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Arson Scars Renaissance Festival Site

Booths burned, dragon barbecued by Kermit Pattison, Staff Writer for the Pioneer Press (Published: Saturday, February 27, 1999 )

An arson fire destroyed at least 32 small buildings early Friday (2-26-99) at the grounds of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee. "After the fire was out, I walked in there and it looked like a bomb went off," said Shakopee Fire Chief Marvin Athmann.

The blaze leveled a remote portion of the replica 16th century village but caused no injuries. Festival organizers said they were baffled why an arsonist would torch the unoccupied food and craft area.

"It's a little disturbing," said Summer Ohlsen, marketing coordinator of Mid-America Festivals, which produces the annual event. "We don't have any idea of who that would be."

Several fires were set around Gate A on the southwestern edge of the festival grounds, fire investigators said. The fire was reported at 3:03 a.m. A Carver County deputy sheriff first reported a glow in the sky, which he mistook for a fire in downtown Carver.

"The fire chief went downtown and said, `There's no fire here,' " Athmann said. "He looked off in the distance and saw the glow in the sky."

The first firefighters found the buildings engulfed in flames and others reduced to ashes. It took more than 100 firefighters from seven departments about two hours to bring the blaze under control, Athmann said. "I've never seen anything like it," he said. "When guys walked into the rubble where the buildings had fallen down, it looked like they were walking into the gates of hell."

The State Fire Marshal's office and Scott County Sheriff's Department are investigating. Deputy State Fire Marshal Thomas Neudahl said investigators had no suspects but received tips Friday. Authorities would reveal few details about the investigation. But festival organizers believe the arsonist must have walked into the grounds because the gates on the road were locked.

"They saw footprints going in and out of there," said Ohlsen. "It's a single person."

During the late-summer festival, the village comes alive with artisans and actors playing Robin Hood, jugglers, jousters and the king and queen. The grounds resemble a movie set with replicas of castles, chalets and Tudor houses where visitors can match wits with a court jester while munching chicken on a stick.

On Friday afternoon, the grounds looked like the smoldering remains of a village that had been sacked by an invading army. Smoke billowed over crumbling brick ovens, twisted scraps of metal and ashes. Blackened trees stood starkly over the ruins.

"I was out here last spring rebuilding a lot of these booths from storm damage," said Rusty Alexander, a member of the Shakopee Jaycees and longtime volunteer at the festival. "And now they're gone. I guess I know what I'm doing this spring."

The fire destroyed an area about the size of a city block containing food booths and studios of a glassblower, a jeweler, potters and painters. It also charred a playground known as the Children's Realm and barbecued a giant dragon.

Festival organizers said the fire destroyed 32 booths, 10 owned by Mid-America productions and 22 by independent crafts and food vendors. Fire investigators put the toll slightly higher, saying 35 buildings were destroyed. Athmann estimated damages at $500,000. The state fire marshal will take several weeks to make a more precise estimate, Neudahl said.

Organizers said they planned to rebuild and open the festival as scheduled Aug. 14. The damaged area amounted to about 10 percent of the 320 booths, Ohlsen said. "In relation to the entire grounds it wasn't really too bad," she said. "For the most part, it's a very small portion of our festival grounds."

(reprinted by permission of the Pioneer Press)

Last updated on 03/24/99

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