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Blaze claims historic barn

Brandon Twp. landmark barn destroyed by fire

Sylvia Runyon near the remains of the 170-year-old barn near her Oakwood Road home. Photo by David Fleet. (click for larger version)
April 09, 2014 - It withstood a cyclone and more than 170 years of Michigan weather.

The barn was gone in about an hour.

"Kids going to prom, wedding couples, and even the cover of a AAA Oakland County map used the old barn in their pictures," said Sylvia Runyon, 78, who owned the historic barn at 5800 Oakwood Road. "Many of the beams were hand cut—you could still see the boards were rough hewn—the marks were still there. There were many pegged joints and floor boards were sometimes two feet wide and three inches thick, it appears cut from a single tree. Just can't replace that."

The fire started about 8:45 p.m., March 29.

"My brother and I were watching the NCAA basketball tournament in the living room when we heard the very loud bang on the door," said Runyon. "I thought someone had been killed in an accident out on Oakwood Road. I opened the door and I could now see my barn was on fire. The young man, who was about 35-years-old, said we need to get our cars out of the way."

Runyon's car, along with her brother's pickup truck, were between her home and the massive barn fire. Both vehicles were within a few feet of the blaze.

"I did not know this guy, but I assume he was driving by on Oakwood Road—saw the flames and stopped," she said. "I gave him my car keys and he drove my car onto my yard away from the fire. My thanks to this Good Samaritan who alerted us of the fire. Our cars were full of gas and had they caught fire, our house would have likely went. I didn't know his name, but he is a hero."

"That was the last time I saw the young man," she said. "He just left after that."

According to police reports, in addition to the Brandon Fire Department, Independence Township Fire Department, Oxford Township Fire Department and Hadley Township Fire Department also reponded to the blaze. The heat from the fire damaged the vinyl siding on the Masonic Lodge located on the north side of Oakwood Road.

"I remember leaving my house and I could feel the posts on my porch were hot from the fire," she said. "My neighbors John and Kim Petty helped me out of the house and gave me a place to stay while the fire was going, they were just so compassionate to me."

The blaze also damaged utility lines along Oakwood Road.

"The television cable line was burned through," she said. "It was during the March Madness (basketball tournament) so a lot of customers were calling the cable company that night."

Fire investigators arrived on the scene to determine a cause of the fire.

"Due to the proximity to Oakwood Road, I thought maybe some driver flicked a lit cigarette near the barn," she said. "But investigators determined the grass was too wet and that theory was unlikely. Their guess was a squirrel or a raccoon may have chewed through the power lines in the barn."

"I want to give my heartfelt thanks to Brandon Fire Department and other (fire) departments that responded to keep the blaze contained," she said. "A special thanks to Reverend Bob Serviac and Brian from Oakwood Church, the Mullen family from Hillside Bible Church in Ortonville for their offer of any help I may need. To my family, friends and neighbors who called or visited to offer their condolences and support. Most of all I thank God that no one was injured and my home was spared. From the bottom of my heart, I thank every one for the help and support you have given me."

The Runyons purchased the barn and home, along with about four acres near the southwest corner of Oakwood and Baldwin roads, in 1976. According to the property abstract on Brandon Township Section 12, the land was first purchased in 1836 by Alexander Huff.

"I assume the barn was constructed sometime in the mid-1840s," she said. "I know the barn sustained some damage during the cyclone that hit the area about 110 years ago."

According to newspaper reports, on the afternoon of May 25, 1896, a cyclone ripped through northern Oakland County, starting near the west line of Groveland Township and the north edge of Holly Township and moving across Brandon, Oxford and Dryden townships to the east line in Lapeer County, a total of about 25 miles. The path of the cyclone started out at about 16 feet wide and ranged to about three-fourths of a mile, according to newspaper accounts. The F-5 cyclone missed Ortonville, but gutted the villages of Oakwood and Thomas near the Brandon- Oxford townships border. Deaths were reported at 38, with 61 injured.

"We know the house survived the cyclone because we learned it was used as a morgue after the storm," she said. "The Huff family was still living in the house at the time. I assume one of the Huff family, that had to repair the barn after the cyclone, scratched with a sharp object "barn repaired 1896," in one of the beams. They also drew a picture of a pig."

"I really don't want a new barn," she said. "I just want the old one back."

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