Here in New England: Farm on Fire
Keith saw how hard his parents were working, how tight life was financially after all that time, and he went into welding, working a lot in high-rise construction. But he stayed a farm boy at heart and kept working here and there for other dairy farmers, all the while looking around for his own land. The farm he was meant to be on was right in front of him all along. Ruth took stock of her age and Charles’s. She wanted the farm to stay in the family. “I said to Dad,” Ruth recalls, “‘We should see if we can sell the cows to Keith.’ Dad asked Keith if he wanted to farm.” Yes, he really did.
And that is why on this summer evening Keith has just finished milking and Charles is throwing the last bale onto the elevator, which is overheating, though nobody knows it. He looks up and sees the flames. “Fire!” he yells, and then everyone starts running for the animals. The next few minutes are gone from Keith’s memory: “I don’t remember nothing. I still don’t and I don’t know as I want to,” he says.
What he doesn’t remember is how the barn seemed to fill with people pulling and tugging at the cows until all but one were out, how the cows ambled about bewildered until they could be herded together in the pasture. Firemen from 13 towns came screaming up Center Hill Road, but the flames fed on that hay and tore through the woodwork until there was nothing left but mounds of ashes. Neighbors came running and carried to safety every scrap of belongings from the house, even Ruth’s cookbooks, because it was touch and go for a while as to whether the house would also catch fire.
Ruth had been out visiting with Sarah; driving back, she saw the black smoke rising and she knew her life’s work was burning down. “I kept saying, ‘Did I leave the stove on? Did I leave it on?’” The finances of a small family farm are always precarious, and Ruth and Charles and Keith had not increased their insurance over the years to keep up with what it would cost to rebuild. The animals were safe, but without the means to rebuild, surely they would have to be sold; Spooky View seemed destined to become one more small-print item in the papers announcing one more auction.
Except the death of this family farm took a twist. Epsom’s fire chief, Stewart Yeaton, is also a dairy farmer, and he never hesitated. He told the Bachelders the cows would go to his barn a few miles away, and, in the dark, the air thick with acrid smoke, everyone around who had a livestock trailer drove to the pasture and loaded up the animals. Before dawn, Keith and Charles drove over to the Yeaton farm and milked their cows. “There isn’t a farmer around here that likes a handout,” Yeaton told a local reporter, “but we’ve got to help them out. It’s just what we do. We rally, pick up, and help the other guy get going again.”
Here’s what happened next: Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help. Farmers from Pembroke, Bedford, and Contoocook delivered hay. One farmer dropped off more than $2,000 worth of it. All the local stores sprouted donation cans and people filled them up. Keith continued to wake at 4 each morning to drive to the Yeatons’ to do the milking and to soothe his cows while emerging from his own shock. “I didn’t know I was going to rebuild,” Keith says. But it was as though everyone willed him to. He designed a new barn in his head, one that would let the cows have more freedom to roam and mingle. People brought supplies, lent their expertise and muscle. A local company brought a crane and put up rafters. A neighbor came by with a loader and another with gravel to level the land. “People just came to help from everywhere,” Ruth says. Slowly the new barn took shape on the land.
For a year and a half, the family missed their cows, as if they, too, were family. “We didn’t hear mooing,” Sarah says. “It was eerie.” Ruth remembers how unsettling it became not to smell manure. “And I always used to hear the chains rattle and the milking machine pump go on and off. So quiet. It wasn’t the same.”
Then last winter, on February 11, 2006, the first truckload of cows left the Yeaton farm to come home to their new barn. “We were so happy,” Ruth says. “We opened the gate and they came running.” They put a sign out front: “Cows Are Home.” If you go by the farm today, you’ll see Keith and Charles on the go from 5 in the morning until past 7 at night. The same chores every day, the days that Keith vows will stretch to months and years, a life that few can understand unless it’s in their blood — and if it’s in their blood, they know better than anyone that there are some fires that never burn out.