The words were strung together in a tidy little sentence.
Like the kind one sees diagrammed on the black boards of elementary schools. Just five little words. Concise, simple, life-changing.
“Your house is on fire.”
When Debbie Yarnell heard those words, she was serving customers several heads deep. It was Saturday morning, Memorial Day weekend, and these folks were looking forward to a couple of days in front of the grill. Yarnell, owner of Homespun Hill Farm, was playing her role as “Farmer Debbie,” selling off her herd of grass-fed cattle and lambs one cut at a time during a busy day at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.
First, the words came from a family friend. Next, they came from an officer, dressed in blue.
“Your house is on fire.”
The police offered to shut down the market to get Yarnell and her trailer out of there that second. It was not yet 10 a.m., and the market was in full swing — hosting a full crop of folks enjoying the first day of a three-day weekend. No, she told them, she could wait. And from that moment on until her lunchtime visit to her blackened home, the same refrain played in her head.
“There’s a reason this happened, there’s a reason this happened ...”
It’s been two months, and through days spent on the phone with insurance liaisons, tallying up the $25,000 in county-requested upgrades and nights spent sleeping in a camper out by her barn, she waits. Waits for normal to return and bring a reason with it.
Homespun Hill Farm is as picturesque as its name implies. There’s a red barn, a pen full of sheep, friendly dogs that greet anyone and everyone at the mouth of the drive. Up front is the kind of cute white farmhouse that Dorothy Gale wished of when she repeated the words “there’s no place like home.”
These days, though, plywood covers a few windows in the front bedroom, the only indication to quick passers-by that anything really is amiss at the Baldwin City farm. It was smoke seeping through one of those windows that alerted a passing motorist on East 1400 Road that something was wrong that day. The driver’s keen eyes allowed firefighters to get to the scene just as the heat inside shattered the glass and the flames really started going. As a result, the home — the frame, the roof, the foundation — was spared. But nearly everything else was charred black beyond recognition, the result of a rogue space heater, turned off, but plugged in.
And though a complete rebuilding isn’t necessary, the drain on Yarnell’s time and finances has been tremendous. The plaster lath walls, put in before the days of sheet rock, went up without much of a fuss, leaving a shell of a home. The fire took her clothes, furniture, business files. It knocked out her power, forcing her to find an electrician on a holiday weekend so that her animals could get the water they need pumped to them.
“That was the biggest headache,” says Yarnell’s sister, Brenda Little of Lawrence. “It’s like pulling teeth trying to find people who will answer the phone on a holiday.”
Soon, the headaches began to grow. Because of a quirk of her insurance policy, Yarnell must pay for anything needed to bring the 1920s home to code, which, with only the frame still standing, means nearly everything. A supervisor at Hallmark in Lawrence, Yarnell works full-time and maintains the farm, the completion of a longtime dream, but it’s not as though she’s rolling in grass-fed dough. So she isn’t exactly getting the home makeover of her dreams. Rather, she’s getting what she can afford and what she needs. The doors will be basic, shelving will replace her kitchen built-in cabinets, and her copper gas lines will be upgraded.
Moreover, because she needs to stay near her animals, it was necessary for her to find a way to live on the farm’s grounds. She hoped to buy a cheap camper but because of the timing — Memorial Day weekend — every camper she found was at a premium. After weeks of searching, Yarnell knocked on a neighbor’s door, introduced herself and asked to buy an off-the-market camper parked in the drive. Add it to her tab.
More painful is the fact that she was actually overinsured — just not insured for the replacement costs. Because of the age of the house and its lack of updates already, the company has told her it wouldn’t have offered her replacement costs in her policy to begin with.
“I could have had a million-dollar policy,” Yarnell says. “I could have insured the house for a $1 million dollars and it wouldn’t have mattered because I didn’t have a replacement costs declaration in my policy.”
Instead of retreating into self-pity, Yarnell decided to turn her financial pain into a clinic for other farmers. She figured that any number of other Farmers’ Market regulars probably live in the same kind of cute old houses that make perfect kindling at the hint of flame.
“I sent an e-mail and said, take a look at your policy, make sure you have replacement costs because a lot of us live in these old 1920s, 1930s-whatever farm houses that ... had hardly any codes back then,” Yarnell says. “The next Saturday after the fire, I was going to the Farmers’ Market, I’m driving down Mass. on the way, and I’m like, ‘All these old homes ...’ and if anybody doesn’t have replacement costs ...”
Unexpected, at least to the unassuming Yarnell, has been charity from the community. Farmers’ Market vendors have donated clothing, shoes and money, and market coordinator Tom Buller says he has been accepting donations from market vendors and anonymous folks alike.
And Yarnell’s co-workers at Hallmark have also been generous with donations and understanding — her boss, having gone through a fire himself, didn’t blink at allowing her to change to the night shift so that she could deal with insurance and code personnel during the daytime.
Even her customers are getting into the act, taking the time to ask how she’s doing, making donations and even driving up to Yarnell’s processing plant rather than having her deliver their meat. And they are learning from her as well: Customer Kris Hermanson, who was standing at Yarnell’s table when the police arrived that Saturday, continues to be impressed by Yarnell’s attitude despite such a major setback.
“How would any of us handle that situation? I am impressed that she could maintain calm during her crisis while being mindful of the people at the Farmers’ Market,” Hermanson says. “She’s a strong woman.”
To say that Yarnell feels grateful would be an understatement.
“I’ve been really, really blessed,” Yarnell says. “There’s been so many people who say, ‘You know, there’s a silver lining there somewhere, Debbie,’ and I truly believe that. I really do. I do believe that things happen for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is today, but in time, I’ll realize why it happened.”