Inside Marvin and Zach Robinson’s farm shop. Photo by Jason Selby
Kinsey Robinson leans down into the cinders, doing her part to help her family pick out what remains from the fire, which reached between 2,000 and 3,000 degrees a few days before. It melted a seed tender that sat 60 feet away. Kinsey is patient in her excavation.
First came the only snowfall in Iowa’s recorded history of over a foot in May, delaying the sowing of spring crops. It’s why the corn planter was still in the shop when the Robinson’s Australian Shepherd, Roscoe, trapped in the building, jumped from an upstairs window.
“He scratched on Zach’s [Kinsey’s father’s] door,” Kinsey’s grandfather, Marvin, says. “They didn’t know whose dog it was—because it didn’t have any hair. His ears were burnt off.”
By that time, the Robinsons’ had lost power, and Zach heard popping and cracking and saw the smoke.
A few days later, dazed by the destruction at the center of the family’s livelihood, father Zach sketched plans for a rebirth.
“I drew it all up on a piece of notebook paper in one afternoon,” Zach says. “We didn’t change anything from the original plan. It all came together.”
“Zach’s like me—if I can visualize something, I can build it,” Marvin says. “We like a challenge.”
The Robinson farm sits just north of Clio. Marvin is a fourth generation farmer. Zach makes it five generations. They farm 800 acres of row crops, with 60 head of cattle.
“We are a father-son operation,” Marvin says. “And there are very few of them left. I bet there aren’t over 25 in Wayne County. Right now, I’m living a dream—I’m working with my best friend. We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we never have any trouble. We know what the other is thinking all the time.”
On May 5, 2013, fire destroyed their over 6,000 square foot farm shop. Not only did it consume their planter, it took a tractor, square baler, round baler, numerous other implements, as well as tools the family had collected and passed down through generations. As well, when Marvin’s parents passed away, the family brought a large, rubber tub of photographs into the shop to sort through.
“My daughter-in-law [Sheena Robinson] called and said the shop was on fire,” Marvin says. “I was out here in five minutes. It was real foggy—you couldn’t even see the building. There was no fire on the outside. All the flames were completely contained inside. It was disheartening, I can tell you that.
“We put up hay for PSF, and all our equipment was ready to roll, and we couldn’t do anything. Thank God for insurance, is all I’ve got to say.”
The Robinsons had to sift through the ashes to identify, photograph and catalogue their tools and machinery for insurance purposes. Photographs of blackened tools replaced photographs of birthdays and presents unwrapped during Christmas. But Marvin keeps it in perspective, knowing he still holds those memories—he is just glad that no one was hurt.
“It made our family closer,” Marvin says. “I’ve farmed for 30-some years, and I had tools I’d gathered up for 40 years. It was all in there. Everything burned. The fire happened on a Sunday. The same Friday, we had it cleaned up. I drove to a graduation in Kansas, and when I got back, Zach already had plans drawn up for the new building. We never changed one thing on that design.
“I got hold of the Amish. They’re really good friends of mine. You know how the Amish do, when something happens, they come together and help. That’s what they did here. They put their whole heart and soul into what we needed. We do a lot of work and welding for them. They were at a loss too, because we couldn’t keep things going for them, either. They came in and helped get things back in order.”
It took only 30 working days to rebuild. A team of four to eight Amish men, including Dan and Rudy Hershberger from west of Lineville, labored every day during the month. The Robinsons installed a radiant heating system under the floor, spray-foamed the walls, and hooked up an energy-efficient T5 linear fluorescent lighting system.
By the middle of July, Marvin and Zach were able to work in their new building.
“We had a party here Nov. 23, just a thank you and appreciation to the community and what everybody did to help us,” Marvin says. “I think we had over 240 people come through the doors that night. I couldn’t have imagined that big of a turnout. It made me feel good to see everybody in there.
“I got up and gave a speech. I’m not good at giving speeches. I broke down, I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘The Amish, they’re my friends… no, let me rephrase that—they’re more like family. I can’t say enough good about them.
“Dan Hershberger moved down here, and we hired him to build cold storage onto our old shop. That was the first building he built in this area. He had come in here from Minnesota, and he was so worried that he wouldn’t get any work. He did such a good job on it, and I know a lot of people and I got him going. Now, he’s swamped.
“We have a special bond. I’m proud to call them my friends. They’ll do more work in two hours than most crews would do in an eight-hour day.
“And a lot of people don’t like the Amish, because they think they undercut the prices, and they say they do shoddy work. I’ll tell you, this building here, I will put it up against any building in the United States for being built stout, and for the quality of work. The workmanship is just superior. I know there are some shoddy ones, but there are some shoddy English workers, too.
“I also said thanks to my insurance person, Jeannie Teno. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d be broke.
“It’s a dream come true, to put up something that massive that quick, and we bought all the materials locally. We had a nightmare during the fire, but later we got a dream shop. There were always at least 25 people out here coming and going, bringing cookies and pop. Most people who were here, we either have done work for them or they are real good friends.
“The day of the fire, we took off to see the Amish at 4 o’clock. They have church in their homes. The next thing we knew, we we’re surrounded by the Amish. They had tears in their eyes, because they knew what the shop meant to us.”
As well, within three hours, four people from Centerville Equipment were already there, offering to help.
“I feel like the richest man in Wayne County because of all the friends I have,” Marvin says. “It’s hard enough losing a house. This was hard on us because this is our livelihood. In the evening, the grandkids would all come out here, we fixed supper out here. We spend anywhere from eight to 12 hours out here, if not more. When you see it all go up in smoke…”
A remote control hydraulic 17-foot high door, and a hoist fabricated from a used girder that stretches horizontally from a 16-inch diameter pipe, three-eights of an inch thick, seven-feet deep in the ground, filled in with concrete. Photo by Jason Selby
They built the new shop the Robinson way. All three doors are remote-controlled, with one hydraulic 17-foot high door complete with lights to illumine their work. They fabricated a hoist using a steel girder from a bridge they had torn down. The girder stretches horizontally from a 16-inch diameter pipe, three-eights of an inch thick, seven-feet deep in the ground, filled in with concrete.
“It works pretty slick,” Marvin says. “We designed everything in here.”
Marvin and Zach built the cabinets in the kitchen area. From there, a door leads to a washer/dryer combo with a bathroom and shower, lights set to motion detection. They fashioned the sink from an old Craftsman toolbox. The mirror’s frame is a tire. Kinsey likes fish tanks, so there is one in this room.
Now that the Robinsons are back in business, they can help out the neighbors that helped them, including construction of a horse-drawn corn planter for the Amish.
“We don’t advertise, and we hardly ever take any money for what we do,” Marvin says. “If someone comes in and has something broken, then we’ll fix it. It’s not a business, it’s just a farm shop.
“My philosophy is that you can never go wrong by helping somebody. That person might never help you back, but they might help someone else, and eventually it comes around.”
One of these neighbors anonymously contacted RFD-TV, an agricultural channel that the Robinsons often watch. It features farmers from all across the country. RFD-TV chose them for a segment called ‘Top Shops’ on its ‘Successful Farming Machinery Show,’ which averages around 250,000 viewers and is hosted by Dave Mowitz.
“They were down here filming, and Dave Mowitz said they had a phone call—and they hardly ever take personalized phone calls,” Marvin says. “It’s got to be promoted by something like a company. He said the person told him what had happened, and he said it sounded like a neat story. So they got on Google Earth and pulled up the building and saw how big it was, and decided they definitely wanted to come down and check it out.”
Crews drove down to Clio to film the segment on March 7.
“It’s unnerving at first, but Dave made you feel so comfortable, it was like talking to a neighbor,” Marvin says. “One of the highlights was getting to meet him, because he travels all over the United States. It was a chance of a lifetime. He’s a super nice guy. Matter of fact, he wants us to come up and go through the Meredith Corporation with him.
“Dave wanted to know what engineering company designed this. He had never seen anything designed like this.”
Mowitz indicated that normally, after they tape a show, it is between 6 to 18 months later before it airs. He told Marvin that with the devastation his family went through, and how they came back strong, he wanted to air the show on the one-year anniversary of the month of the fire, to show people what can be done if you put your mind to it. ‘Successful Farming’ magazine, with a readership of around 800,000, also plans to do a story on the Robinsons.
“It’s amazing to me how much time goes in to such a small segment of filming,” Marvin says. “They were here for eight hours.”
“We went into it blind, which is kind of unusual for us,” television host Dave Mowitz said. “We went down there, and we weren’t disappointed.
“I was struck by two things. First of all, it had a really innovative layout. This was as well designed a shop as you’d find in any equipment dealership—you can do anything in this structure. It really is impressive.
“The other thing is, everywhere you look, you see these little innovations—a nice welding center, a great lubricating center—it just was extremely efficient.
“And it had this great back story. In true farmer fashion, they cleaned it up [after the fire], and they built another shop bigger and better than the old one. It shows what farmer-innovators can do. A typical can-do attitude—‘okay, let’s get over this disaster, let’s get this done.’
“Farmers now put offices in their shops. They’ll have meeting rooms and a complete kitchen, because oftentimes they’re eating out there. It certainly makes life a lot easier for farmwives. No more mud being tracked in. It started about 20 or 25 years ago. They use to do business out of the farmhouse, but not anymore. Now it’s in their shop. Every guy who has it says it’s the best investment they ever made. It’s an innovation in farm shops that’s certainly reflected in the Robinsons’ structure, which is one of the best shops I’ve seen in the country. We feature shops from Florida to Washington [State]. It is as good or better than any shop we have seen.”
Mowitz’s crew also focused on a bench that Zach designed, for their segment, ‘Best Ideas around the Farm.’ Zach was inspired by his grandmother’s Singer sewing machine that folded into its cabinet when not in use.
“When you get done, there’s nothing on top of the counters, it’s all folded down inside,” Marvin says. “It keeps the workbench much cleaner.”
The segment on the Robinsons will air first on May 24, Channel 345 on DirecTV, Channel 231 on Dish. Check local listings for times.
Marvin and his wife Cindy are active members of their community. Marvin was on the Lineville-Clio school board for 12 years, where he graduated from high school in 1977. Zach graduated from Lineville-Clio in 2000. He lives with his wife, Sheena and their children Kinsey, Ashton and Heston. Marvin also has a daughter, Shawna Robinson, with granddaughter Ava.
“Every day is a vacation for me,” Marvin says. “I love what I do. There are days that we make money, and there are days that we lose money. It’s about the work. You never know what project you’ll be working on next.
“Right now, we’re building an airstrip for a neighbor, Dr. William Stanley [of Wayne County Hospital & Clinic System]. I never thought I’d ever build an airstrip. The guy [Jesse Phelps] I’ve got hired doing bulldozer work, I think he’s the best there is.
“We try to do a good job for everybody. We want everyone to be satisfied.
“This is a prime example of what a father-son operation can do. All there is anymore is big outside people buying this land up, and it’s terrible. It’s killing Wayne County. They don’t put any money into the county, they come in, buy the land, turn around and rent it to outside farmers. They don’t buy anything from the MFA elevator, they don’t have us or anybody else do any work for them. They truck everything in, they truck it all out. I hope the price of land goes down, because maybe it’ll get rid of some of those guys. They’re paying more rent than what you used to be able to buy land for. The family farm—we’re holding on, but it’s getting harder every year. The big boys can buy their inputs so much cheaper than what we buy through MFA. It’s an uphill battle.
“We’re nothing fancy, we’re just down to earth people. We buy all our equipment, we pull it into the shop, we fix it, we use it. We can’t afford to buy new stuff, so we do all the work ourselves. And our neighbors are the same way.
“There’s no better place to live than where we live right here, and it’s because of the people.”