All seemed well when he checked up on the display the next day as he ran a tractor in a nearby field, he told the Berkshire Eagle. But “when I turned around again, it was ablaze.”
The fire remained a mystery, rattling the staff at Holiday Brook Farm as well as the close-knit town of Dalton, Mass., until police announced Sunday that they had arrested Lonnie Durfee, 49, and charged the local resident with burning personal property.
Weeks away from Election Day, the blaze is the latest ugly episode illustrating an especially charged campaign season, even in suburban cul-de-sacs and quiet country roads like those in Dalton. In 2020, political yard signs are devolving into a charred symbol of the country’s polarization.
Biden supporters in Pennsylvania and Trump fans on Martha’s Vineyard say gunshots have been fired at signs supporting their preferred candidates. Last month, a government employee enforcing yard sign rules in Michigan received a dozen stitches after he sliced his hand on razor blades affixed to a Trump banner.
And in Dalton, a town of nearly 7,000 people in western Massachusetts, Biden supporters said their signs keep getting stolen, again and again.
Trump banners were staying up nearby without any issues, said Crane, the fourth-generation owner of Holiday Brook Farm. So he set aside a small corner of the property to put up 1,200-pound bales that would hold up much more easily to the petty theft roiling the town.
“We thought, ‘Let someone try to steal these,’ ” he told the Boston Globe. “It wasn’t an anti-Trump thing; it was just to match the pro-Trump banners. This wasn’t meant to anger anybody or done in anger.”
The sign was a hit among some passersby, immediately drawing them to stop driving and take photos. By the end of the day on Friday, Kate Carney Pike, a farm manager who helped build the sign, noticed an odd brown stain on some of the bales. But she paid it no mind, figuring someone had perhaps spilled coffee while getting a closer look, she told the newspaper.
Minutes later, firefighters were on the scene, working for nearly an hour to extinguish a blaze that sent thick black plumes of smoke into the air.
Crane later found that the hay still inside the few remaining bales was cool to the touch, indicating that the fires did not spontaneously combust, as can sometimes happen with hay. “But it’s hard to explain,” he told the Eagle. “Six minutes later it was on fire, but there was nobody there.”
As news of the blaze made waves well beyond Massachusetts — drawing messages of support and donation offers, including at least one from a Trump supporter — Pike told iBerkshires.com that the farm has been overwhelmed with the response.
“The sign was loud, the sign was big,” she said, but “the amount of support and attention that it has received since is just bigger than the sign."
Crane and the farm are still deciding whether to create another display in support of Biden and Harris. And Crane, for his part, said he wants to put up something that can unify his town.
For now, there is little space left on the handful of bales that were salvaged from the blaze. So rather than try to re-create the Biden-Harris message, Pike instead opted for something more to the point: the word “VOTE,” beside a single American flag.