INDEPENDENCE TWP., Pa. — There are still many unknowns for the Brunton family after a fire ripped through the farm’s connected processing plant, milking parlor and tie stall barn Thursday night.
The facility was the heart of the beloved Beaver County dairy farm where they still sell half gallons of milk in returnable glass bottles and make deliveries directly to area homes.
No one was injured in the fire and most of the cows are safe at other farms. For all of that, they’re thankful, but they don’t know where or how to start in moving forward.
“We’re just doing what we need to right now,” said Mary Jane Brunton.
It’s not clear how or where the fire started but it spread quickly into the milking barn, starting around 5 p.m. Thursday. Family members and neighbors rushed to let loose about 100 cows and push them out of the barn. Not all of the cows wanted to leave the barn they knew as their home. About a dozen cows died.
The smoke and flames engulfed the barn and forced everyone out in less than 20 minutes. What followed was a chaotic scene of firefighters trying to control the fire and people trying to corral panicked cattle. Nearly two dozen fire departments from two states showed up to battle the blaze, which destroyed the buildings.
Though Brunton Dairy remains a relatively small farm in rural Beaver County, its milk and dairy products are sold at more than 35 retailers in Beaver, Allegheny and Butler counties.
The farm has been in the same family for seven generations, beginning in 1839 when Bill Brunton bought land in Independence Township. Brunton Dairy began bottling milk on the farm in 1962.
The farm is run today as a partnership between brothers Herb and Ed Brunton, their sister-in-law Mary Jane and Mary Jane’s two sons Jerry and Jim. Mary Jane’s husband, Jim Brunton, Jr., who was known as “Junior,” died in 2008 after a farm accident at age 50.
Without prompting, people from around the community began showing up to help, even as the fire raged. They had enough people to help keep the cows contained in a field without a fence until they could push them into an empty barn, Jim Brunton said.
Trucks and livestock trailers arrived next, waiting in line to load cows to transport them off-site.
The cows went to three different farms Thursday night but were consolidated into two farms Friday morning. Most of the herd went to the nearby farm run by Don and Barb Craig, who sold their dairy cows nearly two years ago.
The Craigs had an empty freestall barn and milking parlor, and they were happy to help their longtime friends. Don Craig said it was fortuitous timing as he’d just gotten electricity hooked back up to the barn earlier that day after having his service panels updated. Progressive Dairy came out that night to help get the milking parlor up and running again, after sitting unused for so long. Graham Dairy Supply also helped out on Friday.
All the cows were milked around midnight. The herd was about halfway through evening milking when the fire broke out, so they ran all of them through again. Don Craig and Ed Brunton said they got done in the barn around 3 a.m. Friday. Each of them got less than an hour of sleep before starting their day again.
Less than 24 hours after the fire, the family had just begun to process the loss.
There’s the loss of income for the five families the farm supported. The destroyed buildings and equipment within can be replaced, but not overnight. There’s also the intangible loss of the memories made in the buildings that saw generations of children and grandchildren grow up around the family business.
Thursdays were one of the farm’s two milk processing days. Mary Jane Brunton said at the time of the fire the cooler was full of freshly bottled milk, ready to be delivered to retailers around the area the next morning.
• Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company, in Beaver Falls, is donating 25% of coffee bar sales on Saturday, Oct. 28 to the Brunton family.
• Beaver Bagel Co., in Bridgewater, promised a portion of profits through the weekend to the Bruntons.
• Health Hut, in Chippewa, will have a jug where cash donations can be deposited for the Bruntons.
Several Brunton retailers in Beaver County offered to donate a portion of sales or to put out milk bottles to collect donations to help the Brunton family. A GoFundMe campaign started by family friends had raised nearly $100,000 from 1,200 donations for the family as of Friday night, with a goal of $250,000.
Some bottled milk already loaded in a truck was saved from the fire. Mary Jane Brunton said they’ll be selling that from their on-farm store until it’s gone. Schneider’s Dairy, who took the farm’s excess bulk milk, will continue picking up at the Craig Farm.
The outpouring of support from the community has been overwhelming but comforting. It’s been the one bright spot in this disaster.
People assembled early Friday morning at the Brunton and Craig farms to continue helping out. A trench needed to be dug to lay new water line to the calf barn at Bruntons, after the existing line was damaged in the fire. Others went to the Craigs’ farm to get the herd settled. Even in dealing with the aftermath of the fire, the cows needed to be milked twice a day and the farm’s calves and heifers needed to be fed and cared for.
Friends and customers had been stopping by both farms throughout the day to drop off food and drinks for the families and others who were working. They shared tears, hugs and occasionally some jokes.
“You have to laugh or you’ll cry,” Ed Brunton said.
(Editor Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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