Water Street in downtown Caribou had been in decline for decades before the fire.
Fire crews from multiple towns responded to an apartment fire at 7 Water St. in Caribou on Jan. 25, 2023. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — A fire that devastated Water Street in late January might be the final chapter for one of Caribou’s oldest downtown districts.

On Jan. 25, an early morning fire destroyed the apartment building that stood at 7 Water St., which sat in between a now vacant hair salon and another set of apartments. Jason Donahue, 30, died in the fire.

As a business district, Water Street had been in decline for decades prior to the fire. Now, city and state officials are unsure whether the vacant storefronts will survive or be demolished, with the fire displacing all but one of the remaining businesses on Water Street.

The city has deemed 3 and 9 Water St. too dangerous for residents and employees due to nearby smoke and water damage. Lavender Puff Hair & Tanning Salon operated at 3 Water St., which had several apartments upstairs. Both 7 and 9 Water St. also housed apartments.

Roads to Recovery Community Center and upstairs apartments make up 1 Water St., and those tenants have since been allowed to return. Creative Carpentry of Maine is located across the street at 6 Water St. and has not been affected by the fire.

Like other Maine cities and towns, Caribou demolished numerous blighted buildings during the urban renewal movement. On Sweden and Water streets, wooden buildings susceptible to fires were torn down.

The Downtown Mall on Sweden Street replaced many of those buildings. Many still blame that mall and the circular, one-way traffic route for pushing business away from the downtown center.

Water Street in downtown Caribou had been in decline for decades before the fire.
In 1995, the removal of an old billboard behind 1 Water St. revealed an old Coca-Cola sign. 1 Water St. is the site of the former George Ritchie Drug Store in Caribou. Credit: File photo

In the 1970s and ’80s, Caribou’s business district grew toward Bennett Drive and the new Access Highway, drawing attention away from Water Street. The closure of Limestone’s Loring Air Force Base in 1994 led to a massive population decline, and even more businesses left the downtown center.

Though businesses remained on Water Street, others came and went until few were left. In the aftermath of January’s fire, city officials are faced with yet another dilemma as they try revitalizing Caribou’s downtown.

In 1918, the first of four connected buildings was constructed at what is now 1 Water St. The buildings known as 3, 7 and 9 Water St. followed within the decade, each with their own structural foundation.

As Caribou built itself up during the 1930s and ’40s, shops, restaurants, a drug store, repair shops, gas stations, a potato starch factory, a tannery and railroad station lined Water Street, which stretches toward the Aroostook River.

Tony Disy purchased his family’s pawn shop from his father, Edward Disy, in 1986. The shop had been open for 60 years when Tony Disy retired in 2015.

His aunt, Mary Disy, owned and operated Disy’s New & Used Furniture Store just down the road from The Pawn Shop.

Tony Disy was a frequent customer at the popular Leopold’s Sub Shoppe, next door to his business, and the Dew Drop Inn, a small diner.

“You could walk anywhere around the area and have anything that you could want or need,” Disy said.

Since the fire, three Lavender Puff employees are working at Vogue Beauty Salon at Bennett Drive while another has joined Rejuvenate Health & Med Spa on Sweden Street, Lavender Puff owner Karlyn Williams said.

Williams had worked at Lavender Puff since 1991 and took over the business from its founder, Fern Boudreau, 10 years later. The salon would have marked its 60th anniversary Friday.

The salon had always been on Water Street, which made the sudden departure especially sad for Williams and her staff.

Williams watched many businesses come and go over the years, including Leopold’s and The Pawn Shop. She also remembers P&G Carpet, Steffy’s Stop Shop, Sweet Dreams Candy & Bake Shoppe and Tail’s End Dog Grooming. The latter two occupied 7 Water St. at various times.

“It’s hard to watch good businesses go,” Williams said. “Even though the buildings were getting old, they were in the heart of the city. People remember when these places were thriving, so it’s sad to watch a piece of history go.”

For now, the future of the Water Street complex remains uncertain, said Ken Murchison, the city’s code enforcement officer.

Structural engineers and officials from the city and Maine Department of Environmental Protection will conduct further inspections to determine if the buildings should be demolished, he said.

Shannon Moss, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Friday the state is still awaiting autopsy results for Donahue.

The state fire marshal and Maine State Police continue to investigate the cause of the fire, she said.