BERWICK, Maine — Michele Sturgis waved her hands with excitement as the big crane lifted the first heavy roof truss into place. It was the next big step, and a step closer, to having a new home.
It's been a long, two-year wait.
Michele and Arron Sturgis had a home they loved in a large old barn, looking across fields in Berwick. Arron, the owner of Preservation Timber Framing, assembled the barn on the site years ago, using it as a home, business office, shop, and even retail space for Michele’s antique business. The couple had their wedding at the old barn, hosted friends and celebrations, and said they loved living there with their four cats.
Disaster struck in July 2020 when lightning hit the barn, and the resulting fire destroyed everything.
“There are still days I think about what we had and what we built together, and it was gone in an instant,” Arron said.
Neither of the two were home when the fire began, and by the time they got there, the building was being consumed by flames.
Michele said she was most worried about the cats. According to Arron, “They were family.”
“That night I couldn’t sleep, because I hadn’t found all the cats and worried about them suffering here,” Michele said.
The next day they determined all four had died in the fire.
The loss, however, was made bearable by what Arron and Michele said has been a tremendous outpouring of support from others in town and the area, including many they had not known.
“We didn’t have to cook a meal for months,” Arron said, describing the meals people brought.
The couple said other contractor friends came on a moment’s notice to help, often at no charge.
Bob Cantwell, an excavation company owner, said he had a bad fire at his own home some years ago, and that Arron helped him then. So when the Sturgis’ needed help, he was quick to respond.
“The fire department could not knock the building down and couldn’t get at the fire to put it out … So Bob came with his excavator on a moment’s notice to carve holes in the roof," Arron said.
Later, Cantwell and his sons helped with the cleanup.
Michele said local people with metal detectors helped search through the rubble, eventually finding her wedding ring.
And, a man named Steven who lives nearby, but who Arron and Michele said was not a close friend, has now become one -- because he lent them his house.
“Who offers their house? It's extraordinary,” Arron said.
The couple stayed with Steven for six months.
“And he wouldn’t accept a penny, he wouldn’t. We take him out to dinner a lot,” the couple laughed.
Later, another contractor friend let them stay in his house for two months while they fixed the cellar of the old barn into a temporary home.
Then, it was time for Arron and his crew to start crafting the timber frame for a new barn home to be built on top of the old granite foundation. That work took a long time as the crew was also working on paying jobs to keep the business going.
For timber framer Dan Boyle, who has worked with Arron Sturgis for 25 years, it was a welcome chance to help.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to practice my craft, do these jobs for someone you’ve known for so long and care so much about,” Boyle said. “Everything about it is fantastic.”
More old and new friends were there to help the timber frame go up.
Crane operator Rick Geddes, who said he has worked on projects with Arron for years, was happy to give his time and his company’s crane.
“I told them what I wanted to do with it, and they said no question, absolutely, the crane can go as long as he needs it,” Geddes said.
“My theory is the world is a circle, you get to give a little and take a little, and Arron’s been a giver. Time for him to get some," Geddes added.
Arron had a different view.
“I think people are always looking to help others,” Arron said.
That help was given during a time when many people were still staying distanced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Sturgis’ said that didn't stop. As the frame came together, Michele shed a few tears of joy at seeing their new home taking shape.
“So many things to celebrate, and I continue to be warmed by gratitude. The energy keeps building the more you accept it and give it back,” Michele said.
Proof of that came in the person of Trisha Arnold, who works at the local Cumberland Farms store, and who Michele said brought them groceries and even a refrigerator for the small shed in the weeks after the fire — all out of her own pocket.
On the day of the barn raising, she brought flowers for the picnic table.
“It’s a celebration,” Arnold said.
When asked about providing all the assistance, she had a simple answer.
“Well, sometimes it's better to go without and focus on others," Arnold said.
Arron and Michele Sturgis said it's one of many reasons they want to stay where they are, in Berwick.