MINERVA, Ohio — The smoke from the fire could still be seen three days later from state Route 172, over a mile away as the crow flies from the Whiteleather dairy farm, at Bayard and Essick roads.
That was part of the problem they had to address Monday morning, Jason Whiteleather said. The smoldering straw and hay was irritating the eyes and throats of the dry cows left in one of the damaged free stall barns next to where a fire on July 15 razed three of the farm’s barns.
Heavy equipment ran back and forth around the farm lanes, moving debris out of the wreckage of the farm’s bank barn, straw shed and lean-to. Hundreds of family, friends and neighbors had been swarming the farm for days to help the Whiteleathers pick up the pieces.
The losses are devastating to the Columbiana County farm that’s been in the Whiteleather family for 100 years, but Jason wants the tragedy to be remembered for more than what was lost.
“The barns, we can replace them. The cows I’m upset about,” Jason said. “The bigger thing to me is all the people that showed up to help. If we had that kind of cooperation everywhere, we wouldn’t have any problems in this country.”
The fire started shortly after 5 p.m. July 15. Flames were shooting 80 feet up into the air from the old barns by the time he saw it, said Lawrence Whiteleather. Lawrence owns and operates the farm with his brother, Glenn, and sister, Betty.
Someone called 911 and Lawrence called his brother and nephews, who run a soybean mill nearby. They needed to get as many cows out as they could. Calves were in the bottom of the bank barn where the fire started, with hay and straw stored on top. Dry cows and low-producing cows were in two adjacent free stall barns.
The gates were flung open to let more than 200 cows loose. The Whiteleathers and their employees worked quickly to get as many calves loose as possible. There were older calves in group pens and young calves in individual hutches. Jason, Glenn’s son, said the heat, flames and smoke became too much to bear and they had to stop before they could get all the calves loose.
No one was injured, but it’s estimated that at least 65 calves were killed in the fire, Jason said. The exact number of cattle lost is still unknown. They haven’t had the time yet to slow down and get a count.
Nine local fire departments responded to the blaze, which was under control shortly after dark. The cause of the fire is unknown and is being investigated. The barns were insured.
In addition to the bank barn and round barn straw shed, the fire claimed a 60-by-80 foot lean-to that came off the barns. Two free stall barns were heavily damaged. The milking parlor and another large free stall barn that housed the milk cows were saved. The family home that sits directly across the road from where the fire started was also saved, although the heat was so intense it cracked the second floor windows and melted the fascia on the brick house.
The barns that were destroyed were the oldest structures on the farm, said Shirley Whiteleather Fox, family historian and sister to the farm owners.
The bank barn was the main structure on the farm when W.S. Whiteleather and his wife, Birdie Summer Whiteleather, bought it in 1922. They moved there with their 11 children and ran a vegetable farm, in addition to working off farm jobs. Birdie was the farmer of the family, Shirley said.
Their son Ludwig, or L.L., took over the farm eventually and turned it into a dairy operation. He married Marjorie Jean Lowmiller, who grew up at a dairy farm just up the hill, and they had nine children.
Shirley, Ludwig’s daughter, remembers helping her father erect the round barn in 1959. The lean-to was added later, as were the three free stall barns and a 24 herringbone milking parlor.
“When we were teenagers, we milked 40 to 60 cows,” she said. Now, the family milks about 600 head.
To see those old buildings burn was hard, Shirley said. The bank barn represented the first generation of Whiteleathers to work that land. The round barn was her father’s addition. The rest of the buildings have come as her siblings and nephews joined the operation. Though the family is large, most of them have stayed close to the home farm, buying farms and land nearby as it became available.
“It represented all the work over the generations,” she said.
Once the fire was under control, work started immediately to take care of the rest of cattle. They were not alone. Hundreds of people showed up that night and throughout the rest of the weekend. Jason said he had 300 text messages on his phone the night of the fire from people asking what could be done to help.
“My main goal was, we needed to get water and electric back,” Jason said. The fire burned up the electrical lines that powered the entire farm, but they still needed to milk that evening.
As he did that, his wife, Gretl, was rounding up the loose cows that were scattered on the roads and fields around the farm. Several livestock trailers showed up that night to get cows situated.
When Jason called her on the phone to ask how she was keeping the scared and stressed cows contained and getting them loaded, she told him, “I had enough people to make a human fence.”
By midnight, they had power to the parlor and water pumping from one well.
“By 3 a.m., we had all the cows fed, watered and somewhere safe,” Gretl said.
Things began appearing at the farm throughout the weekend. One farmer brought a truck load of ground corn to feed the cows while the farm was without power to the grain bins. Water troughs were dropped off for the cows that were suddenly out on pasture, and water was trucked in. Food and drinks were also dropped off to keep the family and the small army of helpers nourished.
They plan to rebuild the barns in some capacity, Shirley said. The history and memories that came with those old buildings cannot be replaced, but the outpouring of support and helping hands from the community has eased the pain of the loss.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 330-337-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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