Story and Photos by Fred Stabbert III
CALLICOON October 31, 2006 A 90-year-old Town of Delaware dairy farm was devastated by fire late Saturday night as 125 firemen from 8 companies battled long into the cold, windy night to save three nearby houses and several outbuildings from the destructive blazes.
The Henke Farm’s main barn, which is located fast against Hospital Rd. high atop a hill overlooking the hamlet of Callicoon, caught fire just minutes before 11 p.m.
As Jim Henke looked helplessly out his living room window from across the road, the 44-foot-by-160-foot, two-story structure was consumed in flames.
“I was just getting ready to go to bed when I looked at the wall and saw an orange glow,” Henke, who farmed the land for 50 years with his brother Fran, said. “I looked out and saw red so I went and called 9-1-1.
“When I turned around again the whole thing was on fire,” he said.
Henke’s grand nephew Michael, who now owns the farm and lives just a couple hundred feet from the barn, is the fourth generation of the family to run the dairy farm.
He had just finished milking Saturday night when he smelled some smoke.
After a careful inspection of all the electric boxes and everything in the barn didn’t turn up any problems, Michael figured it might just be his woodstove, which he had lit earlier in the day to take the dampness off the house.
“You can smell a chicken barbecue from town up here,” he explained.
But when his wife Shannon roused him from bed, he knew there was trouble.
“By the time I got my boots on and got out there, only 10 feet at one end of the barn was without fire,” Michael, who just turned 26, said.
Michael ran inside, grabbed his dog and a 150-pound calf and ran out with “the fire right behind me.
“I lost three cows and a bunch of calves,” he said. “But it could’ve been a lot worse.”
Because of the wet, rainy weather, Michael had considered leaving his 41 cows inside the barn for the night.
“They were all in the barn only two hours earlier,” he said.
Luckily the cows were out in the pasture behind the barn, safe and sound, he said.
“It was really a Godsend,” he said. “It was a damn good save. I give the firemen all the credit…it was a great save.
“They saved the houses, a steel building and a storage barn,” Michael said.
Callicoon Assistant Chief Marc Sturdevant agreed.
“Our main concern was the houses,” Sturdevant said. “We needed to protect our main exposures Mike’s trailer and the two houses around there.”
Several firemen from Jeffersonville also opened the pen to the heifer shed behind the barn and let five calves run free.
Fire apparatus began arriving at the scene shortly after 11 p.m., with Callicoon F.D. and Hortonville responding in force.
Soon fire companies from Beach Lake and Equinunk, Pa. as well as North Branch, Lake Huntington-Cochecton, Hankins-Fremont Center and Jeffersonville rolled in with Kenoza Lake on stand-by in Hortonville.
The Upper Delaware Ambulance Corps also responded to the scene.
People reported seeing the fire from as far away as Fulton Hill in Kenoza Lake and Abrahamsville, Pa.
Callicoon’s aerial truck attacked the blaze from the air while firemen from other companies manned hoses at all angles to the barn.
“The key was the high wind. At times water from our aerial truck was not even reaching the ground because of wind gusts,” he said. “Right now, we have no official cause.”
Water was pumped from a nearby pond as well as the Delaware River, with a parade of tankers bringing the water one mile up the narrow hill and depositing it in a portable tank.
As firemen began dousing the blaze and winds began to kick up sparks, many worried about the two Henke homes across the street and a third just up from the barn.
Several large pine trees shield the houses from the road, but sparks flew up into the trees and onto the lawns.
“Thank God we got enough rain [today] to keep the treeline safe,” Jim Henke said. “Thank God nobody lost their life. We can replace [buildings] but we can’t replace life.”
Firemen were also called out shortly before 11 a.m. Sunday. While Michael was surveying the extent of the damage early Sunday morning, he was also planning ahead, hoping to set up a temporary milking parlor and “hopefully start shipping milk in two or three months.”
A Lot of History
Bernard Henke began farming in 1916, and the original 44-foot-by-60-foot barn was “fixed up” by Martin Hermann for the grand sum of $600.
His two sons, Fran and Jim, took over in the mid-1940s and called the farm Henke Bros.
In 1964 they hired carpenter Joe Beiling to build a 40-by-100-foot addition to the barn.
Fran, who will turn 86 in December, and Jim, 79, both lived across the road from the barn.
Jim lamented the loss of the barn. “I loved to work with animals,” he said Saturday night. “One thing I missed when I retired was the animals.”
Fran’s son Michael joined the family business in the mid-1970s and his son, Michael, followed suit in 1997. Michael has now owned the business since 2002.
“I never felt more helpless in my life as when I saw that barn go up,” Jim said. “We worked hard for all that.”
Michael agreed, “It was a hell of a loss.”