Family rebuilds after Md. barn fire, grateful for community help
PYLESVILLE, Md. — It only took minutes for a fire to fully engulf Jim and Janet Archer’s shop and barn, wiping out more than a half century worth of tools, parts and memories. But the support for the dairy farm family from the community in Harford County and beyond has lasted long after the flames were extinguished and still continues.
The fire started on June 19 — Father’s Day — as Jim had arrived back at his house away from their Fawn-View Manor Farm, to have breakfast.
“We had no idea there was a problem at the farm,” Janet said.
A windy day and ample fuel in the barn full of straw, feed, equipment, oil and tools aided the blaze, triggering response from 12 volunteer fire departments and three more standing by. The fire was subsequently ruled an arson after a teenager confessed to lighting straw on fire inside the barn.
No people or animals were hurt in the fire, though only a few items were rescued before the building was consumed.
“It got engulfed very, very fast. It was hopeless,” Janet said. “We felt lucky that no one was hurt.”
With the farm’s shop part of the barn, Janet called it “the hub of the farm,” used for many things throughout the year.
“That was my go-to building for just about everything we had,” Jim said.
They had just received a delivery of oil, new skid loader tires and a load of cottonseed for their dairy cows.
“I didn’t get the bill until after the fire,” Janet said of the cottonseed. “It’s hard to pay for something you can’t use.”
The Archers remain thankful no people or animals were hurt in the fire.
They’re also “overwhelmed” by the support they received from their community in so many ways.
Along with the dozens of firefighters who worked to contain and extinguish the fire, people arrived with water and food for the first responders. Farmer neighbors brought wagons for feed and tractors to keep animals fed and the dairy operating.
Janet said the roads around the farm were lined with cars with people seeking ways to help.
Jim said once the fire was put out, he started to get phone calls from business owners and individuals who have gone through disasters and offered advice on how to deal with what they were about to face in the aftermath. In the months since, he said the calls have been as helpful as anything else.
“They were dead-on. That’s exactly how it was,” Jim said. “They know how you hurt, it isn’t all about economics all the time.”
Early on, cleanup of the site had to wait for the insurance process to get underway. That meant listing and identifying as many items as possible in order to assess value, a painstaking and grueling process.
“You know how many tools have wooden handles?” Jim said. “You know what a cordless drill looks like all burnt up?”
In the months that followed, two large fundraiser events and a flood of smaller and individual donations have reminded the Archers of the power of their community. The Black Horse 4-H Club, which Janet has been a volunteer leader for 25 years held a spaghetti dinner on Sept. 9 with more than 300 people attending.
“I was deeply touched by that,” Janet said.
The local Lions Club and Methodist Church also made donations, along with countless other gestures from people around the area.
“The kindness was just overwhelming,” Janet said.
Alice Archer, Harford County Farm Bureau secretary/treasurer, said after the fire, people started contacting officers about what the group was doing or could do for Jim and Janet. Knowing the recovery process would be long, the leaders urged patience to give the family time to get a handle on what they would really need.
“We said, ‘this isn’t going to be an overnight solution,’” Alice Archer said.
In late August, Mike and Diane Doran, Shane Smithson, Lisa Maxwell and Alice met as the nucleus of an event planning team, pooling information and resources to map out the event.
“Everybody just said, ‘What do you need?’” Alice said. “Everybody wanted to do something.”
On Sept. 17, the Farm Bureau held a held benefit picnic at the Doran family’s High View Farm. More than 240 people attended. Ticket sales, a silent auction and other donation routes contributed to the effort.
“It was an awesome evening. We knew it was going to be a big response because everybody loves Jim and Janet,” Alice said. “They’ve served the ag community for so many years and everybody wanted to give back,”
At it’s annual banquet on Nov. 16, the Farm Bureau presented Jim and Janet with $12,000 toward their recovery.
Jim said it’s hard to adequately put into words how much the support has meant to his family, but it’s something he can’t say enough.
“The community was so supportive and sympathetic. People you never thought who knew you.” Jim said. “I had no idea that that many people cared about us — and they did.”
Janet said the ordeal has shown the importance of having a strong sense of community and to be involved in it.
“You just get to learn, to appreciate the volunteers and the people who make it a community,” Janet said.
“It’s all been so comforting to know that we’re not alone in this and they’re here to help and sincere about it,” Janet said.
Jim and Janet said rebuilding the barn was never in question, though every builder they called was booked out for at least a year.
“Quitting is not an option for us,” Jim said. “Until we’re gone, we’ll keep going.”
Fortunately, a job cancellation for E&F Ag Systems in Bird in Hand, Pa., opened a window to start rebuilding at Fawn-View Manor the end of August. About a month later, the new barn was finished.
“We’re so blessed,” Janet said. “All in all, we’re functional.”
A complete recovery continues. Inflation is taking a toll on them replacing items they lost, even with insurance coverage.
As a result of the Archers’ fire and other disasters in the summer, the Harford County Farm Bureau formed a committee to create a fund that would support farms who suffer similar incidents as Jim and Janet.
“We want to have funds available in the awful chance that this happens to someone else or something similar,” Alice said.
Jim and Janet said they are on board and don’t want to wait until disaster strikes another farm to offer advice.
Janet said it’s crucial farm owners have a good relationship with their insurance agent, review and update policies regularly and take pictures of everything.
“We’ve learned a lot. This has been a lesson for everybody,” Janet said. “We definitely want to pay it forward.”