Despite barn fire, ‘a lot of things went right for us that day’
PORT DEPOSIT, Md. — Louis Merryman had just left a doctor’s appointment and was resting for a moment in his truck on Aug. 12 when he received a frantic call from his barn manager, who told him the family farm’s barn was on fire.
“I’m on my way,” Louis, 42, said. “Just throw a hose on it.”
He whipped his truck around, headed east and immediately saw clouds of black smoke ballooning above the trees about two miles away, just over the Susquehanna River.
That can’t be ours, he thought. No way is it that big.
The large, 90-year-old barn was housing 18 horses, including two stallions. A serious fire would be Anchor & Hope Farm’s worst nightmare.
As he cut through a nearby farm to get home faster, Louis’s panicked mind resisted the obvious. He could see the massive, jet-black plumes all the way home.
That’s not our place, he thought. That’s something else.
When he pulled into his driveway, there was no denying it: an army of fire trucks and emergency vehicles and a roaring inferno fueled by the barn’s antique, bone-dry wood and oil paint. Several steel fire hydrants were reduced to molten puddles.
“You couldn’t get within 200 feet of it,” Louis said. “Your face would burn.”
Fortunately, the manager, Heather Cellinesi, had rushed the animals from the barn as the flames consumed it and called 911. They were loose in the field when Louis arrived.
As firemen attacked the flames, rounding up the animals became the family’s priority. The colts needed to be separated from the fillies. He was joined by his parents and his wife, Grace Merryman, who had raced home from a nearby store after noticing two missed calls from Louis. Two sheriff’s deputies also helped.
As they gathered the animals, they noticed Imagining, one of the farm’s two stallions, was badly burned on his rump. He’d been briefly trapped inside his flaming stall before Cellinesi moved him out.
They secured Imagining in another stall. The Merrymans needed to water the animals, but the farm’s utilities went through the barn, and its water lines were destroyed.
“We had to improvise and get everybody water quickly,” Louis said.
At first, they thought Imagining’s wounds were superficial, but an hour later, after the local veterinarian, Cassie Mahoney, arrived, the horse’s skin began to bubble. He was moved to a local animal hospital where he recovered for the next five days.
When everything was under control, Louis walked to a pond on the family farm and called Stan Bair, his builder at Rohrer Construction in Quarryville, Pa. He’d renovated the Merryman’s barn 18 months prior, and Louis knew it was difficult to quickly get on the company’s busy schedule. He explained the situation.
“Are you going to be able to do it?” he asked Bair.
“For that we’ll make room,” Bair said.
There were weeks of grueling cleanup. Damages were estimated at $500,000. A year of income was lost, Grace said.
“If you think of us as crop farmers, yearlings are our crop, and we were not able to go to market this year, and that was pretty devastating,” she said.
Instead of taking 10 yearlings to auction, the animals were sold privately.
Anchor & Hope was launched by Louis’s grandfather, John Merryman, a well-known dairyman and horse breeder who served the regional racing industry. It’s been in the family ever since.
The farm was in financial trouble when Louis was a child, and the cows and much of the farmland was sold. About 75 acres remain of the original 500, Louis said.
He and Grace launched their equestrian business in 2017 with two stallions. They also board animals. The farm can manage more than 120 horses during peak season. They’re well-known within the small, regional equestrian industry.
Imagining continues to recover from the fire, Louis said. He still has scabs that occasionally need to be removed, but there’s been no change to his knuckleheaded personality.
“I don’t get choked up too easily, and I got choked up routinely working on that horse,” Louis said.
“We take our responsibility as their caretaker very seriously, and the fact that this happened to him while we were in charge of him, you know—” Grace said.
“Stuff happens,” Louis said. “You lose foals, you have broken legs, and it’s just part of the game, and it happens. But this was different because it wasn’t just part of the game.”
The local fire department ruled the fire an accident. The Merrymans declined to speak in detail about the cause.
They continue to be warmed by the community’s response following the fire.
“It’s been overwhelming in the best sense,” Grace said. “I had been back five minutes when the fire was still going and my phone started to go off… and it didn’t stop.”
People offered to recover horses. The Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, the Maryland Horse Breeders Association and the Maryland Million, a race program in Laurel, all contributed financially to help the farm.
Fasig-Tipton, the auction company where they initially planned to sell their horses, offered to help the Merrymans market them privately. People have donated smaller items such as extra halters and water buckets.
“I was thoroughly appreciative but also uncomfortable because you’re not used to taking handouts and you’re also not used to relying on them,” Louis said. “A few of the things, we would have been in far worse shape without some of the help.”
Last week, the frame of a replacement barn was under construction. The Merrymans plan to attend their annual stallion show this year. There’s also plenty of room within the tragedy to be thankful, Grace said. The fire began on a side of the barn made with newer, less flammable material, giving Cellinesi time to save the animals before it crawled through the eaves of the barn as it spread.
Had it started on a different side of the barn, made with the older wood that eventually accelerated the fire, the outcome would have been less forgiving.
“We would have lost everything,” Louis said. “All the animals would have been lost.”
“There’s a lot of things, as odd as it sounds, that went right for us that day,” Grace said.