For Globe Elevator owner, December fire was 'devastating'
Walking down his icy driveway, Gordy Oftedahl gestured toward what was left of the Globe Elevator in Superior — a pile of charred timber sticking through the snow and a 150-foot steel tower, its frame warped by heat.
"You work your whole life to try to get something really nice and then this happens," Oftedahl, the elevator's owner, told the News Tribune recently.
Oftedahl had been slowly removing pieces of white pine and white oak from the 181 year-old structure — once the largest grain elevator in the world — and selling them to carpenters and artists for about $1 per board foot.
The old-growth wood's tight grain and its distinct shape from decades of grain pouring against it, made it a popular material for furniture, flooring and picture frames. With little modification, some pieces of wood from the elevator were put on display as art pieces.
"You don't just see any beauty in new wood like that," said Ron Sween, president of Northshore Wood Products and regular customer of the elevator's wood.
But on the afternoon of Dec. 17, the crew tasked with removing wood from the elevator struck a nail or other metal object, causing sparks to fly and igniting a fire.
That afternoon, Oftedahl, 79, was a few blocks away at the Superior License and Registration Office on Fourth Street when a friend called to tell him there was smoke coming from the elevator.
He stepped outside to look for himself and within five minutes the elevator — which had sat on that point since 1887 — was engulfed in flames.
"It was really devastating," Oftedahl said.
Oftedahl's house — the elevator's old office building that Oftedahl converted into a home on the end of the point — was unreachable during the blaze. So Oftedahl, like many Twin Ports residents, could only watch the elevator burn from a distance.
But thanks to a steel garage between the two structures, much of the heat was blocked, saving his house, Oftedahl said.
Oftedahl estimates between $500,000 to $750,000 worth of wood he was still hoping to salvage and sell burned while total damages of the property, including equipment, could total in the millions.
"That's why I left and went to Vegas for a week, I just couldn't — everybody was calling me and everybody wanted to find out and I was just overwhelmed," Oftedahl said of the time he spent at his other home in Las Vegas after the fire.
But the point of land jutting into the St. Louis Bay, flanked by two operating grain elevators, has been his home since he purchased the property in 1992.
"We love it here," Oftedahl said. "It's just beautiful out here in the summer, It'll be hot on the hill but just comfortable here. It's just really nice."
Oftedahl purchased the property with the hopes of converting it into a marina and RV park. The original park plans still hang on his office wall.
"That's what I'm hoping to do now, but we'll see," Oftedahl said.
For now, he's still assessing the damage and trying to determine whether the 150-foot tall steel tower is still structurally sound.
"It don't think it is," Oftedahl said.
For reclaimed wood customers like Sween, the two remaining Globe Elevator structures — undamaged by the fire — might serve as a source for wood.
Oftedahl had owned those buildings when he purchased the property but has since sold them.
Since those two buildings were mainly used for grain storage, they contain less wood shaped by moving grain.
The headhouse, the structure that burned, is where much of the loading and unloading of the grain took place, leaving behind smooth waves in the wood.
"What we have left here in our shop is the last of the big grain-sculpted wood," Sween said, adding that he's looking into what's left in the two other buildings, but the wood is "nothing like what Gordy had."