Son leads effort to rebuild family barn destroyed by fire

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barn fire wreckage
The wreckage of the Hufnagels' barn was cleaned up by family and friends on Oct. 26, nearly two weeks after the fire. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

FOMBELL, Pa. — For the past 58 years when Jim Hufnagel woke up and looked out his bedroom window, he saw the barn.

It was a unique L-shaped bank barn, painted bright red. The century-old barn sat about 8 feet from the edge of Pleasant Hill Road in Fombell.

The barn has been the center of life for their family since Jim and Grace bought the farm just two years after they got married.

That was until around 5:30 a.m. Oct. 13 when they woke up to a powerful heat coming through their bedroom window. The barn was engulfed in flames.

A total loss

Neighbors called 911. Jim and Grace ran outside to try to save an antique tractor from a building just downhill from the barn. The side of the building had begun to burn as well.

Jim got in a skid steer and hooked the back of the tractor as Grace got in the tractor seat to steer. They got it across the road just as the firefighters arrived.

“We told the firemen to save the buildings because it was too late for the barn,” Grace said.

A video taken by the neighbor that morning shows a glowing fireball where the barn should be.

In a building uphill from the barn, the tractor’s lights melted and the seats caught fire from the intense heat.

About 10 fire companies responded to the blaze. They couldn’t save the barn, but they did save the two adjacent buildings and the equipment within.

For that, Grace and Jim are eternally thankful.

The cause of the fire is unknown. The remains of the barn smoldered for a week afterward, Jim said.

Fortunately, the cows were out to pasture at the time. They come up to the barn in the morning to be fed, Grace said.

The barn was covered by insurance, but it was under-insured, said their son, Tom Hufnagel. They won’t be able to rebuild the structure as it was.

So, Tom is leading an effort to gather extra money to raise a barn again for his father.

“I’m going to do everything I can. I don’t care if it’s for six months or 10 years. I want my dad to look at that barn and smile and start his day happy,” he said.

Center of their world

Jim, now 83, bought the farm when he was 26, his son said. He farmed part time and worked off farm, but eventually began working the farm full time.

It was a dairy farm until about 25 years ago when they switched to beef cattle, Tom said. Tom grew up with his older brother, Jim, and a cousin, Bill, who was like a brother, milking cows, making hay and doing other farm work.

“We didn’t go on family vacations because we were milking cows,” Tom said. “That’s how he paid to raise a family. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a really good childhood. My entire life was centered around that barn.”

Hay raiser

On top of losing the structure itself, the family also lost about 90 round bales of hay and 500 square bales, as well as some equipment, corn and feed.

But the community around them made sure they weren’t without for long. Grace said people donated cattle feed and corn right after the fire.

Mark Marshall and Jeff Twentier, both friends of the family, had the idea to get donations of hay from other area farmers to replace those lost in the fire.

Twentier just happened to stop in at the local Centerra Co-op, run by Susie Studebaker, the day after the fire to have some grain samples tested. While he was there, Twentier mentioned the idea to Studebaker and asked her to post a notice in the co-op, she said.

Studebaker did a little more than that. She had experience with this sort of thing.

In the spring, she organized a regional collection of supplies and tools to send to flood victims in Nebraska and served as a staging point for the Ohio Relief Haulers.

So, Studebaker made fliers and made posts on social media asking for help.

 

It didn’t take long before about 10 people pledged 100 round bales of hay to the Hufnagels. Twentier and Marshall picked most of the bales up and are storing some of them at Twentier’s place.

“The Hufnagels are the people that, if anything happens, they offer help,” Twentier said. “They wouldn’t ask for any. That’s why we just went ahead and did it. They’re very generous people. Good people in the community.”

Starting over

Relatives and friends gathered to clean up the wreckage Oct. 26, two weeks after the fire. Jim said they have great relatives and friends to help get things in order.

They’ve been cutting down the herd in recent years. They have little over a dozen cows now, but Tom said they’ll cut down even more to get through the winter, until they can rebuild.

Tom created a GoFundMe page, titled “Help rebuild my 83yr old Fathers barn lost in fire”, to collect donations for those who want to help. Whether he gets $5 or $5,000, Tom said every cent will go to raising the barn. He sees it as a way to repay his parents for giving him such a happy life growing up there.

“It’s for my mom and dad. I want them to be happy. He’s going to have a nice red barn,” Tom said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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