Two months after a fire destroyed Gooch’s A-One Bar & Grill in Boulder Junction, owner Kevin “Gooch” Gutjahr has started the design process for the intended rebuild of the popular bar and restaurant.
The process, though, has been less than easy for Gutjahr and his wife, Laurel.
‘There wasn’t much I could do’
According to a press release from the Vilas County Sheriff’s Office, the building caught fire early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 11 when a power pole adjacent to the bar was struck by a vehicle.
The blaze quickly spread from the vehicle to the pole, and eventually, to the bar.
Gutjahr was home at the time, living with his wife Laurel just 75 yards from the bar, and was alerted to the blaze by his neighbors.
“The car was on fire, so I quick ran in the building and grabbed as many fire extinguishers as I could, came out the front door and tried putting the fire out in the car and couldn’t get it out,” Gutjahr said.
From there, Gutjahr returned to the bar’s basement to hook up a garden house to wet down the building while they waited for fire department personnel to arrive on scene.
“By the time I came back up the stairs, it was already up the pole and the pole was only six or seven inches away from the building, and it just caught,” he said. “It’s such an old building, that wood was so old, it just caught. Then, after that, it was just watching the fire burn. There wasn’t much I could do about it after that.”
Despite the efforts of personnel from 20 area fire departments, some as far north as Michigan’s upper peninsula, the building was a total loss.
Gutjahr said if it hadn’t been his building, it would’ve been an impressive show.
“Then it was just the ups and downs throughout the night of that, the different emotions,” he said.
Gooch’s was closed at the time of the fire with no injuries reported as a result of the incident.
According to Gutjahr, “well over” 300 mounts were in the bar at the time of the fire. About half of the mounts were his, but others had been passed down and donated by friends.
One friend had over 60 of his father’s mounts hung up in the bar that he had inherited after his father passed away.
“I feel horrible for him. That one tore me up when I had to call him up and tell him that his stuff was gone,” he said. “It’s replaceable, kinda, but it’s not the same.”
The mounts were a part of the bar’s history, even back when it was known as Shrimp’s Tavern where a museum was dedicated to wildlife mounts.
When Gutjahr took over in 2005, little remained of the mounts, as they were either sold or thrown away.
“I wanted to bring back that history of that, so that’s when I started bringing the mounts back in,” he said.
‘You can’t get that back’
Gooch’s A-One had been a staple in Boulder Junction and was a place of gathering that became an intrinsic part of the community over the years.
Whether it be snowmobilers, outdoorsmen, members of the community or visitors, Gooch’s held a special place in the heart of the Northwoods.
The bar was known for giving to the community. From fundraisers, snowmobile club events, Ducks Unlimited events, anniversaries, weddings and more, Gooch’s hosted banquets and parties in the hall in the back room.
So, when the morning of Aug. 11 came and the bar was gone, the support from the community began to flood in.
“These people were stopping (by) because that was a big part of Boulder Junction history that is lost,” Gutjahr said. “No matter what I do from here on out, you can’t get that back. That’s gone.”
Though Gutjahr plans on rebuilding, he said he knows no new building could replace what was lost in the fire.
With 23 years working with the restaurant, eight of which as a bartender and 14 as the owner, Gutjahr said the memories were still there though the bar wasn’t.
“The memories are still there, but the amount of people that we’ve touched, maybe I didn’t realize, in a way it kind of helped a little, because maybe I didn’t realize how good that business was,” he said. “How it did touch so many people.”
Gutjahr said he was still receiving phone calls from people expressing their condolences, and that people still stopped by where the bar once stood.
“It took a big toll out of Boulder Junction, I believe,” he said.
The next steps
Now, the Gutjahrs are facing the next stage in rebuilding the bar — working with insurance companies.
“It’s just a ton of paperwork, and it’s almost like we got new jobs that we’re not getting paid for,” he said with a laugh. “My wife has been putting a lot of hours in, researching and trying to figure out all the stuff, trying to remember the stuff we had in the bar.”
Meanwhile, Gutjahr said they were also sorting out blueprints with Shaw Builders out of Stoughton.
“They’ve been working with us really well. They’ve been really fun guys to work with. They’re good friends of ours,” he said. “They have a cabin up here, and they reached out right away.”
Within the first week following the fire, the Gutjahrs began working with Shaw Builders and had the initial layout of the redesign in.
Recently, Gutjahr was working with Shaw Builders on designing the kitchen, bar, and trying to get all the rooms the right size so the design could be submitted for a final state inspection.
Gutjahr doesn’t have an exact date for the bar’s reopening, but he’s hoping to have a building up by the end of next summer. While he said he’d love to see it open by June 1, realistically, he thinks it would be more toward the end of August.
“I’m hoping. It all depends on what happens yet this year,” he said. “If we can get concrete in the ground yet this year, we got a chance.”
Since the bar held such an important role within the Boulder Junction community, Gutjahr said the rebuild would be nothing like what they had before.
“To me, that building is gone now, and I didn’t want to try to rebuild exactly what we had,” he said.
Another reason behind the redesign was making the bar more efficient and comfortable. With so many additions being added onto the original structure, Gutjahr said the bar didn’t have the best layout.
According to Gutjahr, the rebuild would be the same size as the original bar, but laid out right.
“It will be on the same property. It will be in the same area,” he said. “It will have the huge parking lot out in front again, it’s going to look pretty impressive on the front, when it’s said and done. When you pull in, it should look pretty cool.”
He wants to include a tribute to the history of the building, including the history of Shrimp’s Tavern and the building’s owners throughout the years.
While Gutjahr intends to keep with the Northwoods aesthetic, including having some wildlife mounts, he doesn’t think he’ll go with the 300-mount showcase again.
From the monetary and sentimental value, Gutjahr said losing the mounts was too painful to risk doing again.
One thing he definitely knows for sure is he wants to host a party before the bar reopens as a thank you to the fire departments who responded the night of the fire.
“You guys were the last ones here, you’re the first ones back, but I’m going to ask them to bring their trucks along, just in case,” he said with a laugh.
‘It’s going to take some time’
Another aspect the Gutjahrs were waiting on with the rebuild were insurance checks.
Though the Gutjahr had insurance, he doesn’t foresee the insurance process being a fast one.
“We’ll get a chunk of the money, but then there’s gonna be some more money that we’re gonna have to get with civil suits, and who knows how long that could take,” he explained.
Gutjahr said they were doing everything they could to get the rebuild going as fast as they could.
Their livelihood, too
Gutjahr said he had two dreams in life, to live up North and own a bar and restaurant.
Up until Aug. 11, he had been doing both.
Losing Gooch’s A-One not only impacted the Gutjahrs, but the employees who worked there, who have since had to find different jobs in the area.
While he admits he enjoys some of the free time he’s gotten since the accident to hunt and relax, Gutjahr says he’s still not “100%” and there were days he was depressed and worried about overlooking something in the process.
“That’s the scariest part that we’re going through right now,” he said. “Did we write everything down through insurance? Did we forget to do something?”
Overall, Gutjahr said he and his wife just wanted to return to where they were, and “make whole again” as much as they could.
“The building’s replaceable. It’s a building. Yeah, it had history, but it (the fire) took a lot more away than just the building,” Gutjahr said.
Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]