Up from the ashes, rapidly

Amish: In Cecil County, a dairy barn goes up where one was brought down by fire just days ago.

February 13, 2004|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

CECILTON - Melvin King, the spiritual leader of 10 Amish families who moved from Pennsylvania to this rolling farmland between the Sassafras and Bohemia rivers, is still reeling from last week's fire that reduced his dairy business to a pile of smoking rubble, destroying his barn, milking cows and work horses.

But by tomorrow, a week to the day since the blaze caused an estimated $360,000 in damage, a new dairy barn will stand in its place.

King could only marvel yesterday as about 250 Amish men in straw hats, black wool coats and pants swarmed around the skeleton of his new barn, hammering trusses and fastening sheets of a green metal roof with stoic precision.

"This is truly a wonder; it's really overwhelming," said King, 41, who settled on the 145-acre farm in 2002 with his wife, Martha, and their seven children, ages 6 months to 15 years. "I guess it answers the question of where we'd be if not for our neighbors."

The old-fashioned barn-raising has drawn a steady stream of neighbors down the half-mile dirt driveway to King's farm just outside this Cecil County town. The "English," as the Amish call anyone not of their strict faith, are awed by such efficiency and are eager to help.

"Our community could learn so much from this," said longtime resident Mary Beth Huey. "If this were us, we'd never have a barn finished in a week. We'd be sitting around waiting for an insurance check."

Welcomed by town

Huey and others here in the northernmost corner of the Eastern Shore have welcomed the plain-dressed newcomers from Lancaster County's Pennsylvania Dutch country who eschew many modern conveniences and favor horses and buggies over cars.

All week, along with fellow members at Town's Point United Methodist Church, Huey has been making vats of soup to help feed the workers. Others have driven to wholesale stores, buying up restaurant-sized canned food, paper plates and plastic utensils.

Others around Cecilton, including the local Lions Club, have contributed to a relief fund at the bank where Amish farmers are frequently seen doing business at the drive-through line with their horses and buggies.

"This farmer is a local guy to many of us now," said club President Paul Crothamel, a retiree from suburban Philadelphia who built a summer house here nearly 50 years ago. "With all the development pressure pushing people to sell land, these people come here and buy farms for the future."

The fire broke out early Saturday afternoon in the barn's second-story hayloft. The state fire marshal's office ruled it accidental, started by two of King's children playing with matches.

King, his wife and their two youngest children were visiting relatives in Lancaster on Saturday when they heard the news. Since the Amish shun many of the trappings of modern life, one of King's teen-age daughters called firefighters from a telephone that the family installed about half-way down their lane, a respectful distance from their white clapboard farmhouse.

The girl reached her parents using the cell phone of a driver who frequently carries the Amish on family outings or shopping trips in 15-passenger vans.

"That ride home was the longest hour and a half I've ever had," said King. "Our 13-year-old tried to save the animals, but she backed out of there. Thankfully, everything that was lost can be replaced."

Firefighters couldn't rescue the 43 cows and 12 horses who perished in the barn. "The loss of the livestock was the hardest to accept," King said.

Thanks to the labor of volunteers who have arrived in vans and buses from Amish communities in Lancaster and Dover, Del., every morning, King says his insurance should cover most of the cost of rebuilding. Yesterday, workmen raised a racket with electric drills and saws powered by gasoline generators, a seeming contradiction to the Amish belief in a simple life. It is a concession to the realities of life in a modern world.

"Years ago, the Amish were all farmers, and you wouldn't have seen all these electric tools," King said. "Now, probably half of Amish men work in construction, work as carpenters. If you're going to be competitive with the English, you can't show up with just a hammer and saw."

Teams of men hauled rough-hewn, 16-foot sections of 7-inch-by-8-inch beams by hand to form the base of the roof of a new horse barn - part of the new structure - while others heaved at trusses trucked in from area sawmills.

Before lunch, a dozen Amish women, speaking a mixture of English and the German dialect they have used for generations, worked feverishly inside a portable wood-framed building, cooking on four gas ranges provided by a Lancaster propane distributor.

Hearty meal

In a makeshift dining hall in an open shed enclosed with sheets of plastic, a hundred or so men settled on long wooden benches and wolfed down plates of ham and potatoes, noodles and pork, corn and baked beans, as well as pies, cakes and other desserts.

A hundred neatly folded wool coats waited outside, each topped with a straw hat and a carpenter's tool belt.

As half of the crew continued working, Dan Martin, a van driver from Lancaster, watched as the barn roof was carefully placed across trusses. "When I got here Monday morning, it was a pile of debris; and look what they have now," Martin said. "It burned Saturday, they don't work on Sundays, and they're going to have this finished in less than a week."

Uplifting answer to disaster

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