Neighbours raise new barn for family devastated by fire

In All, News by Linda Givetash

This piece was also featured in: Waterloo Region Record
Published: Aug. 2, 2013 | [ WEB ] | [ PDF ]

ST. JACOBS —

Only three weeks since a tragic fire at a family farm left nothing but ash and rubble, a new barn has taken shape on the property, thanks to many helping hands.

The fire that started in a dairy barn at 1636 Lobsinger Line the evening of July 12 consumed the barn, some cattle and killed two-year-old Steven Martin. The cause of the blaze was unclear and the boy’s body was never found.

Community support for parents Laverne and Marlene Martin — who lost their eldest son and much of their livelihood in the blaze — has been overwhelming.

Members of the Old Order Mennonite community, of which the family is a part, and area residents offered help, from searching for the toddler the night of the fire to the ongoing barn raising.

George Martin, a neighbour of the family, said he was among the many people who arrived at the fire, helping to herd cattle and search the property. He is also one of five members of a committee selected by Laverne Martin to lead in organizing the barn reconstruction.

“We’ll get phone calls (asking) what’s happening or what do we bring,” George Martin said of the outpour of community support. “It’s not cut and dry to church members; all the neighbours are helping.”

Cleanup of the site began on July 18, a day after the boy’s funeral.

Because his remains were believed to be lost in the blaze, volunteers took a different approach in clearing the rubble, George Martin said.

Rather than sifting through the materials for composting or recycling, a hole was dug in a slope adjacent to where the barn stood and much of the remains were bulldozed into the spot and buried.

Only some concrete rubble was saved.

Between 50 and 100 volunteers, along with six to 10 hired contractors, work at the farm daily to help build the new barn. George Martin said there could easily be 1,000 volunteers at the site daily if there was enough work to go around.

The contractors were initially hired for another area project, but the farmer employing them offered to hold off on the project and have the workers help the family instead.

Local residents not participating in the heavy labour have found other ways to help too.

People from Woolwich Township and neighbouring communities have donated bales of hay, building supplies and food for the family and volunteers.

“It just amazes you. Yesterday, a fellow offered a lot of hay and we couldn’t even use all that hay so he said, ‘Sell it, take the proceeds,’ ” George Martin said.

“The freezers are full and the basement (of their house) is full of food.”

Even local businesses have offered support.

Bast Tire and Auto Service, located across the road from the family farm, offered free tire servicing for any damage volunteers and workers incurred to their vehicles while clearing and constructing the barn, George Martin said.

The barn is expected to be ready to hold cattle by next Thursday and finishing touches will be completed soon after.

Having spent his entire life in the region, George Martin, 65, has seen several instances of the community rising up to support victims of a fire. But in all the fires he could recall, there was never an instance of human loss of life.

Standing only steps away from two trees under which Steven was last seen playing, George Martin said he believes the boy’s curiosity is the only explanation as to why he would have run into the barn just as the fire started.

“I think it was because the child was fascinated or something,” George Martin said.

The fire spread quickly, likely trapping him inside, George Martin said. The smoke was so thick it would have disoriented even an adult, he said.

Since the tragic incident, George Martin said Laverne and Marlene Martin are at least outwardly coping well with their grief. Once the commotion of the construction ends, he added, they will be able to focus more on their grief.

“I’ve experienced that myself, losing a child, and it will take time,” he said.

Throughout the ordeal, the young parents have been surrounded by members of their church and an extensive network of friends and family.

The busy scene of work underway at the barn Thursday morning exhibited the immense community support the couple has. Dozens of men hammered and sawed at the base of the new barn as women helped prepare donated food for lunch.

“They were never alone after it happened,” George Martin said.

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Linda Givetash

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Linda Givetash is a Canadian-South African freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in print, digital and broadcast media outlets around the globe.