Fire Takes a Homestead

Reader Contribution by Ilene White-Freedman
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In January 2014, I wrote a post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS entitled Sheep Come to the Homestead-Warming Party. I was raving about the beautiful artistry in my dear friends’ complete historic home renovation, revealing an 1800’s log cabin and stone kitchen. A model of preservation and repurposing. Award-winning craftsmanship, design and determination. They enjoyed a year in their new home, and then, on the afternoon of December 12, 2014, fire took their home in a matter of hours. The house was ravaged in a catastrophic fire and deemed a complete loss.

So, homesteaders, what happens when you put an overdose of sweat and tears into a huge DIY project, only to lose it all? Insurance reimbursements can rebuild a house. But who will rebuild their spirits? Who will rebuild that, after the deep loss of tireless effort and personalized project?

BJ Miller and Shannon Varley dedicated two years to renovating the condemned 1800’s farmhouse, working overtime to pay for the project and pulling all-nighters to balance jobs, kids and the renovation. Every room had repurposed pieces, every corner had a story. There were barters and gifts and sale finds in the appliances and furniture, offering more stories to enrich the space. It held community spirit, as many homespun projects do, with friends and family contributing to work days and building parties.

The words of a friend, Sarah Frost: Shannon worked during the days gutting the house, repointing, and chinking the old log cabin portion of the house. Then BJ would come home from his timber frame construction job, spend time with the family, get the kids to bed, and start to work rebuilding. Meanwhile, Shannon would go off to work at her waitressing job.

BJ is such a fantastic craftsman and between the two of them they created a house that was worthy of the pages of This Old House Magazine. BJ and Shannon won the contest for Best Kitchen in This Old House Magazine’s contest for 2014 One-Room Wonder Best Remodels, published in October 2014. It is probably still on the magazine racks in book stores and groceries.

Yet, the house is gone. Fire departments from three states attended the fire, with 35 trucks and over 90 fireworkers. They worked furiously to save the house, but it was too fast. Friends gathered to surround Shannon and BJ and do all that could be done: hold them in their dark moment and watch the smoke simmer down to a smolder.

Shannon looked at the house, holes burning where the roof used to be, with thoughtful observation. She said, “Oddly, it looks a lot like it did when we started renovating it.” They started this story with a tired condemned building peeling its layers, two holes in the roof. Two steps forward, three steps back.

Shannon’s words in a post to friends and family: “It was just a house, yes, but many of you know it was so much more. It was our heart, our hands, the effort and time of so many people that love us and wanted to see our farm dream become a reality. After years of chasing it. This has become a cold, hard lesson in the art of letting go.”

So, who will rebuild their spirits, after the deep loss of tireless effort and personalized project?

This is where their insurance policy with Community comes in. They built community into their lives and their projects, as many homesteaders and DIYers do. Community support is a well-known ballast in Amish communities and this small Maryland community understands its power as well. Community is reimbursing them now, with support and donations and commitments of help along the way.

And so we gathered in humble awareness of how small and insignificant our projects are, as we watched fire take our friends’ home in a ravage few hours. BJ says, “Everything I have was in there.” And although he’s right, I gently offer: “Here it is,” as we looked around at his community, gathered to hold them in this difficult moment.

BJ and Shannon built something amazing. They built a beautiful homestead that has been burnt to the ground. But they built something even stronger and more resilient than that. They built a tie into community that will not be devastated. They give love and food and help and hugs when they see the need in their community. And their community is giving back. In a way, Homesteaders’ Insurance. Insurance will build them a house. But will it build them a homestead? It is my hope that community can participate in raising this homestead to restore even a fraction of the heart and soul that they built into their homesteading project. Shannon wrote: Life carries on. There are far greater griefs in the world. We wrap our arms around each other and give thanks.

I hope that I have a rejuvenating follow-up story to tell in a year, one that reignites the spirits of these lovely people.

This post is a follow-up to the post entitled Sheep Come to the Homestead-Warming Party, written in January 2014.

There is a GoFundMe account to support the needs of Shannon and BJ and their two children in the upcoming year.

Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and House in the Woods, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to House in the Woods

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