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Cars, memories lost in fire

Steven Freij has had a passion for collecting cars ever since he was old enough to drive.

The Wacouta Township resident always said when he turned 75 years old he would start reducing his collection, but a fire early Friday morning beat him to it.

"I sure didn't think I was gonna cut them down this way," the 59-year-old said.

Almost a dozen classic cars were destroyed in a structure fire that was discovered at about 3 a.m. Friday on his property just south of Red Wing.

Someone driving along Highway 61 spotted a pole shed on fire at 29443 Hillside Drive and called the Red Wing Fire Department, which had firefighters and paramedics on scene within 10 minutes. The shed was partially collapsed when the fire department arrived.

Freij said he had heard a loud noise earlier during the night, but didn't think much of it.

"I thought I heard thunder," he explained. "I got up, I didn't hear (anything else), so I laid back down."

It wasn't until he received a call from the Goodhue County Sheriff's Office that Freij became aware that a structure on his property was engulfed in flames. The homeowner was driven by a deputy from his house to his shop about 400 feet away.

Firefighters spent 30 minutes extinguishing the fire and more than three-and-a-half hours on the scene. The fire was contained to the building, which the department reported was a total loss.

"We're fairly certain there was a small explosion out there that started the fire, possibly due to the radiant heat system in the building," Red Wing Fire Marshal Andy Speltz said.

Private fire investigators will be visiting the property early next week "to kind of pinpoint the more specific cause and origin of the fire," Speltz added.

Among Freij's belongings destroyed were many antique cars aging back to the 1940s, '50s and '60s. As the owner of such an extravagant collection, Freij has received a lot of attention in the past. He remembered being interviewed many years ago about one car in particular.

"And it's now no longer here. It's up in smoke," Freij said.

In addition to the classic vehicles, the pole shed stored antique gas pumps, memorabilia from car shows throughout the country and a variety of other nostalgic collectibles.

According to the sheriff's office, the shed and everything in it was valued at between $500,000 and $800,000.

Despite all that was burned, Freij knows the situation could have been worse.

"I lost a good share of my nostalgia stuff," he said. "But I'm alive."