Starting over with a little help from his friends

GWINN – The farmhouse had stood in Forsyth Township for more than a century, but in an instant, it was gone. And so was everything Morris Melby possessed.

But friends and neighbors are banding together to help Melby, giving assistance that is absolutely amazing to the soft-spoken man who calls himself “just a dirt farmer.”

Melby was in his kitchen at about 6 p.m. Friday night when he suddenly saw smoke.

“I opened the basement door and fire flashed out at me,” he said Wednesday. The flash caused second-degree burns on Melby’s face, something he didn’t realize at first.

“I knew the fire was bad, so I ducked and ran and called 911,” he said. “I opened the outside door and said ‘Ginger, we’re out of here.’ And we got out.”

Ginger, a 2-year-old dog, is Melby’s constant companion. The two made it to safety and awaited the arrival of firefighters, who came from Forsyth, West Branch-Skandia, Sands and Chocolay townships.

“I would like to say a sincere thank you to the men of those fire departments,” Melby said. “They made a superhuman effort to battle the fire. The house was built in 1909 and the wood was old and it was very dry.”

The fire, which Melby said started in the basement water heater, burned throughout the night, with firefighters also dealing with brutally cold temperatures.

“They did a great job,” Melby said.

As the fire was fought, friends who had come to the rural scene took Melby to the hospital, so his burns could be treated.

“Ginger was OK so some people brought her to their home,” he said. “Since the fire, I have been staying with friends, a night here with some people and a couple nights there with others. It’s really nice of folks to do that for me.”

But where he stays now, Ginger goes. The dog barked frantically after the fire while she was separated from Melby and has been joyful to be by his side since they were reunited.

Melby spends the night at friends’ homes, but he spends his days on his property. His father, Ludvig, and mother, Goldie, moved onto the farm alongside Marquette County Road 545 in 1933, said Melby, who will be 66 in a few weeks and was an only child.

“My dad came here during the depths of the Depression. He was going to try it for a six months,” he said. “He ended up being here until he died in 1974.”

The farm has cattle and chickens so Melby drives his old red pickup up the narrow drive every day to tend to his animals.

“I have lived here all my life,” he said. “I got the property from my parents. I have these acres now and all the stuff on it. You accumulate stuff through the years, all the farming equipment. I spend my summers fixing the fences and making hay and chasing all the animals around.”

Melby had no insurance.

“I have been looking through the house as I can. There’s a thick layer of ice from the gallons and gallons of water the firemen used,” he said. “The upstairs is history and the front room has 6 inches of ice all over everything. Until that thaws, I won’t be able to see what might be salvaged there. But the structure’s walls are damaged.

“I have recovered a few items. Lots of things are frozen together in chunks of ice,” Melby said. “Next week, if the temperatures moderate, maybe the cold will let go of things and I can sort them out. The rooms in the back of the house, the back shed and the cold room, I have to assess those yet.”

As for the assistance that has been coming his way from his friends and neighbors, Melby is a bit overwhelmed.

“I am just a poor dirt farmer. I am not an important person,” he said. “I try to treat people with respect and I try to be pleasant to people. But I didn’t expect this.”

“This” – the outreach from the community – has included people bringing food and clothes to the Forsyth Township Community Center to help Melby restart things.

Magic for Morris, a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, is planned from 4 to 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at the American Legion Hall in Little Lake, said Julie Shaw, one of the people organizing the benefit.

“We had a meeting for the benefit Tuesday night and 20 people showed up, including firefighters from West Branch-Skandia, from Forsyth Township, from Skandia and from Sands,” Shaw said. “Everybody loves Morris. He’s such a nice gentleman. People want to help and that’s wonderful.”

The major goal is to get a house on the property for Melby, Shaw said. Two possible homes are being looked into, one a modular and another a small log cabin, she said.

“So many people have called to ask how they can help. And to tell Morris stories,” she said. “He doesn’t realize it, but he’s touched a lot of people’s lives. People are coming out of the woodwork, offering to help. It’s amazing.

“I love this community. I love how people take care of each other here.”

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.