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Fire destroys historic Peabody barn

Reward offered through Kansas Crime Stoppers

Staff writer

Peabody firefighters were called out Saturday morning to battle a blaze in the “old McKercher” barn behind Duke and Beth Eldridge’s residence at 311 N. Maple St., Peabody.

The Eldridge family moved to Marion before school started and the residence was unoccupied. The barn was used for storage.

Peabody Fire Chief Brett O’Dell said firefighters were notified by dispatch at 8 a.m.

“By the time we got there, it was pretty well engaged,” he said.

Firefighters were able to protect structures on the surrounding properties. Across the alley from the barn, a vinyl fence surrounding the yard of the Vince and Diane Nickel home melted in the heat.

“The barn had no electricity,” O’Dell said. “There was nothing to malfunction so it is being treated as a suspicious fire.

“The state fire marshal was called and had people here Saturday. The report said there is no evidence the fire was intentionally set, but there is also no evidence that wasn’t,” O’Dell added.

Officers from Marion County Sheriff’s Department and Peabody Police Department assisted in the investigation, working most of the weekend. The scene was examined and neighbors questioned about possible activity around the house and barn.

“I didn’t personally talk to any of them,” O’Dell said. “But there are reports of people seeing vehicles in the alley Friday night and seeing what looked like young people coming and going from the barn. Those statements are part of the report.”

No estimate of damage was given. A 1969 Ford that was stored in the barn was destroyed. It had belonged to Duke Eldridge’s father and Eldridge hoped to restore it someday.

Kansas Crime Stoppers has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person or persons responsible for the fire. To contact Crime Stoppers, call (800) 222-8477.

The aging wooden structure was likely one of the oldest buildings in Peabody. At one time it and the two-story house at the southeast end of the block were the only structures on the 300 block between Sycamore and Maple streets.

Col. Duncan McKercher built the house in 1875, according to a passage in the book “Peabody, the First 100 Years.” There is no mention of the barn, but local lore has always placed it at the north end of the block where it stood until Saturday morning. McKercher would have used horses for travel so it would make sense that he would build a barn with his house.

Eventually, as Peabody grew to surround the McKercher block, parcels were sold for other houses. Several of the houses on the block are “Carpenter Wilbert homes,” built in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The barn eventually became part of the parcel at 311 North Maple St., three houses north of the McKercher residence.

There have also been rumors about the existence of a tunnel from the house to the barn. Stories say the tunnel was built so that the members of the McKercher family and staff would not have to get out in inclement weather to get to the barn. However no tunnel has ever been found.

According to Peabody historian Marilyn Jones, the structure was not on the list of buildings that contribute to Peabody’s historic register designation.

“There really is no actual documentation about the barn and its history,” she said. “It was just an interesting old building that has been around a long time.

“It’s too bad it is gone, but I am just glad there wasn’t more damage, as close together as the other houses are.”

Police Chief Bruce Burke echoed her sentiment.

“We were lucky we didn’t have a gusty north wind,” he said. “It would have been tough to contain and could have taken every house on the block.”

In addition to the number for Crime Stoppers, anyone with information about the fire can contact Peabody police officers by calling (620) 983-2133.

Last modified Feb. 3, 2010

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