Elks fish fry fundraiser this Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Fort Madison
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
NIOTA – After an outpouring of support, Kirby Marsden has changed his mind about a different occupation.
The 64-year-old owner of Quality Fisheries in Niota was about to call it quits after his business of 22 years burned to the ground in the early morning hours of Dec. 3.
The fish market, a favorite regionally for fresh, frozen and smoked seafood and fish, caught fire around a smoker on the building’s southeast corner. The only thing left standing was a stand-alone freezer stocked with offerings for the winter.
Some of that inventory will be used to hold a fundraiser fish fry at the Fort Madison Elks Club Sunday, December 15 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Elks at 719 Avenue H in Fort Madison. A $10 free will donation is being requested for the fish fry that day.
A second benefit for the Marsdens is planned for Feb. 23 at the Pink Tavern in Dallas City. That event will be a fish and chicken dinner. More details on that, and possibly additional fundraisers will be available on the Quality Fisheries website at www.niotafishmarket.com.
Marsden said after the fire he thought maybe it was time to try something else.
“I’m 64 and I thought about going and doing something else for a while,” he said.
“But we’ve had a big response from the public, longtime employees, and long time fisherman who don’t have a place to sell. And we’ve had an outpouring from the customers. So someway… somehow, we’ll either rebuild or find a suitable building we can move into.”
Moving into another building in the area might be the least expensive and quickest way to get back to operations, he said.
Insurance on the building was only about 1/4 of what it would cost to rebuild. Marsden said the facility was old and he had trouble finding an insurance company that would insure it at replacement value.
“We’re weighing several options and we do plan on being back in operations as soon as possible,” he said.
“When the benefits are all done and insurance company has settled, we’ll add’er up and see what we can get done.”
Despite the fire and income coming to an immediate halt, Marsden said he still has bills to pay and was able to get a lot of payments off to fisherman and vendors this week.
The fire was actually spotted by a volunteer Niota fireman who happened to be traveling by the market at about 12:45 a.m. and saw the fire in the corner of the building and called for help.
“They called me and I got down there a little after 1 a.m. and it was pretty well engulfed by then,” he said.
“We don’t know exactly what caused it, but we were smoking fish that night. That’s the first thing we suspected.”
Marsden said there was also a natural gas valve in that area too that was fueling the fire. He said firefighters got that shut off quickly, but it was too late.
The market is a storied outlet. Marsden purchased the building in 1997 and has been running wholesale and retail sales since that time. The market was originally owned and operated by John Haigh, who also owned the Riverview Supper Club in Dallas City.
“A lot of people knew John. He was a pretty big name around here and started the fish market in 1955…64 years ago.”
Haigh operated the market and the restaurant for many years before selling to another man, who then sold to Marsden who moved to the area after selling fish wholesale in the Chicago area.
“I loved that business and being in the big city,” he said.
“The only reason I moved back here was I was having back issues and my doctor told me to get out of the trucks or I’d be in a wheel chair. I took him at his word.”
In 1997 the Marsdens completely remodeled the market and brought it up to food-grade standards, and then started making a name for themselves with area and regional fisherman.
He said revenues from the market increased every year as he built the business and established relationships not only with customers from as far away as the Quad Cities, but also with fisherman from all around the Midwest.
He said Food Network celebrity Alton Brown stopped into the market for about an hour one afternoon when he was filming for his show “Good Eats”. Brown was on a tour of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the river’s beginning at Lake Itasca in Minnesota.
“He was on a motorcycle but had a crew of about eight people and came in and tried the fish,” Marsden said.
“One of his scouts found out about us and he included us on the trip. He stayed for about an hour and half. It was a really neat experience and it ended up in his book.”
The family ended up making friends with the customer base at the market over the years, and began seeing people week in and week out.
“We carried some unique items and we always carried top-grade, which makes a huge difference,” he said.
“We developed a big following and our smoked fish became a big hit. It was a very big deal for Niota, I think.”
Marsden is planning a large sale several days before Christmas where he will sell the remaining frozen fish and seafood that was saved in the freezer. He said more details on that will come later. Customers can sign up for news and updates at the website.
There is also a GoFund me page set up at www.gofundme.com/f/quality-fisheries where individuals can make donations to help get the Marsden family back in business. A Facebook page is also updated regularly with new information at www.facebook.com/QualityFisheries/.