7/24/2017 10:14:00 AM Until the cows come home Martins receive help building barn after tornado
The Martins (front, from left) – Audrey, Rosene and Kendra; (back, from left) Keith, Lavern, Rhoda holding Larissa, Roxanne and Teresa – are building a new barn and milking parlor after an F3 tornado when it struck their dairy farm a few miles east of Conrath, Wis., on May 16. The Martins are eagerly awaiting the day that their 80 milking cows can come home for good. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
All that remains of the Martins’ old heifer barn are walls and concrete after a tornado came through on the evening of May 16. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
CONRATH, Wis. - The evening of May 16 changed the lives of Lavern and Rhoda Martin's family forever when a large and violent tornado struck their farm at milking time. Lavern and Rhoda were milking 92 cows on their farm a couple miles east of Conrath, Wis., before the twister struck. Unfortunately, they lost several cows to the storm, along with the tiestall barn and stave silos. The house and shop also were damaged. After the tornado passed, help began to arrive in droves and the Martins are well on their way to building a new barn with dozens of volunteers helping just about every day since. Rhoda was in the basement with their younger children, Audrey, Rosene and Larissa, when the power cut out shortly before the tornado arrived. Their other four children, Roxanne, Teresa, Keith and Kendra, soon joined her after coming in from the barn, and Lavern watched the clouds for a bit before joining them, as well. "We were in the basement, and felt the pressure change in our ears. That's when we knew it was going to hit us," Rhoda said. "God had His hand in it when the power cut out and the rest had to come to the basement instead of milking. You can feed calves and do other outside chores somewhat, but you can't milk without electricity." While they don't remember the exact sound of the tornado roaring overhead, the combined noises created from breaking glass, tin ripping, wood crumbling and a collapsing silo filled the Martins' ears as they waited out the disaster whirling above them. "They talk about it sounding like a freight train, but we didn't hear anything sounding like that," Rhoda said. "We heard the windows breaking and rain coming in, with all sorts of crashing and ripping outside." The tornado, which cut a swath 83 miles long from far eastern Polk County through Barron and Rusk Counties, set a new state record for distance traveled by a single twister and severely damaged or destroyed several dairy farms along its destructive path with wind speeds up to 140 miles per hour. When the storm left, the surviving cattle were moved to various farms in the area. The 80 milking cows are now with Lavern's uncle and cousin, Jerry and Andy Martin. Their friends and neighbors, as well as family and strangers, descended upon the Martin farm to help Lavern, Rhoda and their children get back on their feet. "Some days have been busier and bigger than others depending on what's going on, like setting trusses," Rhoda said. On July 10 and 11, trusses were being set for the new freestall barn and parlor. Lavern was driving the telehandler that hoisted the trusses onto the frame of the buildings, with Keith guiding each truss so it didn't swing wildly on its way up. The men worked in seamless harmony as the telehandler lifted the truss, with a group sitting on the very top of the nearest finished truss to help guide the new one into its proper place. "We served 50 men at lunch on July 10," Rhoda said. "It's a lot of food, but ladies from our church helped." Family members have come from near and far to help, as well. "Lavern's cousin from Indiana is here, and my uncle from Ohio is talking about bringing a group up here to help. They will probably come in a couple weeks," Rhoda said. Gratitude and indebtedness run strong and deep throughout all of the Martins when they think of everything that has been done for them in the past few weeks and months through the spirit of generosity and friendship. "There's no way to repay these people," Rhoda said. "We're so overwhelmed and unworthy of all of this." In a way, the tornado has been somewhat of a mixed blessing for the Martins as they continue to build a new chapter for their dairy farm as the barn and other new buildings come closer to completion. The calves have since returned home after being housed shuffled around to various neighbors' farms after the storm. Rhoda, who grew up milking cows in a parlor, is looking forward to the new freestall barn and parlor on their farm. "I went from a parlor to a tiestall [barn] when I moved here, and it's so much more up-and-down and labor intensive," Rhoda said. "I'm not glad the tornado happened, but it'll be nice to have a parlor for sure." Even though much has been accomplished in the two months since the tornado hit their farm, Lavern and Rhoda still know there is a lot yet to do before they are ready to begin milking cows at the home farm once again. "You know that saying 'until the cows come home'?" Rhoda said. "A lot of work has been done, but there's more work to do until the cows can come home."