Middletown mourns loss of market that meant so much more

MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (KGO) -- The red white and blue still flies high in Middletown, but once again above the charred rubble.

The town didn't burn this time. Its emotional center did. Hardester's Market and General Store has become a charred heap.

"It's gut-wrenching," said long-time resident Bob Norris as he surveyed the remains. "Tragedy in these parts."

The fire began around mid-afternoon, Monday. Cal Fire does not yet know the cause. Witnesses say it began in the back, burned fast, and injured a firefighter.

"When the smoke was coming out, you knew everything would be lost," said Craig Eve, who worked in the hardware department. That job kept his family going through the loss of their home during the Valley Fire, to the rebuild. Eve is one of 100 local employees. Even with two other stores nearby, the 3rd generation Hardester brothers won't be able to absorb all of them.

"I would not want to be in their shoes, and we cannot rebuild quickly enough, unfortunately," said co-owner Ross Hardester.

"We need the community, and they need us," said his brother, Grant.

Hardester's has been in Middletown for since 1943. When the fires hit this region three years ago, the market's importance transcended into a community center as the store extended credit to fire victims. Now, the troubles have come full-circle.

The family expects reconstruction take as many as two years. "We have seen their highs and lows in this community," said Ross Hardester. "Now we'll do a little of what they did."

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