The Blakeslee farm: Picking up after the tornado
LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Brothers Mark, left, and Russell Blakeslee, stand at the Cherry Valley site where their family's two-story home stood before a tornado swept through their farm on July 29 destroying it, three barns, a silo and farm equipment.
On Wednesday, July 29, Russell Blakeslee was in his garage working on a piece of farm equipment. He heard what he thought was the garbage truck coming around the intersection of Blakeslee Road and Middle Road in Cherry Valley, Hamilton Township.
The next thing he remembers was lying on the garage floor. There was no roof above him. The concrete block walls around him had crumbled.
Cut and bleeding, he picked himself up and had only one thought - his nephew and friends.
Allen Blakeslee, 13, his friend Zachary Weiss, 12, and another friend, were across the street swimming in the pool behind the Blakeslee house. When it began thundering and lightning, his uncle Russell, walked over to them and told them to get out of the pool and into the house. The boys did as they were told.
Moments later, the top floor of the old two-story farmhouse was lifted up and was blown away. Allen called 911 and then his dad, Mark Blakeslee, 34, who was at work in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. When he checked his voicemail and heard a garbled message from his son, Allen, he knew something was wrong and immediately left work.
With no idea what was wrong but a need to get to his son, he heard on the radio that a tornado had hit in the area of his home.
He encountered six Pennsylvania State Police cars on Kemmertown Road and was told the road was blocked because of fallen trees. He backtracked and came up to his house by Blakeslee Road. What he saw made him cry.
Dorothea Blakeslee, 65, the mother of Russell and Mark, was attending a funeral reception just a few miles away at the Cherry Valley Education building.
When she arrived home, she was devastated to see the home, where she had spent most of her married life, in shambles.
An EF2 tornado hit the Blakeslee homestead around 1:40 p.m. In its wake, it left three barns and a silo destroyed, farm equipment disabled and a family homeless.
Joe Burn, Sr., who was with Russell at the time of the tornado, immediately called his son, Joe Burn, Jr. who called the Hamilton Township supervisors. The Blue Ridge Hook and Ladder Vol. Fire Co. soon arrived as did the ambulance.
As word got out about the tornado and it's devastation to the Blakeslee family farm, neighbors and friends began to arrive to help. Five 40-foot tractor trailers from E.F. Possinger & Son pulled in and over 200 people helped the Blakeslees try to salvage what they could from the debris.
"People started boxing up stuff from the house and they formed a relay chain to place everything in one of the trailers. Others helped remove hay from the barns and put it in the trailers," says Russell.
He says the family was overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness and generosity of the community and knows they will never be able to repay them for all they did and are doing.
The Blakeslee brothers want to continue farming. But a lot of their equipment needs to be fixed. That's why their family's friends and neighbors have been holding benefits for them. They will use that money to repair their equipment and possibly put up a pole barn.
One such benefit will be the Pocono Old-Tyme Farm Equipment Association's benefit 4 x 4 and Tractor Fun Pull on Saturday, Oct. 10 (rain date Oct. 11) at the West End Fairgrounds in Gilbert. It is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. This 4 x 4 and Tractor Fun Pull is just that, a fun day of pulling. There will be no trophies, no prizes and no rules (safety rules DO apply.) This is open to all pullers, and spectators are invited to experience the fun and food. All proceeds will benefit the Blakeslee family.
While determining what they planned to do after the dust settled, Dorothea Blakeslee went to live with a cousin, Richard Blakeslee, Russell with friends about a mile away, Allen is living with his mom and Mark is living in a camper on the property.
The old farmhouse, which was probably at least 100 years old, has since been leveled and all the debris removed, as were the barns.
Thankfully, the Blakeslees' home was insured. Permits have all been secured and the ground has been bulldozed in preparation for a new foundation to be built. The Blakeslees' new modular home is scheduled to arrive sometime by the end of October and they're hoping to be in it sometime in November.
Russell gazes at the site of where his new home will be placed and the farm he's loved all his life.
"I'm 47 years old. I grew up here. This is all I've ever known."
His aunt, Verna Dennis, remembers a little bit of the history of the family farm, where she was born 71 years ago. Her parents, Jerome and Della Blakeslee, bought the old farmstead at least 75 years ago from Horace Fellencer. They had six children-three boys, Howard, Jerome and Sam, and three daughters, Vee Blakeslee, Ruth Heller and Verna Dennis. They left the farm to the boys to continue farming and the girls got a little over 100 acres of woodland on the Blue Mountain, where the farm was nestled in the valley.
Son Sam and his wife, Dorothea, continued to live in the homestead and raised their three sons, Russell, Sammy and Mark, who have also been farming all their lives. Sammy and Mark hold full-time jobs in addition to helping Russell farm.
After Sam died, the family got together and decided to sell most of the farm to the Nature Conservancy, to preserve it from being developed. Dorothea and her sons retain the homestead and surrounding two acres. Since then, the Blakeslees have been leasing the rest of the farm from the Nature Conservancy to farm hay and corn.
Russell says it's getting harder and harder for farmers and it seems they're always fighting Mother Nature. But despite the curve Mother Nature threw at them on July 29 in the form of a devastating tornado, he plans to keep right on farming with the help of Sammy and Mark.
"I don't want to focus on the negative. I want to only think about the positive," says Russell.
And as the Blakeslees look toward the future, they can only thank their community for everything they have done for them, especially in holding the benefits.
"They have really been here for us and we're very grateful," he says.