In the two weeks since a fire destroyed the former dairy barn where Peter Baldwin manufactured apple ladders, Baldwin said he’s been blessed with the support of his friends, neighbors and longstanding customers in his quest to start over.

Baldwin, speaking to The Journal Tuesday, May 22, said he’s also considered how best to rebuild his business in the aftermath of the blaze, which razed the 6,000-square-foot converted barn he has worked in since he acquired the space in the late 1980s.

“Providence has stepped in and put the clutch in,” said Baldwin. “Now it’s up to me to figure out what gear to put it in.”

Baldwin said that on the evening of the fire he was working until about 7:30 p.m. and noticed a breaker had kicked off. He said he didn’t see any problems with that at the time, so he finished up his work, shut off the lights and machinery and went home for the night.

Later that night, Baldwin said he was awakened by a neighbor who was knocking on his door and alerting him to the fire at his business on Hall Hill Road.

Brooks Fire Chief Jeff Archer said the fire burned hotter than any he’s seen in his career as a firefighter, noting that he could see the fire as he crested the hill to come into Brooks village.

“You’d swear the sun was out,” said Archer of the blaze. “… Everyone in town woke up.”

Along with the Brooks Volunteer Fire Department, firefighters from Belmont, Monroe, Jackson, Thorndike, Waldo, Morrill, Belfast and West Frankfort responded to the scene, as did Brooks Ambulance personnel.

“When we arrived the structure was fully involved from one end to the other,” said Archer.

Firefighters went into defense mode, as Archer said there was a house across the road from the burning barn about 100 feet away and Baldwin also owns two additional barns that were positioned next to the scene of the blaze. Firefighters immediately blasted the neighboring structures with water, an effort that spared those buildings.

Baldwin said the firefighters who responded to the fire did an incredible job preventing the fire from spreading to the neighboring structures, and was equally thankful for the rain that had soaked the Midcoast in the days prior to the fire.

“If it had been hot and dry like it was a few weeks before, it probably would have taken out the whole neighborhood,” he said.

One of those remaining buildings on Baldwin’s property, a former chicken barn, is where he is setting up a smaller version of his apple ladder operation, where he will begin rebuilding the inventory he lost in the fire — inventory that includes 200 finished ladders, rungs for a year’s worth of orders as well as all of the building supplies.

“I plan to set up in here to operate with minimal equipment until I formulate a more formal plan to move forward,” said Baldwin.

Baldwin said coincidentally, in some of the regions in the nation that represent his biggest markets, including Michigan and western New York, unusual weather patterns have caused a crop loss of nearly 100 percent.

“They won’t need as many ladders, so I guess if this was going to happen, this is a good year to have reduced production,” said Baldwin.

Also lost in the fire were custom-built machines that Baldwin designed himself and constructed with the help of friends and neighbors in town, as well a planers, band saws and other equipment he acquired for his business over the years.

But that’s where Baldwin said his friends and clients have come through for him — a friend from Harmony has offered Baldwin the use of a planer, while the widow of another friend of Baldwin’s in Perry invited him to use her husband’s tools.

“She said his tools are just sitting there and she knew he’d be more than happy to let me use them,” said Baldwin. “It’s really been heartwarming, the amount of love and support I’ve received.”

Baldwin had some insurance that he said would cover some of the building’s contents, and the insurance company has been good to work with. In addition, friends and neighbors have raised about $7,000 so far in an effort to help Baldwin rebuild his operation.

And thinking back to his longtime workspace, Baldwin said he sees his present situation as an opportunity to create a new workshop that’s a little more efficient.

“It was a dairy barn, and it had limitations and all,” said Baldwin, noting that while he is focused on the road ahead, he occasionally finds himself getting emotional when thinking about the loss of his old workplace. “I have an opportunity, if I do rebuild there, to make it a more insulated space that’s easy to heat.”

At age 62, Baldwin said he’s had a few friends advise him against going into debt to rebuild his business and tell him to simply “do what’s in my heart.” Baldwin said he agrees with those sentiments, but at the same time he’d like to see his apple ladder business operational again on some level, and that he’d like to see it continue when he starts thinking about retirement.

“People seem to really like the ladders, and I like the ladders,” he said. “I’d like to see it continue, and maybe look for a group of young, committed people to take it over sometime.”

One of the items Baldwin found among the charred remains of his workspace is a metal brand carrying the Baldwin logo that he uses as an identifier for all of the ladders he makes, and much of his heavy equipment, like a tractor, forklift and a truck, also survived the fire.

In the weeks following the fire, Baldwin visited his children in Massachusetts and his parents in New York, at which time he learned his 97-year-old father recently shot a birdie while playing golf.

Baldwin saw that as a positive sign.

“If I have his luck I probably have quite a few years left to make ladders,” said Baldwin with a smile.

But for now, Baldwin said he’s moving ahead with his plans for the immediate future and is looking forward to what the long term might bring his way.

“A lot of people have expressed sadness at my loss, but the way I am, I accept what happens,” he said. “That chapter is over, and the chapter in front of me now is just cleaning up, and looking at what I can do next.”