November, 2004


A voice on the phone said, “I just got a call from Denbigh and the homeplace is on fire.”   Suddenly time stands still, horrible images flood the mind, the heart skips two beats and then the mind says “it can’t be true.”

“What do you mean the house IS on fire?”  You suddenly realize it is NOW, right now, happening at this precise moment.  A special house of memories and treasures is burning 90 miles away and you cannot do a thing about it.  Is it a small fire on the kitchen stove or a fully engulfed, raging inferno?  Is everyone safe?  How long has it been burning?  What happened?  Ten minutes later we were on the road racing towards Denbigh.

As we traveled our minds were on one situation. We had few answers.  We were told the fire started around noon. It is now 3 o’clock and the fire is still burning.  The travel conversation became questions that neither of us could answer and reflections on the “what ifs”, and “has beens”.  The useless babblings were somehow soothing to the nerves and unsettling all at the same time.

The house is the Hertzler homeplace. The house was built by H.P. Hertzler  (Gene’s Grandpa) in the heart of what used to be a rural Mennonite colony.  In 1897 Isaac D. Hertzler and D.Z. Yoder bought a 1200-acre run-down plantation.  The land responded to the farmers and a colony of Mennonites farmed, prospered, multiplied and worshipped in a tight-knit community.  As the surrounding city grew, houses and shopping centers began encroaching on the farm community.  In time the colony began to disperse in search of other farming land.  Today there is an urban Mennonite community in the heart of the city.

About a mile from our destination we rolled down the windows and sniffed. A pungent burnt odor permeated the air.  We rolled up the windows and rode in silence.

As we turned on Colony Road we could see the flashing lights of the fire trucks.  Then the house came into view. People were everywhere.  The house was still standing.  It almost looked normal!


The firemen did a wonderful job of saving the house. It was bad but it could have been so much worse.  It is repairable.  In the midst of the overwhelming devastation there was relief and hope.  It was sad what was lost and amazing what was saved unscathed.  Friends and neighbors were offering words of comfort and help.

Stuff. It is JUST stuff.  But no, it is so much more than meaningless possessions. Pictures, photo albums, family heirlooms, homemade keepsakes, comfy clothes, financial records, handmade quilts, china set, mismatched chairs, refinished furniture, books. That stuff is precious, priceless treasures!

A new chair may look better and fresh pictures may glow but the “sentimental value” can never be replaced. We know God will give strength when we are weary, His grace will be sufficient, and His peace will calm.  We have no claim of tomorrow even though a new day beckons.  We are pilgrims with roots and homes in a foreign land.  Sometimes we discover how fragile life is and yet how settled we have become.

Written: November 18, 2004












That evening a friend and neighbor, John Henry Brenneman,

 pulled in his camper so that they had a place to call “home” for the next months.



Five days later we went down and dad had already begun the work of cleanup and restoration.

Front Door


Dad had an incredible overcoming spirit. He was 85 years old when the fire happened and he tackled the overwhelming job with determination. Friends rallied to help him but he did a lot of the work himself.  When the job was done, the house had been restored. It was amazing how much was salvaged even though every room in the house suffered some kind of damage. Almost all of the household items sold at the estate sale had survived the fire.

The fire started in the basement from a faulty electrical box and quickly spread to the main floor and then to the second. The third floor had smoke damage. The nic-nac rack I got at the sale survived and was on the wall in the living room where the fire was most intense. It was amazing the old timber-frame house was able to withstand the flames.  It was also amazing how some items could be so close to the “hot-spot” and come through unscathed. But everything-every piece of china, plateware, clothing, etc. had to be cleaned. Amazingly the photo albums also survived and they also were in the center of the fire.

This past weekend at the sale I remembered the fire and had to revisit pictures and my journal post from that day.

Related post: Estate Sale-Bringing Closure


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