Breitenmoser Family Farm makes a comeback
Thanks to the hard work and dedication of a mass of volunteers, fellow farmers and tradesman, Breitenmoser Family Farm owned and operated by Hans Jr. and Katie Breitenmoser, has managed a prolific comeback from a catastrophic fire which threatened the very future of a farming operation which has spanned over 100 years.
The blaze ignited on the morning of Nov. 3, 2014.
“I believe it was around 5 a.m. when Laurie (Svetlik) called me and said the barn was on fire,” Hans recalls. “She lives right across the street from the farm and was the first to see it. We live just down the road and I got there as fast as I could. It was only a matter of minutes before I got there, and already a Lincoln County deputy had arrived. Our two story barn was already fully engulfed in flames. I’ll never forget it. The flames had to have been at least 50 feet high or more.”
Due to the wind blowing out of the south, the fire quickly spread north, igniting a calf barn as well as a garage attached to the home of Hans’ parents, Hans Sr. and Margrit Breitenmoser.
“When I seen the garage igniting, my first thought was to get my folks out of the house if they were even home,” Hans explains. “When we got to their house, I was relieved to see they weren’t home, but that only lasted a split second or so when I realized I had no idea where they were.
“We soon found my father outside and to west of the burning barn. But he didn’t know where mom was; nobody knew. He thought she was right behind him when they left the house.
We then found her in the calf barn which was on fire.
“She was trying to get calves out with our neighbor, Kent Reinhardt,” Hans adds with a sigh and a bit of a smile. “She was inside the barn getting them out, while Kent was outside making sure they were kept at a safe distance.”
Units from an array of fire departments soon arrived including the Merrill Fire Department, and Towns of Corning, Maine and Hamburg.
“We are so thankful for the quick action of all the fire folks. They were able to save my folks’ house and garage as well as the calf barn which was on fire,” Hans adds.
“When I talked to my employees later, they said they had smelled smoke earlier in the morning. When they searched around and didn’t find anything, they assumed they were just smelling an outdoor wood boiler which heats my parents’ house.”
As Breitenmoser further explains, an official ruling was never made on the exact cause of the fire. But the blaze is suspected to have originated in electrical wiring at the north end of the hay mow of the 100-year-old, two-story barn.
However, the idea of bad wiring being at the root of the catastrophe still baffles Breitenmoser and his family.
“To this day I still find that very surprising,” he says. “All of our wiring was up to date at the time. We had cooperated with the WPS re-wiring program, which is a program designed to encourage farms and business to keep up with installation of new wiring when old wiring gets out of date. We had just updated everything in early 2012. We had modern wiring which was in good shape, but I guess that didn’t make us immune to having a fire,” he adds with a slight shrug.
When the blaze had finally been brought under control, the century old structure was a total loss as well as eight cattle.
Making matters even worse, the barn also housed the family’s milking parlor, which of course is the nucleus and revenue generator of any dairy operation.
“It’s tough to remember exactly how everything went that day,” Hans says. “There was so many emotions, questions and things happening all at once. It’s really kind of a blur. I was in shock and trying to wrap my head around everything.”
Breitenmoser found his way through the blur and immediately went to work in making emergency arrangements.
For starters, the family and neighbors began making calls to reach out for assistance. And as Hans explains, just as the family was reaching out, masses of people suddenly began arriving to give whatever they could, from equipment and knowledge to pure generosity and hearts of gold.
The sudden influx of neighbors and volunteers allowed for a plan to be devised to milk the 130 cattle, who had not yet been milked that day.
The plan consisted of building a fence approximately 1/8th of a mile in length to the nearby farm of Heintz and Erich Roth. Once built, the cattle would be walked over to the farm to be milked. To create the space needed, the Breitenmosers took on 70 “dry” cattle from the Roths.
“We were able to take on their dry cattle being they didn’t need to be milked. They just needed a place to stay and eat,” Hans adds.
Thanks to the help of Rocky Olson from Equity Livestock of Stratford, another simultaneous plan kicked into motion to transport another 300 cattle from the Breitenmoser’s to two farms in the Stratford area.
“Before I even really knew what was going to happen, we suddenly just had an armada of trucks and trailers showing up to move our girls out to Stratfor,” Hans adds with a broad grin. “We had trailers from all over the place, some from as far as Stanley.
“Brian Forest owns and operates Maple Ridge Dairy out in Stratford. He just happened to have room on his farm and another barn he owns to take on our cattle. He was a blessing. Everyone was a blessing, I can’t even begin to tell you…” Breitenmoser adds as he bows his head for a moment and pauses.
“To this day I couldn’t tell you who half of the folks were who showed up. People were just showing up to help out of the pure goodness of their hearts,” he explains quietly, his tone struggling a bit with emotion.
“So there we were,” Breitenmoser adds with a deep breath and a slight smile. “While the ashes and coals were still smoldering from the fire, we were loading up the cattle and sending them off to Stratford. Transporting 300 cattle is no easy task, no matter how many trailers you have.
“By the end of the day of the fire, every one of our cattle had been milked at least once.”
As miraculous as it was for the lifelong farmer to get his cattle to greener pastures in such a short matter of time, it would prove to be only a sample of the magnitude of dedication he would recieve from those around them.
“Once we had our cattle taken care of, we knew we needed to do something to get back up and running – the sooner the better,” Hans states. “Doug Murphy from Brothers Builders, formerly of Athens, had done some construction projects for us in the past. When they heard of our plight, they were here and ready to get to work right away. We set about coming up with a plan. And within a week we were at work re-building.”
The plan was to convert an existing 30×70 tin shelter with just tresses and posts, into a fully functional pole barn, complete with a milking parlor. The feat would be far from easy and to the naked ear, sounds relatively time consuming.
“We had 15-20 guys here every day and within six days, they had the shelter fully enclosed and pole shed. We just could not believe how fast they did it, especially having a rather harsh November,” Hans said.
Once insulated and enclosed, volunteers and contractors came together to begin installing necessary plumbing and electrical works as well as fresh concrete. The final product consisting of a 30×110 fully functional pole barn complete with offices, employee break room, utility room, wash room and a rented temporary milking parlor, was finished on Jan. 17 of this year; just 75 days after the fire.
That same day, the family walked home their 130 cattle from the Roth farm.
By Jan. 23, all 430 cattle were home safe and sound.
“It was a harsh winter all around but they got the job done and a fantastic job at that! G&J Concrete did an amazing job on our concrete. Bob Weaver is a dear friend of ours and helped us with our plumbing as well as Marathon Plumbing Service. They did such an awesome job. Dakota Electric came in and really did an excellent job with all of our electrical work. It’s overwhelming to think about really,” Hans explains shaking his head with a smile. “Very overwhelming.
“From that early morning when the barn went up in flames, ‘til the last day of work on the pole barn, we have just had so many generous souls show up here to help,” he adds. “We had friends, neighbors and relatives and then there were so many people we had never met before. There were also those we didn’t get a chance to meet. They just came and pitched in without asking for anything in return.”
Of all the faces he has seen since November, the thought of one family in particular resonates with Breitenmoser.
“There was this family who showed up from the Gleason area one day,” he said. “They never introduced themselves or even made it known they were here. They just showed up one day and went to work. They came back every day for a week. To think an entire family who we had never met before, would come all this way just to help us, meant so much. They never asked for anything in return. Nobody did.”
Along with a willingness to work, many brought various food items as well. In an effort to express their appreciation, the Breitenmosers, friends and neighbors cooked daily meals for the workers.
“There was so much food being brought in, we were able to feed our volunteers with a warm meal,” Hans said. “My mom, along with my sister and wife, did all the cooking. Even my children wanted to be a part of it. It was nice to get everyone out of the cold and into my folks’ house for a good meal. We wanted to show them how much they all meant to us.
“Without them who knows where we would have ended up in terms of our livelihood. To this day it is all just so unreal for me.”