$200,000 Fire Spells End For Barn, Family Farming

Solid Cherry Structure, Built In 1930, Housed Equipment

June 17, 1991|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

Firefighters couldn't arrive fast enough to save Betty Judd's barn Saturday afternoon.

By the time they drove up to the Conway Road address in Odenton, the 50-foot walls of solid cherry were piled in a heap in what used to be a basement.

As firefighters hosed down the rubble, Judd and her husband, Joe,stood nearby saying what little farming the family did on the 480 acres surrounding the building has ended. The barn held their farm equipment.

The Judds, like other neighbors, are convinced the fire that destroyed the 61-year old barn was set by vandals who have plagued their community for years.

Three weeks ago, someone stole aluminumsiding off the barn. Six months ago, someone broke into the Judds' home on Meyers Station Road.

Even a burglar alarm hasn't kept them away -- Joe Judd said the thieves nearly ripped it off the wall on a later visit. The vandals were gone by the time police arrived.

Vandalism has been a part of the Forks of Patuxent area for years, ever since stories surfaced about a small church in nearby Wilson Town being haunted. Leon Thomas, who lives near the barn on Conway Road, saidhe counts dozens of teen-agers driving by his home each weekend night.

"I know they're not all my neighbors," he said, "because there are only four houses down the road."

Last summer, the church, St. John AME Zion Church, was vandalized repeatedly by youths anxious to see if a ghost actually lived in the place of worship. Since then, inaddition to Saturday's fire, a barn and an abandoned home on Conway Road have been destroyed by fire.

Fire officials have not yet termed Saturday's fire arson, however. Capt. Michael E. Schaal said the cause was listed as suspicious, but he said investigators were checking the complaints about vandals, although nobody was seen in the area after the fire started.

Schaal estimated the barn's loss at $200,000, mainly because of the expensive building materials. "I can't imagine replacing a cherry barn," Schaal said.

Schaal said firefighters arrived at the barn, in the 2800 block Conway Road, at 12:16 p.m., only to find the 50-foot tall structure completely destroyed.

Debris filled a half-basement, creating a smoldering pit of melting metal, wood and garbage that took 40 firefighters hours to put out.

Grass along the dry ground also ignited, and fire quickly spread to a nearby abandoned and partially collapsed home and barn. A wooden fence running along the dirt road leading up to the barn also caught fire.

But Battalion Chief John W. Riggs said firefighters "arrived in the nick of time" to prevent a potentially serious brush fire. "We would have had a major fiasco," he said.

One firefighter was injured while fighting the blaze, suffering second-degree burns on his foot. He was taken to Bowie Health Center. The firefighter's condition and name were not immediately available.

The barn, which was 40 feet by80 feet, was built in 1930 and used to cure tobacco grown in nearby fields.

It was later bought by a professor from a local college, who experimented with growing plants, Joe Judd said.

The barn and land was bought in 1947 by the Ihrig family, which still owns the property today under a partnership. Betty Judd's maiden name is Ihrig.

Now that the barn is gone, the Judds say what little farming they still did on the property is now over. They blame the vandals who have made living in the quiet and isolated area difficult.

"We call thepolice," Betty Judd said. "They investigate. But there is nothing more you can do. They destroy property. They don't have enough to do."

Thomas said police roadblocks haven't helped keep curious teens away and said it is too bad the church has a reputation of being haunted.

"It's a lot of junk," he said.

"It's just a standard Methodist church. It's pitiful, more than a shame. For six years we've been putting up with this crap."

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