Fire destroys highway restaurant
A fire that destroyed Popp's Restaurant, 131 Baker, Sunday night probably started in the restaurant's heating system, according to the State Fire Marshal. The restaurant was closed and unoccupied at the time the fire was reported, about 6:30 p.m.
Popp's Restaurant manager Darren Maples was eating with his family across the highway when he noticed smoke. Baldwin City Fire Chief Allen Craig said Maples thought the smoke was from the restaurant's smoker. When the smoke grew heavier, Maples ran across the highway and discovered the fire.
Craig estimates the loss at $130,000 damage to the building and $50,000 to its contents. The building is owned by Larry Trowbridge, Baldwin City. The State Fire Marshal and a State Fire Marshal investigator combed through the debris Monday. Arson was ruled out using a yellow Labrador trained to detect ignitable fluids.
"We are pretty sure there is no arson involved, and that it started in the furnace," Craig said.
Further investigation has been turned over to insurance company investigators.
The restaurant has been known for its barbecue since Chuck and Pat Shawbaker opened Pat's Pig Barbecue there in 1987. Trowbridge bought the restaurant four years ago, renaming it Audra's Dawg House. He continued using the same barbecue recipe. Maples opened Popp's Restaurant in July, leasing the building from Trowbridge. He took over the barbecue tradition.
The Shawbakers, Eudora, walked slowly around the damage Monday morning. In 1987, they bought and gutted the former pizzeria and started selling their special-recipe barbecue.
"We used to have a ball here, especially during the Maple Leaf Festival," Pat said sadly. "I hate to see it go, because we all have memories of that place."
Baldwin City firefighters were on the scene within minutes after the fire was reported, Craig said. The Palmyra Township Fire Department and Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical also responded. Baldwin City police, Douglas County Sheriff deputies and the Kansas Highway Patrol aided in closing U.S. Highway 56 during the fire.
The fire was extinguished about 8:45 p.m. Sunday, and Craig and the volunteer firefighters remained until after 11 p.m. They returned Monday for more investigation and clean-up.
Craig said the department's 75-foot ladder truck helped firefighters extinguish the fire before it spread to neighboring mobile homes.
"It saved that trailer back there," Craig said. "It was hard to catch, hard to fight."
It was the first time the $400,000 truck was used to pump water on a fire since joining the department in 1998.
A steady stream of cars circled the restaurant Monday morning, surveying the damage. The most noticeable damage occurred to the rear of the building, which was reduced to a pile of rubble.
The building originally was a filling station, according to Bill Hey, long-time Baldwin City resident. It had also housed a car body shop and repair shop, as well as several other businesses over the years, Hey said.
Nancy Thomas, an investigator for the State Fire Marshal's office, examined the fire debris with an 18-month-old yellow Labrador retriever the dog's first day on the job.
The dog is trained to detect ignitable liquid, such as gasoline, kerosene or lighter fluid. The Labrador received her training from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"Her job is to go in and find any ignitable liquid," Thomas said. "It's our job to determine if it's in a normal place like a garage, or a not so normal place, like an office."
A man, who declined to be identified, said he lost his regular eating place. He stopped at the restaurant Monday out of habit.
"It was a pretty nice place to eat," he said.
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