By now you should have all heard the story of the Weil’s Department Store fire that rocked our city on January 2nd, 2022. That day arsonist Roel Leon burned one of the most iconic buildings in Hillsboro, but he also murdered by fire Ronnie “Ron-Dog” Knapp who was sleeping upstairs. The fire crippled the Main Street business block between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, shutting Main Street to any access for almost 2 months. Other businesses were affected around the downtown blocks as traffic and customers dropped off.
To put the fire in the past and get downtown open again building owner Jay Weil has worked with two contractors to safely remove the burned-out hulk of the 30,000 SF former Weil’s Department Store which was built over 100 years ago. The work has been painstakingly slow and difficult. The fire torched millions of pounds of material from the 2-story high building dropping much of the remains into a 10-foot-deep basement under the structure. In addition, the building shares structural party walls with the Hillsboro Pharmacy to the East and the Jensen Law Firm to the West (former Delta Drug Building).
As the building has come down it has been terribly sad and hard to watch from our office, directly across the street and in full view. The Herald brought you all the story of Ronnie Knapp and covered his candle lighting ceremony on the street held by family and friends a few weeks back. During these past few days, we have heard and felt the thunderous booms of sections of walls and beams hitting the ground on their way to the dumpsters. Yesterday something amazing and inspirational happened.
The work crews were removing the front right facade of the building. The cement and wire front which was installed decades ago is in fact not the original material. Behind that is a very pretty tan-colored brick. Yesterday, as they removed the section over the side man door that leads upstairs, a number appeared. It was a 9. A few minutes later it turned into a 19. Lucky for me I had the cell camera running and caught what turned into an inspirational event. The best way to explain this from here is to have you watch it for yourself.
The original building was built by Nathan Weil starting in 1918 and was completed in 1919. Four sons worked with him to get the business going, Jake Weil was off in France fighting WW 1 when the department store opened in October of 1919 but returned from the war and eventually lived and worked in the building for decades. Weil’s set the gold standard for service and excellence and people from miles away came to Hillsboro to shop.
The marker put over the side entry door was fully revealed yesterday. Its simple yet powerful design includes the Weil name and 1919 with the word BUILDING spelled BVILDING; that was common and was a nod to the Latin use of V in the place of U. The crews revealed it yesterday and it only took minutes for people to realize that it means something.
The steel hook on the side is probably an old awning anchor. What the sign signifies is that the building may be 103 years old and fire may have destroyed it and human life, but the fire can not destroy the history of our town and what the business and building stand for. Industrious hard-working people, like the Weils, represent the type of people who built our town. The ability to stand 103 years shows the quality and strength of the building which most certainly would still be standing if the arsonist had not forced it to the ground by fire. The name, the year, and the importance are all revealed now for all of us to see.
Here is a photo from the early days of Weil’s and the sign is visible on the far right just above the glass door where the truck is unloading. One can just imagine how that old building appeared with its awnings and sprawling glass displays that lured all who strolled by to come in and have a look. In the 1960s the middle of the building was opened as a walk-through promenade to the back of the property which rebranded the property as the Weil’s Arcade.
In another development, the East wall of the building has been laid bare and exposed. This is the West wall of the old Hillsboro Pharmacy. The pHarmacy and soda fountain and grill is a Hillsboro icon and is shut now, pending reconstruction and fire recovery. That section of the wall shows the viewer that several eras of construction are represented which appear to go back to the 1880s.
Sadly that wall is going to need some work which means more construction and delays. Time will tell, but we know the Pharmacy will make a triumphant return as soon as possible.
They say Time heals all things. Maybe it does. But it also lays all things to waste returning them to dust. You, me, the town, the buildings…all will become dust. It is a matter of Time. But for right now this discovery, this marker of time, means a lot in the recovery. At least for those of us old-timers who remember this business, this building, and this town so fondly.
Thanks to the crew, to Jake Weil, his son Forrest who ran the store and property for decades, and to current owner Jay Weil. We hope to see the stone saved and kept in the area for future generations to enjoy and learn from.
Have a great day, Hillsboro.