Samuel Swarey was hauling firewood behind a tractor when he saw the black smoke billowing above his father's farm.
The Amish man, who is 25, jumped down and raced to the blazing tobacco barn on that recent Saturday afternoon, but nothing could be done. Within minutes, the flames spread to a nearby shed and a second barn on the family's Southern Maryland farm -- ruining horse-drawn buggies, plowing equipment and half the year's tobacco crop, Swarey said.
Because most Amish don't carry insurance, such events can create financial crises. Investigators said the accidental blaze, which started after family members were test-burning tobacco leaves, caused about $60,000 in damage.
"It was a big loss, that's for sure," said Jacob Swarey of Charlotte Hall, Md., the farm's owner.
But help was on the way.
On Friday morning, more than 100 Amish men and women convened on the Swarey farm and followed a centuries-old tradition of communal labor: the barn raising. In a day's span, the bearded men in straw hats and suspenders would erect a 32-by-120-foot barn to help put the family back on its feet.
"This is the way we've always done it," said Ben, 49, who would give only his first name because of the Amish custom of modesty. After he heard about the fire, he rented a van with about a dozen others and rode three hours from Charlotte County, Va., to pitch in.
"We help each other in times of need," he said. "It's a whole lot more affordable. [Swarey] doesn't have to hire a bunch of labor."
The work began at dawn with little talk. The men nailed together poplar boards for the rafters while the women, in white bonnets, prepared chocolate chip cookies and thermoses of hot coffee. As the day grew warmer, the buggies kept pulling up the dirt lane, and the men shed their denim jackets.
"All hands," one man called, and dozens leaned in to push a portion of the 15-foot-high frame upright. By 9 a.m., they began to tack the rough-hewn siding onto the simple post-and-beam structure. With a practiced choreography that required little instruction in their native Pennsylvania Dutch, they raised the building without a hitch.
"What's amazing is everybody's working, everybody has their task. No arguing, no fussing, no cussing," said Tom Adkins, a non-Amish who owns a construction company in Charles County and came to watch the work. "I have 30 guys, and they're nowhere near this organized."
Barn raisings were common across rural America in the 19th century. But the Amish have held on to the tradition as a way to express spiritual commitment to the concept of mutual aid, said Donald B. Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania who has written extensively about the Amish.
"The community owns the disaster, so to speak. It's not just the sole responsibility of the individual . . . which is so different from the rest of American society," Kraybill said.
"They're able to efficiently and cheaply rebuild the structure. And they help pay for it together without all the enormous bureaucracy and red tape of commercial insurance," Kraybill said.
The Swarey family will also get help from the proceeds of another tradition: the Amish Quilt Auction. The event, in a barn on Grove Farm Lane in Mechanicsville, began in 1989 after another Amish family lost its home in a fire. It has grown to attract hundreds each year to peruse the colorful quilts and carved wooden furniture.
"This year my phone has been ringing off the hook," said Christina Johnson, who helps her Amish neighbors who don't have telephones in their homes. Calls came from "people from all up and down the East Coast wanting directions."
Firefighters have taught fire safety in Amish and Mennonite communities, said Duane Svites, a deputy chief fire marshal for the state of Maryland. Seven years ago, a 5-year-old Mennonite boy, Russell Stauffer, was killed after a kerosene lantern sparked a fire that destroyed his family's St. Mary's County home. Authorities went to schools to encourage the use of battery-powered smoke alarms, because the Amish do not use electric ones.
After that fire, the community also pitched in, donating lumber, concrete, a door, windows and money for rebuilding. But challenges remain.
"They don't have the luxury of picking up the phone and dialing 911," Svites said.