Fire may be last straw for Bartel farm

Town chairman says blaze that destroyed his barn, feed, equipment may be the sad end to the days of cattle on his rural Grafton land

BURNED OUT TRACTORS and debris (above) are all that’s left of a barn on Lester Bartel’s Town of Grafton farm after a fire Sunday night. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Lester Bartel sounded almost philosophical Monday as he pondered the burned out ruins of a barn on his Town of Grafton farm.

“Maybe it’s God’s way of telling me it’s time for a change,” Bartel said.

Bartel, who has farmed on his property at 1833 E. River Rd. for decades, said that at age 67, he won’t be rebuilding the pole barn or replacing the machinery inside.

“It’s a sad day in our lives,” he said. “This might be the end of cows at Lester’s farm. It might be time for another major change in our lives.”

Bartel, who is also chairman of the Town of Grafton, was at home with his wife Bonnie Sunday when they heard a knock at the door a little after 7 p.m.

Someone who was driving by stopped to tell him they saw a fire in the pole barn, he said.

“In our house, we can’t see that barn,” he said, noting it isn’t the main barn where his cows are kept. “I told Bonnie to call 911 and they said we already did.”

Bartel said he grabbed his jacket and “made a beeline” to the barn.

“I got back there and I’m thinking maybe I’ll be able to get a tractor out,” he said. “When I opened the door, the roof was already coming down. It was too hot to even try to go in.”

Bartel said his cows were in the pasture next to the barn, so he rounded them up and ushered them to the main barn so they wouldn’t be harmed.

Grafton Fire Chief Bill Rice said the department was called out about 7:20 p.m.

“I noticed from quite a distance away I could see a glow,” he said, so he called other departments in to help.

By the time firefighters arrived on the scene, Rice said, the barn “was fully involved.”

“There was no saving the barn due to the extent of the fire,” he said. “Our main concern at that point was that it not spread to the main barn.”

It was fortunate that the passersby saw the fire and called for the department immediately, Rice said.

“If it wasn’t noticed when it was, it could have spread to the main barn,” he said.

Since the farm is in the township, departments had to bring water to the scene, Rice noted.

“It was a little difficult to get to,” he said of the barn, noting it was about 1,000 feet from the road.

Nine departments responded to the call, he said, and firefighters were on the scene about four hours. No one was hurt fighting the blaze.

By that time, he said, “there wasn’t much left of the barn.”

The barn had a significant amount of straw in it, feed for his five beef cows and four calves, Bartel said.

“It goes fast when straw goes up,” he said.

In addition to the feed, Bartel said, there were five tractors and one skid loader, all of which were destroyed in the blaze.

“The only tractor I have left is a 1937 John Deere I got from my dad,” Bartel said. “I use it a couple times a year to run around the yard.”

Also destroyed in the blaze was an aluminum boat that was being stored in the barn, Bartel said.

“It melted the boat on the other end of the barn,” he said.

Bartel said he believes the fire began due to a short in the skid loader, noting that was the only piece of machinery he used over the weekend.

“We’re pretty sure that was the cause,” he said.

Bartel said he enjoyed having the cows on his farm, but “now there’s a pretty good chance we might get rid of them.”

At his age, starting over isn’t necessarily in the cards, he said.

Bartel said he still farms 36 acres of his land, noting he sold his herd of milk cows in February 1996.

“I’ve been out of dairy longer now than I was in it,” he said.”But we always had some livestock here. I liked having the cows around.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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