Fire levels landmark barn — chickens, hay, countless tools lost
One of Westport's oldest and biggest barns, and all of the family tools and treasures it contained, burned to the ground on the evening of Wednesday, July 31.
Robert Nemeth, who runs the farm with wife Sharon and daughters Katie and Debbie, had just finished a long day of putting in hay bails at the family's 295 Division Road barn with his sister Mary Robinson, daughters, nephews and friends. As usual, his other sister Linda Pacheco wrapped up one last chore — putting the chickens in for the night at around 8:20 p.m. — before everyone settled in for the night. There wasn't so much as the slightest whiff of smoke in the air.
By 9 p.m., the barn was engulfed in flames.
"The whole barn was on fire within minutes everywhere — It roared, like it had been burning for hours, but it was only on fire for minutes," Mr. Nemeth said later. "We know it wasn't the hay (spontaneous combustion) because of the way the barn was on fire, and the way it happened so fast. (The bails) literally just left the hay mow less than an hour before."
The fire took hold so fast that it was almost as though something had exploded, said Katie Nemeth, but no one heard an explosion.
"There wasn't time to save anything in the barn," she said. A few trucks parked close to the barn were moved away but everything inside or nearby was lost.
Among the casualties were most of the family's chickens, whose eggs were sold weekly to Lees Market. The chickens were housed in a coop that was connected to the barn.
"My dad saved only about 25 of them out of 120," Katie Nemeth said. "(He) was just throwing them out onto the lawn with Jimmy (my sister's boyfriend) before being grabbed out of the coop" under orders from firefighters who worried that the building was going to fall.
Westport firefighters had arrived within minutes at around 9 p.m. but the barn was beyond saving. They focused on protecting the house and other buildings from flying embers that family members said were the size of a hand. Investigators have still not determined a cause.
The Fall River Fire Department sent engines to cover the Westport Fire Station. Also sending equipment were the Dartmouth, Little Compton, and Tiverton fire departments.
"Lost in the fire was generations of memories," Katie Nemeth said, along with this year's supply of hay — 2,000 bails worth at least $14,000 ($7 a bail, not counting all the work involved).
The family estimates the barn's age at over 250 years old. "We don't know the exact year the barn was built but our house was built in the late1700s," she said. They have no documents to prove it, but the family thinks the barn may have been the oldest in Westport, or close to it.
The German-style barn was constructed on a rock foundation and supported by massive wood beams. It got a new roof a couple of years ago.
They say they intend to rebuild but will have to wait on such decisions until fire investigators and the insurance company finish their work.
Gone too are tools — new ones and old tools — "real craftsmen tools" once owned by Robert's grandfather who purchased the farm during the Great Depression.
Robert says so far he's only found a couple boxes of wrenches. "I had just about every tool to do with mechanic work," he said.
Other losses include a considerable collection of fishing equipment, and milking machines from the 1960s that are no longer available. Everything that was next to the barn caught fire as well including a 28-foot powerboat, kayaks, a four-wheeler, and a car.
But nobody was hurt which, to farm owner Evelyn Robinson, 94 (her father Augustine Arruda bought the farm, son Robert operates it now), was the most important thing. "If everyone is safe then to hell with it," she said.
Open Gate Farm, as the present-day portion of the farm is now called, has been a working farm for generations.
Although long a dairy and produce farm, it is now home to animals — chickens, sheep, goats, horses, a couple cows and donkeys. Hay to feed them is grown there along with some vegetables and flowers.
Mr. Nemeth, with help from Mike Perry, had worked on the hay for the past month or two and just hours before the fire told his sister that they were finally done with that job for the year.
"Growing up on a farm has been an experience that I could never explain to someone — they have to live it," Katie Nemeth said. "It's chores, it's hard work, and it's an appreciation and understanding for animals, working with your hands and growing vegetables and flowers (and)a close appreciation for family and friends … When I was little my parents would put my sister in the johnny jumper and I would 'help' with feeding the cows. When (my father) was little he would help his grandfather Delanis said.
"We would also like to thank Roy Pinheiro (neighbor) and Chris Mulroy (Robert Nemeth's cousin) of Division Road who used Potter's excavator for five hours to move the hot ash around so that firemen could cool it down … Neighbors, and friends have been offering their support and lending a hand for cleanup which is much appreciated — we are thankful. We definitely want to rebuild — it's not the same without it and with the winter coming we will need it."