On Nov. 8, Jim Farley spread straw on the barn floor to bed down cattle. He ground feed and plugged in his diesel skid steer about 2:30 p.m., before heading to the nearby town of St. Johns to do some banking.
At 4:20 p.m., Jim walked out of the bank. “My phone rang, and it was my grandson Jake [Farley], saying he needed my help. … The barn was on fire,” explains Jim, who then immediately called his wife, Theresa, at their home in Fowler, Mich., which is just down the road from the barn.
“I backed out of the driveway, and I could see the flames as tall as the peak on the barn,” Theresa recalls. “I called him back, and I said, ‘Jim, it’s all gone.' I didn’t want him to think it was a minor little fire. … I didn’t know how he would respond.”
The 285-foot barn, which started as a timber-frame barn built in 1870 and included modern additions in 1963 and 2005, was gone within two hours.
“I could see the smoke in the sky from the city limits of St. Johns [about 10 miles away],” says Jim, who rushed to the scene, pulling onto two-lane M-21 right behind a St. Johns Fire Department truck.
By 5 p.m., seven fire departments from Dallas Township, Maple Rapids, Hubbardston, St. Johns, Pewamo, Muir-Lyons and Westphalia were on the scene. “They did a remarkable job; they had to haul water in,” Theresa says. “But there was no saving it.”
The fire departments were there until about 10 p.m., and some came back the next day as the fire continued to smolder and reignite.
No one was injured in the incident, and Jake was able to get all 19 head of Jim’s cattle and two of his own out of the barn safely. But the rest of the contents were reduced to rubble.
Jim, 77, is a semi-retired farmer. Most of the 475 acres he farms are leased, including a portion to Jake, who produces organic feed to supply organic egg production, chickens, lambs, pigs and cattle.
There was no furnace or stove in the barn. Early indications are that it was some type of electrical or wiring issue.
“I plugged in the diesel skid steer just like I’ve done for over 20 years,” Jim says. “They are not sure if that’s the cause.” Early indications are the fire started on the west side of the original barn where the skid steer was parked.
While the main portion of the barn is well over 100 years old, Jim says it was upgraded with a modern circuit breaker box.
Weeks later, the remnants remained — charred timber beams, steel sheeting from the new roof that was put on only two years earlier, clumps of cement, burned equipment and the smell of destruction. “It was heartbreaking just to drive by it,” Theresa says. The cleanup started in early January, after details were settled with the insurance company.
Jim meticulously accounted for everything in the barn, right down to extension cords and a coffeepot.
Theresa says Jim’s “persnickety and has a place for everything — in a good way.” Just before the fire, he had finished packing the barn tight for storage through the winter.
“He knows everything that was in that barn, and while a lot of the equipment was not new, it was fixed up and rebuilt,” Theresa says. “It was what we had, and it’s worth something. We couldn’t afford to have replacement value insurance, but we did have insurance. We always had insurance, no matter how horrible things were … health, car, fire, home. If you own something, you've got to insure it.”
With no way to feed or house the cattle, neighbors helped load them onto a long trailer supplied by Gary and Pat Fedewa, who drove them to the St. Louis Stockyards for sale.
More than 80 tires were in the barn, Jim says, as he recalls what was parked inside — including five gravity boxes, two flat-rack wagons with 120 bales of hay on each, a chopper wagon, a corn planter, a 6-ton capacity hydraulic trailer with dual wheels (dump wagon), a skid steer, a lawn mower, a 100-gallon sprayer, a manure spreader, a baler and a homemade dehorn cattle trailer. “I made that 50 years ago, and everybody wanted to borrow it,” Jim says.
Also inside was a 1986 Chevy van that Jim used to take to Mackinaw City, Mich., during the antique tractor crossing weekend.
“You could hear the wheels popping,” says Theresa, who is most upset about losing the all-original, deluxe, five-window 1942 Ford Coupe they acquired three years ago. They both had become attached to it. “There’s not five of those cars in the U.S. like that one,” says Jim, who adds that it still had the original license plate and color.
The barn could hold more than 6,000 bales of hay or straw in the mow, which went from one end to the other after rafter boards were added to connect the two original mows.
Jim had just finished grinding up two weeks’ worth of feed in preparation for time off during deer season.
Nobody likes to think about this kind of loss, but Theresa says, “If nothing else, take pictures and write down what you own, and then put that list off premises. You can also take a picture, or a video, and right down the date of purchase and what you paid for it. You can’t cut costs or corners when it comes to insurance.”
The insurance company has settled with the Farleys. “We are satisfied,” says Jim, noting that they got the full value of the policy.
“That’s not the replacement value,” Theresa adds, “and it certainly doesn’t fill the emotional void. It’s not just a building. It represented generations of farming, a legacy of hard work and was a sign of accomplishment. I have so many memories.”
The barn becomes entrenched in the history of the family, Theresa says. “It’s a symbol. … It’s like a church. The barn is an essential part of the family farm.”
It’s a barn they invested in to save 20 years ago when the east end was starting to settle into the ground and the roof was no longer straight.
“I had a quote for $7,000 to tear it down,” Jim says. “But then I got a quote from Schneider Builders, Leon Schneider, who said he would straighten it up and fix the roof for the same price. So, we saved it, and then my son Kenny and I added onto it.”
There is a plan to rebuild, although exactly what and where is yet to be determined.
Looking back, Theresa says, “We were blessed to have it as long as we did. We’ll manage.”