Carly Storebo got the phone call just after 4:20 a.m.: The Bear’s Den — her bar, Bruno’s bar — was ablaze.
It’s a threat many homes and businesses face along Highway 23, that scenic but fickle stretch of road between West Duluth and Sandstone. It’s a peaceful alternative to I-35; but, just as a deer-shaped surprise can leave your front fender in shambles, a fire gets out of control in these parts and help might be several miles away. Bruno has a volunteer fire department, and firefighters came over from neighboring towns, but it was too late.
On July 24, 2014, the Bear’s Den burned down. They say it was an electrical fire.
Up the street about 20 miles, Holyoke’s Hitching Post is gone. It was torched by some wacko ’round the turn of the century. Almost smack-dab between Bruno and Holyoke, Duquette’s River Inn is gone. A lightning bolt struck it in 2008, according to Storebo, fried it like Wile E. Coyote.
Storebo, 35, said that would not be the fate of the Bear’s Den.
“There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to rebuild it,” says Storebo. “It was just a matter of, are [the insurance company] going to pay me, when are they going to pay me?”
She recruited a friend, Josh Day, to map out the rebuild while the money made its way through the insurance process. Day, 32, has a number of homes (including his own) in his portfolio, but this was his first commercial project.
Yet, just as she had no doubt, neither did he.
“I just thought, ‘somebody had to build it,'” says Day.
In September of 2015, they started pouring cement.
Storebo is originally from Colorado and moved to the area with her now ex-husband. She bought the Bear’s Den in 2008 to build community and, in her words, “blather to people.”
Day is from the Twin Cities’ northwest suburbs, and makes no sweet-talk about why he left.
“[I wanted to] get the hell out of the Cities,” he says.
Storebo and Day have done almost all of the construction themselves, including the ash bar top. All that took was 200 hours of sanding and Storebo nearly losing a finger. What will eventually be the kitchen is presently hogged by a table saw, and towering beams of wood.
The team has big plans for the new Den. The square footage rose from 2,500 square feet in the old place to 3,600. A general store, called The Bear Necessities, is being built into the far side of the building. It’ll start small, but the space is expansion-ready. The structure is energy-efficient, with an in-floor heating system built in, and over seven miles of wire have been put into the place.
A kitchen is also new to the Den, and Day’s plan is to have the best food on the highway.
An equipment rental business is in the long-term plans for the Bear’s Den. When all is said and done, Day days, “If someone’s going up 23, we want them to have to stop here for something.”
During our talk, two regulars came in and spoke with Storebo and Day. No knocks, no peeking around the door, just come on in. This particular pair donated some of the decoration, and aren’t even stopping in for drinks. Nope, they just want to say hi.
“People are revving their motors to get back in here,” one of them is overheard saying. Storebo takes them around the bar counter and shows them a trail of bear tracks that has been painted onto the floor.
“The bear gets out of his cage at night,” she says, starting at a large front window with a large sill, “then he stops here for a beer, then goes to the jukebox, plays a few songs …” She comes to a stop at a section of the bar country. “… and this is where he drinks.”
Oh, right: “The bear” is a 756-pound statue, for whom a special spot was carved out at the entry. Messing with him is not recommended. The fire tried, and failed.
“That was the first thing the fire department hit,” said Storebo.
A few other pieces were pulled out from the ashes, including a wooden bear face and a piece of the men’s room door jamb. Among its etchings are the visitation tag of two men who were still in the house at 3 a.m. one night in 1994.
Meanwhile, Storebo made sure the band didn’t break up during the rebuild: two bartenders and several staffers, she says, are back on board and ready to rock. Their eyes are set on April, but the kitchen has to be finished and a few more sets of inspectors have to come through.
“Everybody wants their bar back,” says Storebo. “It’s going to be psychotic.”
Despite the bar’s changes and the team’s lofty goals, Day and Storebo agreed there was one thing they didn’t want to change.
“We just want to keep it the cozy bar it was,” says Day.
“It was always just comforting, welcoming, like a home away from home,” said Storebo, who pointed out the exterior color is almost exactly the same as the previous structure. “We’re not going to get rich, but I want to have fun.”