are trying to move their investigations along quickly and erect fencing to allow some outdoor vendors to resume selling their wares quickly.

"Working with the market, we're hoping that the outside portion will be able to be used by Thursday," said Rick Pedersen, fire chief at the Woolwich Township Fire Department.

Mr. Pederson described the buildings as "totally insured," but the fire comes at a particularly bad time. Vendors described September and October as peak season for peaches, tomatoes, peppers and other fruits and vegetables, while Thanksgiving is an especially popular time.

By the time firefighters arrived at the scene, six minutes after they received the call, the flames had already gone through the roof and the 24,000-square-foot building, built from combustible heavy timber, was lost. The two-storey main building had no sprinkler system, as none was required when it was built in the late 1980s.

For three hours, 45 firefighters battled the blaze, concentrating on keeping the flames from spreading to adjacent buildings housing livestock and crafts. So far, Mr. Pedersen said, there is no sign of any suspicious activity, but also no sense of what caused the fire. "We have not gone into the interior to look at anything. It's still pretty hot in there," he said at a midday press conference.

Officials from the Ontario Fire Marshall's office arrived around noon to take over the investigation, and Waterloo Region police detectives are also on scene investigating to ensure nothing criminal occurred. They will review security tapes, which are housed in a main office and were not damaged.

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Mr. Cowan said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called him this afternoon to let him know she was thinking of the people affected by the fire. Ms. Wynne also posted a series of tweets to express her support for the town of St. Jacobs.

"The destruction of the St. Jacobs Farmers' Market is a terrible loss to the Waterloo region," she said on Twitter. "St. Jacobs played such an important role within the community and contributed greatly to the local economy. I want to thank all the brave firefighters for their efforts and I send my best wishes to the vendors whose livelihoods have been affected. We must all do our part to support St. Jacobs' vendors and local food suppliers throughout Ontario."

"It's very devastating for not only our town but the region of Waterloo because it's something that's iconic," he said. "There will be a loss in business and revenue tourism… The attraction and essence of the market is because it's still a grassroots hometown with buy-local type of food."

Marcus Shantz, the president of Mercedes Corp. which owns the farmer's market building, said he woke up this morning to voicemail messages with news of the fire. He and his sister, Jenny, went to look at the scene around 7:30 a.m. The fire was smouldering by then and about 40 people were gathered at the site watching quietly, Ms. Shantz said.

Mr. Shantz said he hopes the area surrounding the burnt building will be cleaned up enough to allow outdoor vendors to re-open on Thursday. During peak season, the market has approximately 400 vendors both inside and outside the main building.

"It is shocking, but this is a town where people count their blessings," Mr. Shantz said. "So, when you have a disaster and no one's hurt, that's something to be thankful for. I think everybody is pretty resolved to bring it back."

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As for the indoor vendors, Ms. Shantz said she hopes the ones who do not require refrigeration will be able to set up outside, but that may not be easy considering a lot of their belongings would have burned in the fire.

In the meantime, Hilltop Acres Poultry Products Inc., which has been located at the St. Jacobs Market building since it was built, is offering its farm store on the outskirts of Bloomingdale as an alternate place for vendors to do business. Owner Donna Reist said she has limited space, but is going to help as many people as she can.

"It would just be a stop-gap until the market is back up and going," said Ms. Reist. "It is people's business and for some people, it's their only place of business. A lot of people's livelihoods have just been devastated with that fire."

At the scene, onlookers lined the fence at the edge of the property. Sheneyse Cherneski, who works at Tasha's Fresh Produce, an outdoor stall just next to the market building, has no idea when the stall she staffs will be up and running, but isn't optimistic it will be as soon as Thursday.

"I think it's going to be too much of a danger for people just with those beams still being up, and the risk of them falling down," she said.

Mary Knarr and her husband Alvin, who live in nearby Elmira, Ont., looked on in disappointment. The market is on the site of the family farm where she grew up in the 1950s, which her father sold in 1970.

"They lost it all. This was their life, you know," Ms. Knarr said. "It was so fulsome, if you came down here, the aisles, you could hardly walk, it was just a crowd. Especially around Christmastime."

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the population of St. Jacobs, Ont. The town has a population of about 2,000 people, while Woolwich Township, which includes St. Jacobs, has a population of 24,000.

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