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Bridge Michigan
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After downtown Holly fire, community stands vigil in their historic city

firefighter working to control fire
Firefighters were still working to put out a massive fire in Holly Tuesday night as residents watched beloved buildings turn to rubble. (Bridge courtesy photo by Nicole Edwards-Rankin)

Tasting ice cream and smelling smoke, hundreds of Holly residents stood shoulder-to-shoulder near Battle Alley late Tuesday. Videos posted on social media show residents watching as billows of smoke settled into a white smog, which hung over the destruction caused by a massive fire in their historic downtown. Ziggy’s, a local ice cream parlor, passed out free scoops as community members embraced.

Their gathering wasn’t planned, Holly resident Katy Golden told Bridge Michigan Wednesday. It wasn’t anything formal. One by one, they were drawn to the same spot, standing alongside family, friends and neighbors as they tried to process what they’d lost. 

“People didn’t know what to do,” Golden said. “It feels like the fire didn’t just happen to these buildings, but to us personally.”

Related: Michigan fire deaths are climbing. One factor: non-working smoke alarms

The fire started just before 4 p.m. Tuesday at Battle Alley Arcade Antiques, a storefront that has existed, by different names, since the 1890s. Holly resident Josh Murphy, who has been nicknamed “the mayor of Battle Alley,” has been volunteering for the Downtown Development Authority for the past couple of years as the caretaker of the historic area. He lives above Battle Alley Coffee Co., and patrols the alley to make sure it remains clean and safe.

When he noticed a small fire at the Arcade at 3:54 p.m. Tuesday, he called 911 and ran to local business, calling for employees and patrons to evacuate. 

“Then I walked up to the top of the roof of the [Holly Vault, a former bank that is now a wedding venue] and was just up there watching,” Murphy told Bridge. When he witnessed the “lightning and thunder” of several electrical transformers flashing and then blowing out loudly, “there was nothing we could do,” he said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, several firefighters have been hospitalized for mild injuries and heat exhaustion, but no civilian injuries have been reported.

The Arcade, along with Andy’s Place restaurant, the Holly Hotel and the Moose Lodge sustained significant damage, however. Each of them holds a special place in the hearts of those who live in Holly, in part because of the historical significance of the buildings themselves.

Holly Township was founded in 1838, the Village of Holly in 1865, named after the holly trees that flourished in the area. A fire in 1875 destroyed most of the wooden buildings downtown, with brick frames replacing them as the city was rebuilt — several of these buildings are still standing today and have been visited by U.S. presidents, athletes and celebrities over the decades.

But beyond the years of physical history that went up in smoke, Golden said, it was largely the memories residents have made within the buildings that drew them to stand vigil together Tuesday night.

“It was people reminiscing and remembering why these buildings and this history that has now gone is important to us,” said Golden, who has lived in Holly for her whole life. “Everybody has their own unique stories to share and it seems like we came together to do so.”

Take Nicole Edwards-Rankin, vice president of the Holly Historical Society, for instance. She has lived in Holly for six years now and knows Holly’s history inside and out. She knows that Tuesday’s fire is the fifth to have occurred in the same spot — where the Holly Hotel is currently located. She knows that the last major fire in the city occurred in 1978, which means this is the first time many residents have witnessed a fire in their hometown.

Beyond dates and facts, Edwards-Rankin told Bridge that her own story is inextricably linked to the place.

“My husband and I had our first date at Andy’s Place,” she said. “Just 10 days ago, we went to the Holly Hotel for my birthday dinner like we have done every year. I think we all have a connection to this part of our town.”

Golden and Edwards-Rankin were both at home when the fire started, but as the sun went down, they, like so many residents, headed downtown to stand witness. 

“We have such a small community — they’re my family,” Edwards-Rankin said. “They’re people I see every day. I think it's a combined grief. Everybody was watching in disbelief and I think we’re still trying to get a sense of what does this mean?”

Little moments, like eating ice cream together with neighbors in the wake of a tragedy, Golden said, may not seem significant in the grand scheme of history. However, last night’s gathering is where locals started conversations about rebuilding and how they can support the area they love, Golden said. 

That’s what moves history forward. 

“Everybody wants to see this come back better than ever,” Golden said. “I'm not sure how quickly that will happen, but there are some very significant events that have taken place in our community and I think the “Fire of 2022” and Battle Alley is going to be part of the fabric of Holly’s history going forward.”

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