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Fire rips through Maple Tree Inn, guts Blue Island institution

The Maple Tree Inn was devastated by a fire, which was finally struck out Friday morning. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

A fire early Friday gutted the storied Maple Tree Inn in south suburban Blue Island, but its owners vowed the restaurant would return — and said a more than century-old bar inside might be salvageable.

Fire crews responded to the fire about 2:45 a.m. at 13301 S. Old Western Ave., officials at the scene said. Several fire departments — including from Blue Island, Robbins, Calumet Park, Orland Park, Evergreen Park, South Holland and Chicago — were called in to help fight the blaze.

Video By Justin Jackson- Firefighters are currently battling a 4-11 alarm hotel fire in the 13300 South block of Old Western Av

The main portion of the fire was extinguished by 5:30 a.m., according to officials, but it took a full eight hours to put the entire blaze out by around 11 a.m., Blue Island Fire Chief Daniel Reda said. Crews had to wait for the gas company to shut off a gas main after a line ruptured.

Blue Island mayor Domingo Vargas said the cause of the blaze was possibly electrical.

Reda said the state fire marshal is leading an investigation into the fire. A firefighter suffered a minor back sprain battling the fire and was released from the hospital Friday morning.

Crews could be seen boarding up windows and removing debris Friday afternoon. The building appeared gutted, although Reda said most of the damage was from water and smoke. A spokesman for the family, Bill Figel, said the restaurant was essentially destroyed although the bar — which was built in England and brought to Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893 — might be salvageable.

“We can build around it,” Vargas said.

The restaurant’s sign was also damaged — most of the word “Maple” melted.

“This has been the leading Cajun food establishment in the Chicago metropolitan area,” Vargas said. “People would come here [from] as far north as Milwaukee, Wisconsin — that’s how famous it was.”

Video By Justin Jackson- Firefighters battled a 4-11 alarm hotel fire in the 13300 South block of Old Western Ave in Blue Island

Judy Tuma, who manages the nearby Jebens Hardware store, said Maple Tree Inn owners Katie Orr and Erich Wennberg were emotionally drained by the ordeal.

“You put your heart and soul into a business, and even though there was no loss of lives, to look at all your hard work be reduced to rubble is devastating,” Tuma said.

They weren’t available to comment Friday afternoon, but said in a statement that they planned to move forward despite the loss.

“While we are devastated emotionally by this tragedy, we want to assure everyone that no person was hurt in the fire,” they wrote. “The Maple Tree Inn has had multiple, successful chapters and there will be many more. Our team of employees is one of the best ever assembled in our 43 years of business and we will rebuild around them.”

They added: “We want to praise the firefighters’ swift response and work in keeping our neighboring businesses safe and attempting to preserve the character of the building.”

The restaurant has been open since 1975, according to its website, although it used to be at 107th and Western in Beverly. It moved to Blue Island in 1994 into a building that dates to 1890 and once housed a speakeasy, according to a 2013 Sun-Times review of the restaurant. The bar was moved into the building in 1910, Figel said.

“We were all so lucky to have Maple Tree Inn here in the neighborhood. They were great neighbors that made every business around them better,” Tuma said.

Maple Tree Inn was preparing for a large barbecue this weekend to celebrate being named one of OpenTable’s 50 Best Southern Restaurants in America for 2018. Those plans have been halted, Tuma said.

Firefighters are currently battling a 4-11 alarm hotel fire in the 13300 South block of Old Western Ave in Blue Island. | Justin Jackson/ Sun-Times
Firefighters are currently battling a 4-11 alarm hotel fire in the 13300 South block of Old Western Ave in Blue Island. | Justin Jackson/ Sun-Times
Firefighters are currently battling a 4-11 alarm hotel fire in the 13300 South block of Old Western Ave in Blue Island. | Justin Jackson/ Sun-Times
Firefighters are currently battling a 4-11 alarm hotel fire in the 13300 South block of Old Western Ave in Blue Island. | Justin Jackson/ Sun-Times
The more than century-old bar at the Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island, photographed in 2013 for a restaurant review, might be salvageable after the fire. | Richard A. Chapman/ Chicago Sun-Times File Photo
The more than century-old bar at the Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island, photographed in 2013 for a restaurant review, might be salvageable after the fire. | Richard A. Chapman/ Chicago Sun-Times File Photo
The Maple Tree Inn’s sign melted partially because of the blaze. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times
The Maple Tree Inn’s sign melted partially because of the blaze. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times
A man operates a front loader with helping clean the debris from Maple Tree Inn. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times
A man operates a front loader with helping clean the debris from Maple Tree Inn. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times
The Maple Tree Inn’s front windows boarded up after a devastating fire | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times
The Maple Tree Inn’s front windows boarded up after a devastating fire | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times