published Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

Happy Valley Farms stable fire shocks neighbors

  • photo
    A sympathy wreath labeled "Our hearts are with you" is propped against the Happy Valley Farms signpost as horses graze in a field near a burned-out barn Saturday in Rossville, Ga. A fire broke out in the farm's main barn Thursday night and 35 horses stabled there died.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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John "Buck" Rogers ate dinner on his back porch Thursday night, as he often does. And as he dined on pork chops and mashed potatoes, he looked forward, between two trees, right at Happy Valley Farms.

Rogers, 51, loves looking at the farm. He's lived in Rossville his whole life, and he said the community is proud of the farm, home to some of this country's finest American Saddlebred show horses. When he was a boy, Rogers worked on the farm. He spent summers baling hay and cleaning whatever needed to be cleaned.

But on Thursday, about 8:30 p.m., Rogers saw smoke rise from the barn.

Immediately, he stood up and left his dinner behind.

Rogers drove to the home of the farm's owner, Marion "Bit" Hutcheson. He tried to tell her what he saw, but she was sliding into her car. She had already heard.

By the time they got to the farm, Rogers said, a fire had swallowed the building whole.

The fire destroyed a stable and a training area, scorched trees and a fence 100 feet away and killed 35 show horses, some nationally known. One horse survived.

Three days later, the fire's cause remains unknown, said David Ashburn, Walker County coordinator. The Walker County fire marshal, the state fire marshal and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating.

A woman who answered the door Saturday at Hutcheson's home said she was not prepared to talk.

Walker County Fire Chief Randy Camp said the first responders arrived at the scene around 8:50 p.m. Thursday. By that point, the fire covered about 90 percent of the stable. Firefighters tried to save the training area, and the walls and roof are still standing, Camp said, but the inside is gutted.

When Cassidy Hutson heard about the fire, she drove to the farm Friday from Jackson, Miss. Hutson, 29, is a former horse trainer, and she rode at Happy Valley Farms when she came to look for a new purchase.

She said Hutcheson is renowned across the country for her show horses. There was Merchant Prince, the father of A Sweet Treat, a former World's Grand Champion Fine Harness and World's Grand Champion Three-Gaited.

Merchant Prince, RWC I'm the Prince, WC Harlem's Friendly Conversation and Magical Me were considered the backbone of the farm's operation.

"This is just unspeakable," said Hutson, who is friends with those who work at Happy Valley. "A lot of [the horses] are treated better than human beings. They're loved. They're part of your family."

David Brown, 76, has lived in the area for 40 years. He used to drive a school bus, and sometimes he would take children to the farm on field trips, back when it processed dairy.

Brown's son Eddie used to hang around the farm with his friends as a teenager. They liked to relax there, Brown said. They liked to watch the horses.

A couple of times, Brown was invited to look inside the barn. What he saw, he said, didn't surprise him.

"I figured it would be nice," he said. "They had all those horses worth millions of dollars inside."

Thursday night, 31 firefighters sprayed about 2,000 gallons of water per minute on the buildings for about two hours.

"It didn't even make a dent," Camp said. "That tells you how involved the fire was, and the level of heat we're dealing with. The heat converts [the water] to steam before it even gets to the base of the fire."

The stable was filled with hay and wood chips for the horses' bedding, Camp said. And those running the stable kept fans blowing on the horses to keep them cool through the summer night.

But these features, the ones placed for the comfort of the animals, may have caused the fire to spread, Camp said. This may be the most difficult part of the tragedy -- that somehow, in some way, what is done out of love can lead to pain.

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@times freepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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