35 years ago today marks a Fourth of July my family will never forget. While other families were enjoying the usual Independence Day festivities, my family was experiencing fireworks of a different sort.
The day before, July 3rd, had been good weather, and my dad, Grandpa, Grandma, and Uncle Chuck were busy making hay. By day’s end, they had finished filling the barn hay mow completely full. This is what the farm looked like then:
The next day started like normal, with everyone helping to do morning chores and milking together. Back then we milked our cows in stanchions, which meant that each cow stood in her own stall and the milking machine was brought to her. At 7:30 am the first group of cows had finished being milked and had been let out to pasture. Just before the second group of cows was let into the milking stalls, someone, either Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Chuck, or Dad, noticed a red glow radiating from the hay mow chute. With a sinking feeling, they all realized what it was. It was one of the worst things a farm can every experience…fire!
The first thing a farmer thinks of in a situation like that is his cows. The men immediately shooed all of the milking cows out of the barn, and as many of the heifers as they could. Grandma, in the urgency of the situation, forgot there was a telephone in the barn, and dashed to the house to call 911.
I asked my grandparents how long it took for the fire trucks to arrive and they told me it felt like an eternity. The actual time was probably 15-20 minutes, and soon eight fire companies were working hard to put out the blaze.
The fire trucks pumped water from our pond to put out the flames:
My dad was 15 years old at the time of the fire and I asked him if he was scared. He said there was too much to do to have time to be afraid.
Thankfully, all of the milking cows made it out of the barn and all but 4 of the heifers. While it’s heartbreaking that we lost those 4 girls, in truth we were very blessed to have lost so few.
Whenever I hear the story of the fire what stands out the most to me is the number of people that showed up. Dad tells me how literally hundreds of people came to help. In this photo you can see the barn burning and the dozens of cars lining our road and stretching around the corner:
At 1:30 pm, while the barn was still burning, bulldozers and pay loaders began tearing down the wreckage and loading it into dump trucks. The rubble was hauled down the road and dumped behind a generous neighbor’s barn in a pile. A fire truck had to be stationed by the pile to hose the smoking debris so it wouldn’t start on fire again.
Not only is it sad for me to see the destroyed barn, but also the piles of burned hay that had just been stacked in the mow the day before.
Of course just because the barn was on fire didn’t mean the cows didn’t need milked anymore. Don Beck, Inc. came and started putting in a new milking pipeline in an undamaged part of the barn, while the rest of the barn was still burning and and being hauled away. By 7 pm half of the cows were taken to a neighbor’s farm and the other half were being milked in our barn. In the midst of a fire we were milking cows again, without having missed a single milking.
We never found out for sure what caused the fire. Some speculate a “hot spot” in the new hay or a spark from the hay conveyor could have been the cause. In one day we lost an entire barn, a mow full of hay, 61 stalls, a milk pipeline, and 4 animals. 3 months later the barn was completely built back.
To me the story of our barn fire illustrates some of the core values of the farming community: the courage of the firefighters that risked their lives to save the rest of our barns and our house, the neighbors that came from miles to lend a helping hand, the generosity of fellow farmers offering their barns and equipment, and the indomitable spirit of my uncle, grandparents, and father when they chose not to accept defeat, but to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
The Fourth of July barn fire is just a small part of my family’s story, but the lessons it taught are not. What have you learned from your family history?
-The Farming Daughter