SOUTH PORTLAND – A fire that heavily damaged Red’s Dairy Freeze, the popular ice cream stand at the foot of Meetinghouse Hill, was likely caused by an electrical problem, fire officials said Sunday.
The owner of the business, which is entering the peak summer season, said the extent of the damage is unknown, but he vowed to reopen.
“Until people get here and check things out, I don’t know how long it will take to get things repaired and get back to business,” Chris Bolling said. “We will be back.”
Insurance company representatives will assess the damage today, he said.
The fire broke out just before 3 a.m. Sunday morning. Lt. Jim Wilson, of the South Portland Fire Department said crews arrived to heavy smoke billowing from the attic area.
He said the fire started in the bathroom in the back of the building and is not considered suspicious. The building was secure when fire crews arrived, he said.
“At this point, we haven’t narrowed down an exact cause,” Wilson said. “We are pretty sure its electrical, but we just don’t know what item started the fire.”
The blaze was brought under control in about 20 minutes.
It destroyed the back half of the building that held its freezers. The front of the building where workers serve the ice-cream suffered heavy smoke damage. The toppings like Butterfingers and M&M’s melted in their containers. The machines that hold and dispense the ice-cream were coated with black soot.
Bolling said he doesn’t know if the machines will work because the heat from the fire could have melted the wires inside the machines.
The business, which was started in 1952 by Bolling’s father, Leonard “Red” Bolling, is widely considered one of the city’s best-known landmarks.
With the warm temperatures Sunday, the lines normally would have stretched to the street. Instead, motorists driving past Red’s through the busy intersection on Cottage Road honked as an employee painted, “We’ll be back” on the front of the building.
Many employees rushed to the ice-cream stand after hearing about the fire.
“I went inside and started shaking and crying,” said Jess Conley, who has worked at Red’s for the past four years. “I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was.”
Kathlean Peters, an employee at Red’s for the past 14 years, said it’s like a second home for many of the people who work there.
“It’s like a big family,” Peters said. “I’m devastated.”
Alison Bolling, who owns the ice-cream stand with her husband, was on the verge of tears Sunday as friends and patrons stopped to offer their support.
Her daughter, Laura Bolling, said she burst into tears when she saw the stand.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” she said. “It’s gone.
Christina King, of Portland, had planned to take her children to Red’s after visiting Willard Beach Sunday afternoon.
“That’s too bad,” King said. “Hopefully, they will get it up and going again. It’s a staple in this area.”
Mary Gillies, of Portland, said she has gone to Red’s since she was a kid.
“I’m shocked,” Gillies said. “I’m so sorry and upset that happened. It’s one of my favorite places to go around here.”
Robyn Wondolleck, of South Portland, walked by Red’s Sunday afternoon to inquire about the extent of the damage. She said her fiance Dustin Powell, a call member of the Cape Elizabeth Fire Department, helped put out the blaze.
“It’s very sad,” she said. “It’s a weekly thing for us to come and get ice cream. I can’t imagine what it will be like for the people who have come here for generations.”
Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or: [email protected]