TOWN OF CASTLE ROCK — Heather Wiedenfeld sees hope in a garnish tray.

Amid the black aftermath of a fire that destroyed the Castle Rock Inn that she and her life and business partner John Gillingham purchased in July, Wiedenfeld found her encouragement protected inside a charred beer cooler.

That’s where, behind what used to be the bar and right above soot-laden bottles of bloody Mary mix and cans of Budweiser and Bud Light, a covered tray filled with mushrooms, pickles, lemons, maraschino cherries and green olives provided Wiedenfeld, 31, a colorful contrast to her new dark surroundings, sans roof and walls.

When your livelihood is taken away by fire, little surprises can offer powerful optimism.

“It just gave you a little more hope every time you found something that wasn’t completely destroyed,” Wiedenfeld said last week. “It’s like someone’s trying to tell you don’t give up hope because there’s something there, yet.”

The fire was reported just before noon on Dec. 16. The couple were on their way to Viroqua for Christmas shopping when a friend called to say smoke was coming out of their historic business.

By the time they returned, Montfort, Fennimore and Boscobel fire departments were pouring water on the blaze. Before it was over, 12 departments, including some from as far away as Platteville and Richland Center, responded.

Heroically, they were able to fully protect the couple’s home just 15 feet from the bar and restaurant.

The fire is not suspicious in origin, according to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office. No official cause has been determined but Wiedenfeld said she has been told by investigators it may have been electrical.

Just hours before the fire, Wiedenfeld noticed a set of lights that didn’t work. She assumed it was just a bulb problem.

“I go in every morning and every night, too, to check the coolers to make sure everything is running right,” Wiedenfeld said. “They’re thinking it was (in the ceiling) in the can lights.”

The 9,000-square-foot building that housed the Castle Rock Inn and its catering business may be gone, but Wiedenfeld and Gillingham, 30, are vowing to rebuild.

Their insurance should cover the mortgage, contents and lost income but they’ll essentially be starting from scratch. It could cost nearly $1 million to rebuild, but they’re hoping to do it for less.

If it all works out, the buffets of chicken and ribs, wings, tacos, prime rib and the fish fries that drew 200 or more on a Friday could return to the corner of Highway G and Shemak Road by this summer.

And, yes, they’d also like to bring back the all-you-can-eat soft serve ice cream that was included with every meal.

“That ice cream machine broke down one night. You would have thought the world had come to an end,” Gillingham said. “I haven’t heard one person say they don’t want (our business) back. It wasn’t just us who lost our restaurant, it was everybody. That’s why we’re really hoping we can rebuild.”

The couple received an outpouring of support from family, friends and customers. Checks have come in the mail. In the week after the fire, Gillingham estimates more than 2,000 vehicles have slowly paraded by the ruins.

That same week, a benefit was announced, to be held Jan. 31 at Boscobel Bowling & Banquet.

The Castle Rock Inn, across the street from St. John Nepomuc Catholic Church and its cemetery, has been drawing farmers, city folk and even those from Iowa for decades.

‘Just down the road’

The business was founded in 1923 as a grocery store, and Wiedenfeld and Gillingham are the sixth owners after buying it in July from George and Jeanna Hrubes. George’s bar stool, a mainstay behind the bar for the past 18 years, survived but will need to be reupholstered.

News stories about the Dec. 16 fire have identified the business as being near Muscoda. In reality, that village along the Wisconsin River is 12 miles to the north and Boscobel a winding 18-mile drive to the northwest. Fennimore is 11.5 miles to the southwest and Montfort 8.5 miles to the southeast.

The Castle Rock was a rural supper club in every sense. The motto of the business, “Where everybody lives just down the road,” is a take-off from the old television sitcom “Cheers.” Only instead of Boston, it’s surrounded by Grant County farmland untouched by the glaciers of 12,000 years ago.

“You may not have been family when you entered, but you were when you left,” Wiedenfeld said. “People are close-knit here.”

This is where the locals came to get their burning permits. Ironically, that sign survived the blaze.

During the gun deer season last month, the business drew hundreds who came to eat, drink and brag about their hunts. When the season ended, 340 deer were registered here.

The shotgun and .22 rifle that were on display for a raffle for the Montfort Fire Department were lost in the blaze along with the envelope of money from ticket sales. So, too, were the calenders, ticket stubs and cash for a fundraiser for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

The dance floor through the years has hosted weddings, anniversaries and birthday parties. There were plans this year for a Christmas Day brunch and a New Year’s Eve prime rib buffet.

The original walk-in cooler, built before the Depression, was still being used until last week, although there were plans to shut it down due to its inefficiency and build a new one off the back of the building.

Remarkably, two days after the fire, Wiedenfeld and Gillingham catered a party for 100 employees and residents of Bloomfield Manor Nursing Home in Dodgeville.

They used the kitchen at Sportsman’s Lounge & Supper Club in Muscoda, where Wiedenfeld had previously worked and she was familiar with the chicken broaster. She had to use her Dodge Ram pickup to transport the food. The 1995 Ford van they normally use for catered events was untouched by the fire. Unfortunately, the only keys to the vehicle were in the bar.

“We had to feel normal again. We had to do something,” Wiedenfeld said of catering the event. “It was hard. My emotions have been like a roller coaster.”

Southwest Wisconsin Technical College and Highland High School have offered the use of their kitchens for future catered events but they have likely lost at least one off-site event, a wedding for 500 in May. A handful of on-site events won’t happen plus they’ll likely lose out on catering meals for funerals for now.

Ruins a daily reminder

Wiedenfeld, who grew up in Fennimore and attended wedding receptions at the Castle Rock as a child (maiden name Waterman), has known Gillingham for nine years.

They met while she was working in the parts department at Vetesnik Power Sports in Richland Center and Gillingham was farming. There are four children in their blended family: Kayden, 7; Cassidy, 6; Riley, 3, and Johnny, who was born May 12.

Now, when they sit at their dining room table or wash the dishes at the kitchen sink, their view is the charred ruins of what used to be their business.

But in some ways, that constant reminder has helped the healing process and has allowed them to more quickly focus on what needs to be done to rebuild.

“The first couple of days, you look out, you see the wreckage, you see all the bad,” Wiedenfeld said. “Then if you stare long enough, you start to see the good and you start to see the rebuild. I know I do anyway.”

Editor's Note -- This article was changed to provide the proper date for the benefit for Castle Rock Inn.

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.