Farmer perserveres after barn fire

June 17, 1997


Staff Writer

Light smoke continued to rise slowly from a pile of debris Tuesday afternoon, more than 48 hours after fire burned Arlan Martin's two-story barn to the ground.

Sitting on his tractor near the wreckage, the dairy farmer reflected on Sunday morning's blaze.

"It's something to watch 40 years of your life go up in flames," said Martin, 54. "It's a quick way to lose a half-million dollars."

For the first time since the fire, the Martins on Tuesday were able to milk their 140 cows on their farm off Greencastle Pike south of the Pennsylvania border.


On the previous two days, Martin, his wife and three daughters led their cattle on a painstakingly slow journey down their lane and across Md. 63 to a neighbor's farm. They made the trek, about three-quarters of a mile, twice a day.

Although the cows did not seem to mind, Martin said he was glad to have a makeshift milking operation running on his own farm.

"We can milk cows at home much easier," he said. "It's hard on their feet when they have to walk on that blacktop."

Martin said the family had experienced a fire nearly 10 years ago to the day. But he said that earlier blaze, which burned down a shed and destroyed some tools, was "nothing like this."

Martin's daughter Angel, 19, said the bright flames awoke her at about 2 a.m. Sunday. When she roused her family, the barn was engulfed in flames.

"When I first saw it, the whole barn was glowing," Arlan Martin said. "There wasn't one spot that wasn't on fire."

Martin said he and his daughter rushed outside in their bare feet to rescue their cows. They shooed their cattle to safety, but clumps of burning hay, flying sparks and popping electrical wires made it resemble a scene from the Bible, he said.

"It looked like raining fire," Angel Martin said.

After the fire, which investigators have said was caused by spontaneous combustion of hay, it did not take long for neighbors to offer the Martins their support, the family said.

Angel Martin said dozens of people - some of whom they did not even know - showed up in the middle of the night. Before the flames were extinguished, she said, neighbors and friends were making plans to get the family through the first difficult days.

Cathy Wiles, 25, another daughter, said the first priority was to figure out a way for the cows to be milked. This was no mere luxury, she said, since cows must be milked every 12 hours or they get sick.

"You can't just say you'll wait for the insurance adjustor to come," she said.

Wiles said dozens of volunteers lined their lane with wire and helped the family herd their cattle across the street.

Lowell Eby opened his arms and his farm to his neighbors. To do so meant milking his 55 cows at 3 a.m. instead of the usual 5 a.m. After that was done, he helped the Martins with their cows. Other volunteers helped load the exhausted animals into a trailer to drive them back across the street - 12 at a time.

Eby, 25, said helping a family in need is common in the farming community.

"I've known them ever since I was a little fellow," he said. "Of course, we haven't known them as well as we have the last two days."

Other help came as well. Wiles said the family has been flooded with food, hay and other items. J. Hall, a friend of Wiles' husband, immediately left his 300-cow dairy operation in Wisconsin and flew to Washington County when he heard the news.

"I didn't think about it. It's my best friend. That's all there is to it," he said. "It's amazing all the help and friends. They're great people, so they have great friends."

The Martins used ingenuity on Tuesday to set up a milking station. They strung together old pipes, fences and pieces of metal to create a pen for the cows. When they ran out of those materials, Martin climbed into his tractor and drove it into position between two pieces of fence.

Martin said the support is indicative of the Mennonite farming community. Still, he said it gives him comfort as he plots the next move for a farm that has been in the family since his grandmother was milking cows 80 years ago.

"That's phenomenal, to have a disaster like this and in two days, you're back milking," he said.

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