Momma's Place burned, 'to be a Phoenix'

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In the face of a devastating fire on Saturday, Momma wants to rebuild "Momma's Country," the New Columbia Highway weekend nightspot so she can continue to honor her late husband's legacy.

Saturday morning, one of Betty "Momma" Prince's friends was thawing frozen pipes with a torpedo-shaped construction site heater commonly called a salamander that forced hot air under the restrooms where the wooden floor caught on fire, Prince and the Berlin fire chief said.

"If the good Lord is willing, it will be rebuilt," Prince said. "I don't think my customers would let me not rebuild...

"I'm a stubborn old broad, pardon my directness, but I grew up in Chicago," said Prince, 65, "This has knocked me backwards, but it's not knocked me down. One way or another, it will continue. I've got my children and my grandchildren to care for.

"This is going to be a phoenix out of the ashes," she said.

Friends from Huntsville, Muscle Shoals and Nashville told her, "'Momma, we're here for you,'" she said, "hoping to God" her insurance policy delivers.

Bitter cold created icicles on firefighters' gear as strong wind fanned the flames at the dance hall, bar and restaurant that was a gathering place for hundreds of people each weekend.

Volunteers from Berlin, Mooresville and Farmington fire departments battled the blaze for about six hours until dusk was approaching Saturday. The 911-call came in at about 9:40 a.m. Saturday.

"We were out two more times Saturday night," Berlin Fire Chief Joe Greer said. "It's a pile of rubble and people drive by and see flames, so they call 911."

The workman who tried to thaw the pipes "says he thinks sparks might have come out of the heater and that's what set the wood on fire," Greer said. "Once you get wood so hot, it doesn't take much more" to start a fire.

Still, there might have been sawdust under the building or something else that may have gone wrong, the chief said.

At the peak of the firefighters' attack, "There may have been 40-50 people involved" in the job, including the Marshall County Emergency Management Agency water truck, the Red Cross, and Emergency Medical Services, Greer said.

"We're confident that we flowed 50,000 gallons of water" from a hydrant in front of the night spot and from a hydrant near the On the Run Exxon store, the safest next place to fill five trucks put into a rotation shuttle.

Some cowboy memorabilia was saved, including the big red boot-shaped sign in front, a wagon wheel from inside, and skillets that had hung on the walls, Greer said.

The building had several additions, thereby complicating the firefighters' work, he said.

"It was real hard to get to where the fire was," Greer said. "It's why we had to work so long and go back twice."

"With such a long incident, it's a credit to how many stayed with us," the chief said, commending the ambulance crews.

EMS Assistant Director Johnathan Harrison said there were no injuries from the fire, but "The help we provided was to warm up firefighters ... Some would get in the back of the ambulance where we had the heaters on.

"Water froze on the ground and water on their helmets was freezing," Harrison said.

At least one person at the scene slipped on the ice.

Prince said some firefighters were knocked down when they tried to get in her building's side door because the fire got air and grew so fast.

"It was so fast and furious," Prince said of the conflagration. "I'm totally dumbstruck.

"I'm thinking of what was and seeing what's left," she said. "Oh, God, I'm just glad nobody was in the building and that nobody got hurt."

Ironically, the call came from within the building, according to a dispatcher at the EMS.

Momma's Country was started in the late 1980s, Prince said of when her former husband, James, started Big Jim's Country. Distraught by the fire, Prince said she couldn't remember exactly when that was.

"The original bar was Porkey's," she said. "He moved it down here and called it Big Jim's Country...

"He and I were married 25 years and we were divorced 22 years," she said. "It really was a great relationship. I was 17 when I married him. We grew apart as we grew up, but we always managed to stay best friends."

She lived in Chicago for decades, but returned to Marshall County. Jim Prince died June 2, 2006. Betty Prince has owned the business since November 2004. He persuaded her to buy it from him and she decided to continue his tradition.

Crowds of about 200 to 250 were typical on Saturday nights, she said.

David Ball, the writer and singer of "Riding with Private Malone," called Prince after the fire, saying, "'Tell me it isn't true,'" she reported Sunday.

Johnny Cash was at Big Jim's Country to film scenes for his 1998 movie "All My Friends Were Cowboys," including June Carter Cash, Joe Diffie, Ty England, Roy Rogers and Wilford Brimley.

One of the extras was Tina Hodge who works at the Marshall County Tribune in classifieds and circulation. She met Cash at the club where she was among the couples slow dancing on the dance floor for a scene shot in Momma's Country.

Prince says she believes the rebuilt business will probably be better.

"When you rebuild," she said, "everything has to be better. When this was built, the codes weren't the same as now.

"But when we rebuild, we'll try to get the same atmosphere back, Prince said, recalling a party of guests from Utah who made reservations annually the past three years.

"They have family and friends from Nashville to Lewisburg and they meet at my club," she said. "They had so much fun... The laughter and the joking -- it was just a pleasure to watch them have fun."

After she saw firefighters blown backwards at the side door, she said she just had to drive away because she couldn't watch.