Willey Farms market gets outpouring of support after fire

TOWNSEND — Beep, beep, beep.

Four days after fire destroyed Willey Farms, motorists passing by on U.S. 13 regularly honked to show support for the family-owned produce market, gift shop and nursery.

On Friday morning Gretchen Willey-Gill put both hands to her chest and said her heart fluttered every time someone tooted their horn.

“It means so much to hear that,” Ms. Willey-Gill said before choking up briefly and then regaining her composure. “I never knew we had so many people who consider us to be their friends.”

It’s been that way online too, as dozens, hundreds, then thousands of followers communicate through Facebook and Instagram, and view a 46-second YouTube video dubbed “A New Beginning” that was posted by the family on Wednesday.

“We knew we had a loyal fan base, but could not imagine it was as big and wide as this,” said Ms. Willey-Gill, whose parents Donald and Irene sold the first vegetables from the family farm in 1975 and built it into a profitable landmark from there.

“Of course there are the local customers, but we’ve heard from people throughout Delaware, out of state and from outside the country.”

A police officer noticed a fire around 2 a.m. Monday and reported it to the Townsend Fire Company, Ms. Willey-Gill said, but even a quick and thorough response with multiple companies responding couldn’t save the 125,000 square foot structure at 4092 DuPont Highway between Odessa and Smyrna.

“We just kept thinking they were going to get it put down and we were making plans on what to do with the surviving space,” Ms. Willey-Gill said.

“The plans kept changing with every part that burned down until there were only two greenhouses left. Then they went up and that was the biggest fire of them all.”

On Friday, Delaware Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael G. Chionchio said investigation into the origin and cause of the blaze continued, and no determination had been made. The

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Baltimore field division joined the probe as is standard procedure for such a substantial loss.

Future plan ideas are still in the preliminary stage, but Ms. Willey-Gill hoped that perhaps a garden center could be open by spring as the first step back into business.

“I’ve been writing down ideas because they seem to happen a lot at 3 in the morning,” she said.

The reality for now is that roughly 60 full-time, part-time and seasonal workers and now without employment. Willeys enlists up to 100 staffers in the spring. Owners Christopher and Sarah Willey addressed the staff at gathering Wednesday.

“It was a very sad, emotional employee meeting back in the barn,” Ms. Willey-Gill said, noting that some employees had been with the family for 20 years or more and their bonds run deep. “My brother Chris can’t sugarcoat anything and told them it’s going to be a long time before we’re back.

“When it happens he let them know that they’re all welcome to come back.”

Meantime, several companies, farms and stores contacted the family to offer potential opportunities for their waylaid workers.

“Is it ever a good time to burn down?” Ms. Willey-Gill asked rhetorically. “No. But there are jobs available at this time of the year and we’ve heard from many who are offering to help out and pick people up as they can.”

Also, an employee support fund was established through Dover Federal Credit Union and was taking cash and check donations.

Local officials contacted ownership immediately afterward to ask how to best facilitate the recovery.

The property was still without electricity on Friday, with no phone or Internet service available either. While much of Willey’s business records were incinerated in the blaze, some had been fortunately been placed on an online Cloud system recently.

“The powers to be have extend offers to work through this because they know how important the business is to the community, the economy and drawing folks from other places to the area to shop here,” Ms. Willey-Gill said.

In the meantime, Willeys-owned Cross Street Food and Garden in Galena, Maryland is offering local produce on a smaller scale.

 

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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