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Rising From The Ashes Improvisation, Community Spirit Put Davenport Back In Business After Fire At Historic Courthouse

The two judges will move upstairs at the Cottonwood Restaurant. The auditor, assessor and treasurer will operate out of an old newspaper building, the commissioners from the basement of the highway department.

Some of the official records will live for a few days in the freezer at the Safeway grocery store.

A suspected arson fire last Thursday may have crippled the historic Lincoln County Courthouse, but it couldn’t shut down government.

“It’s business as usual,” Auditor Shelly Johnston says Tuesday, sporting a yellow hard hat and shin-high rubber boots.

When one of the region’s most stately buildings - a century-old Georgian masterpiece - went up in flames, residents here went numb.

Now, this community amid rolling wheat fields and tall grain elevators is bonding like bricks and mortar. Maybe it’s the holiday sentiment. Most likely, it’s the fabric of the people.

A few residents even have offered to pay higher taxes to restore the grand old building which has perched atop Logan Street since 1897.

“I’ve haven’t heard that in Lincoln County before,” Commissioner Ted Hopkins says of the offer. “There’s a lot of sentiment to save that old building.”

Damages are estimated at $2.5 million. The roof and the top floor are gone from a blaze believed to have started in the juvenile records office at the courthouse’s east end.

“I know every clang of her pipes,” Johnston says. “After 20 years, it’s hard to see her standing like that. She’s like an old friend.”

A team from the Spokane office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was assembled Tuesday but won’t start sifting through the debris with picks and shovels until today, Sheriff Dan Berry says.

The Washington State Patrol’s evidence team also is helping.

While rumors fly around this town of 1,550 about a possible suspect - a teenager enraged at the juvenile court system - no one has been arrested or held for questioning.

“They’ve already hired a lynch mob,” one courthouse official says.

The sheriff says he won’t be rushed.

“Basically, this is a team effort. We want to get the damn job done and done right,” he says.

Evidence gathering should end Thursday, clearing the way for structural engineers to take their first detailed look at the building. Its shell seems to have weathered the flames, though, making restoration possible.

The courthouse is insured for $2.9 million, but there is a $2 million rider to bring the building up to present-day code. The contents are covered for $1.3 million.

Hopkins is optimistic the courthouse can be rebuilt for the $6.2 million insurance package. “That would be wonderful.”

Most of the paper records were stored in vaults and came through with little more than water damage. Some will be air-dried. Others will be freeze-dried at the Safeway to prevent mildew until they can be dehydrated professionally.

One of the most damaged collections was the county clerk’s divorce records, says Richard Hobbs, a regional archivist for the state.

Lincoln County is the state’s divorce capital, with an estimated 2,000 outsiders filing there each year. Some go to avoid publicity, others for the convenience. Divorces in Lincoln County can be filed and finalized by mail.

Fire and smoke essentially destroyed the paper divorce files, Hobbs says, but not the microfilm versions.

Most of the damage to computers and office equipment was from water. The furnishings were carted up to the fairgrounds for cleaning in the dining hall, whose aroma is now smokier than a barroom’s.

“You should have smelled this room right after the fire,” says Marlon Schafer, owner of Odessa Office Equipment, 35 miles southwest of Davenport.

Schafer drove up Friday to donate the use of a copy machine and was told since he was there, to salvage what he could.

“It’s a terrible way to make a living, but somebody’s going to get the job,” he says.

High school students Angie Nicholls, 17, and Keriann Doucette, 15, volunteered by cracking open computer keyboards and wiping out the moisture. They threw those that didn’t work into a regular dishwasher.

“We’re batting about .500 on the equipment. I’m tickled pink,” Schafer says.

Up Morgan Street in the heart of downtown, Auditor Johnston, Assessor Jon “Frosty” Freeze and their staffs were sprucing up the old, vacant Davenport Times building.

It will be their new home for at least a year while crews rebuild the burned-out husk up the hill. Computers should go on-line today, and paychecks will be cut on schedule Thursday and Friday, Johnston says.

Court will be held above the Cottonwood Restaurant for a few weeks, until manufactured buildings are hauled to the west end of the sheriff’s department.

“There’s a numbness that sets in at first,” says Karen Cole of the assessor’s office. “Right now, you just do what you have to do.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = J. Todd Foster staff writer Staff writer Tom Sowa contributed to this report.