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Polk County authorities investigate Amish fire as possible arson

Polk County and state authorities are investigating as a possible arson an overnight fire that destroyed a barn and killed three calves last week on a farm near Fertile, Minn.

Jim Tadman, an investigations sergeant with the Polk County Sheriff's Office, said the fire call came at about 1:30 a.m. Thursday and brought firefighters to an address on 120th Ave. SE.

"The State Fire Marshal Division is logging it as an arson, and they continue to be involved in the investigation," Tadman said. Authorities are withholding certain details of the incident to protect the investigation, he said.

The fire marshal's office is offering a reward of up to $2,500 for information leading to the identification of anyone responsible for the fire. The state's arson hotline is (800) 723-2020.

The farm is home to one of about a dozen Amish families who have settled in the area in recent years, and some neighbors expressed concern that the fire may have been a "hate crime" targeting the Amish.

"I was quite mad about it," said Keith Bolstad, who lives about a mile away and spoke with his Amish neighbor Monday. "They struggle to make it, and then for someone to destroy property like that. ... I just hope they catch them.

"I guess it angers me more than it does them. He told me, 'I just feel bad for the guy. That's no way to live.' "

Tadman and Polk County Sheriff Barb Erdman said they're not aware of other reports involving arson or other "terroristic" threats made against Amish families in the county, and they were not ready to declare last week's barn burning a hate crime.

"We don't know if it was a random act of somebody being stupid, or somebody doing this intentionally," Tadman said. "At this point, we can't tie it in to direct bias against the family."

'Most peaceful people in town'

The possibility that it may have been a hate crime troubles Eric Bergeson, a writer who operates a nursery in the area. He wrote about the incident on his Country Scribe blog on Sunday.

"What kind of cowards would attack the most peaceful people in town, people whose religion demands instant forgiveness of all enemies?" he wrote.

"This is unspeakable and heartbreaking. What are we, the Deep South during segregation? What are these people thinking? Who are they?

"More importantly, how can we respond?"

On Monday, Bergeson said the Amish people "have been great neighbors," but he said he has heard reports of other incidents, including people driving vehicles loudly across farmland and gunshots fired into the air.

"That isn't who we are," he said. "That isn't the way we treat people. It's an act of cowardice to pick on people you know won't be able to respond."

Bolstad said the barn that burned had just been built and was not insured. He has established a fund to help the family raise a new barn. Contributions may be made to William and Hannah Bontrager at First State Bank of Fertile, Box 98, Fertile MN 56540.

"They're busy working on it right now," another neighbor, Judith Zocher, said of the barn on Monday. "I just saw some new wood going up."

Bolstad said he has talked with the Bontragers, who told him they "don't want to put any blame on anyone" for incidents of harassment.

"They say they suppose the people involved 'know we don't have a telephone, so they can get by with doing something.'

"They say if they could just get (the authorities) to 'bring them out and have them work with us for a while so we could straighten them out,' that's all the punishment they'd like to see.

"They're excellent neighbors. They mind their own business, and they just want their lifestyle preserved."