A commitment to community

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Fire fully involved the barn in minutes.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The middle-aged man sat in the van watching what he really wanted to do. His physically weak condition didn’t allow him to help rebuild the barn that had burned a month earlier.

I knew this man, and knew his heart was with these good people, people from across the community who came together to help resurrect the barn. My friend’s presence moved me as much as the corporate act of mutual aid that we witnessed.

Though he couldn’t help, my friend wanted to be there for support, for community, to keep the connection with his people. His presence was his help. Everyone knew about the fire that had destroyed the old bank barn. There was nothing firefighters could do that night other than to protect the adjacent buildings, which they did successfully.

Only three days before the barn raising, the clarion call went out, one phone message to another, for help. The result was a swarm of activity that began at sunrise and lasted until the job was nearly completed. This was not only how the community worked. It was the community.

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Three hours after the work had begun the barn was fully framed.

My friend knew this. He viewed his vicarious participation as imperative.

He didn’t need to tell me this of course. In our decades of living here in this place, we knew the unwritten, modest code of conduct. When your neighbors need help, help them.

It is the way this community operates, has operated, will operate. It is who we are and how we survive. Without one another, we are nothing. No man is an island indeed.

Old Order and New Order Amish worked side-by-side, hammer by hammer, board by board, with one another. Conservative Mennonites, Mennonites, and probably a few Baptists and Presbyterians were in the mix, too. All hands were on deck, no membership cards needed.

One man served as the coordinator for constructing the structure back into a barn. One body, estimated at about 300 men, women and children, made it happen. The process was beautiful to behold, a community in action.

With the foundation and floor previously completed, the framing of the barn began before sunup. By 8 a.m., the trusses were already being set. No orders needed to be barked. Spontaneous crews simply flowed in precision without cue, and the building arose. It was mind-boggling, astounding and inspiring.

Bearded men, clean-shaven men and teenage boys, proving themselves worthy, massed over the 50 by 60 foot frame. Seated on church benches, youngsters and women, their bonnets bleached whiter by the day’s brightness, watched and waited their turn.

By noon, the siding and roof were nearly completed. Hearty meals of homemade meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of side dishes and luscious desserts refueled the crews for the afternoon.

Even the weather cooperated for stepping casually across the peek of the roof. Clear blue sky, no wind to sway the balance, no humidity to dehydrate efficient work all made for perfect construction conditions.

In practicality, such a coordinated effort helped cut the cost of rebuilding for the owner. In a broader sense, such a coordinated effort reaffirmed that in a cooperative community no tragedy is too great to overcome.

Though he couldn’t help lift a board, my friend participated in this most sacred and iconic act. To the passersby who stopped to take photographs, it was a special treat to behold.

For those who knew what really transpired, like my friend, it was much more than a delight. It was communion.

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By evening work on the main barn had been completed.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

A fire in the neighborhood

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This was the first picture that I took of the barn fire shortly before 10:30 p.m. on August 12, 2013

By Bruce Stambaugh

We had just turned out the lights for the night in anticipation of a really good night’s sleep when we heard the sirens. With the windows open on this warm and wonderful August evening, the sirens grew louder as they quickly approached.

I headed to the dining room to look north out the windows. Above the stand of giant field corn an eerie dancing orange glow lit up the night sky. We had a big fire somewhere in the neighborhood.

I got dressed as quickly as I could, grabbed my cameras and headed to the garage. In the meantime, my wife had ventured out into the front yard. She reported back that it was either our friend’s excavating business or the neighbor’s barn that was burning.

Once the parade of responding fire vehicles passed by, I pulled my car onto the road and quickly saw that indeed it was our neighbor’s barn. It was fully involved in flames. Only the sheet metal roof remained, held up by the century old timber frame, dark against the constantly changing fiery kaleidoscope that was quickly consuming its host.

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With the barn that far gone, the firefighters executed their only logical option. They concentrated their hoses on protecting the other exposures situated around the old bank barn. Soon long streams of water played back and forth dousing the rooftops, cooling them from the ferocious temperatures generated by the destructive flames.

My first instinct was to see what I could do to help directly at the scene. Knowing I’d only be in the way, I instead pulled into my excavator friend’s parking lot, focused my cameras and started snapping.

I wasn’t alone. Scores of others joined me. Tractors, vans, cars, pickups and bicycles filled the parking lot. Most spectators, like me, were lined along the wire fence that separated a farm field from the parking lot a football field from the blaze.

I photographed the various stages of the fire. Just 11 minutes after I had taken the first picture, the roof succumbed to the inferno. Embers of burning debris cascaded high into the dark sky, carried aloft by a steady south wind.

With the barn completely collapsed, I walked down the road to console the owners and to talk with firefighters that I knew. I was amazed at both their numbers and their efficiency.

Normally, rural areas are hurting for volunteer firefighters. This night, so many men and women in turn out gear or auxiliary smocks had responded to the alarm that they had to take turns spraying water or offering food and drink. The response for this emergency was tremendous. It was an impressive display of community service.

In addition, a gallery of onlookers congregated close to the old farmhouse. Most were family, friends and neighbors who had come to see if they could help in any way. Many had arrived before the first fire engine.

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In less than an hour, the bank barn was reduced to burning hay inside of charred basement walls.

I took a few more photographs and spoke with the owners. Everyone was fine. No animals had been harmed, and most of the equipment had been removed from the barn just that day. The only losses were the barn, its storehouse of hay, and personal cultivated memories. Amish church insurance would compensate for the material losses of the accidental fire. The origin of the fire was either from wet hay or sparks from an unattended burn pile several feet west of the barn.

I was sad for my neighbors, but heartened by the many people who came to help. A crisis can test the mettle of a community. This August night, its people showed their stuff.

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The clean up began the next day amid the ruins of the smoldering barn.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013