Novelist Jane Hamilton and husband Bob Willard are weighing rebuilding options for Ela Orchard.
For generations of families in southeastern Wisconsin, autumn meant a trip to get heirloom apples from the historic Apple Barn at Ela Orchard, located near Burlington in western Racine County. But the remaining fruits of a successful harvest went up in flames on Jan. 12 when fire destroyed the 114-year-old barn that stored apples, cider, a tractor, a cider press and also housed a store.
This past fall the orchard, with its herd of apple-core loving goats, did a bang-up business as families sought out COVID-safe outdoor activities. The orchard is known for heirloom varieties such as Macoun and Black Willow Twig, as well as cider and honey.
“We really did have a strong fall, as did a number of orchards,’’ co-owner Bob Willard said. “It really surprised me.”
But generations of memories went up in flames last week.
“It’s a total wreck,’’ Willard said. The dollar loss is still being calculated, although the local fire chief put it at over $500,000 when talking to a reporter at the scene. Willard’s cousin’s wife noticed flames coming from the barn at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning. The cause is unknown.
The orchard has been in the Ela family since Willard’s grandparents bought the farm in 1922. They began planting apple trees in the late 1920s and an uncle and an aunt ran the orchard from the 1940s. In 1978, cousins Edwin Ela and Bob Willard became the active partners.
The orchard has fans from beyond Racine County. During apple season Ela has stands at farmers markets in Shorewood, Burlington, Greendale, and at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison.
Ela Orchard has been a presence at the market on Madison’s Capitol Square since 1973, the second year it opened. Willard and his wife, award-winning novelist Jane Hamilton, usually staff the stand, with help from Madison area friends, and raised their kids as “market babies.” Their son, Ben, joined the orchard as an active partner in 2019. Hamilton, known most widely for “The Book of Ruth” (1988) and “A Map of the World” (1994), said much of her writing was done at the orchard during the off-season.
Before the fire, Ela was selling cider and winter apple varieties such as Ida Red, Spartan and Black Willow Twig through the Dane County market app and a group called Madison Farmers Unite, as well as the Milwaukee County Winter Market.
Those fans have stepped up to help their favorite orchard rebuild, via a Facebook fundraiser started by chef Jaclyn Trimble and a fundraising appeal at Madison Farmers Unite. Thus far they’ve raised more than $30,000 toward rebuilding.
“An awful lot of people have responded, it really is overwhelming,’’ Willard said. “We’re awfully grateful for everyone’s thoughts and support.”
The only things left standing are the landmark granite pillars and wall that graced the west end of the barn.
“It is too early to tell what actual condition they are in and what rebuild options are feasible,’’ he said, “but at the moment we have hope that they could be incorporated into a rebuild. But that is nothing but a hope at this stage.”
In one way, Willard said, things could have been worse. No people or goats perished in the blaze, and because the orchard had such a strong fall business, there were only 600 boxes of apples left and the haymow was empty.
“In that sense, we were lucky it was January (when the fire hit), it would have been much worse in October,’’ he said.