It takes a community to raise a barn

A shop fire draws together people John Matson helped

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Volunteers help rebuild John Matson's barn on Saturday.

Vernon Matson, top center, son of John Matson, came from Idaho to help rebuild his father's barn with other volunteers, on Saturday, which burned down earlier this year. His family and friends have raised nearly $10,000 and lots of donations to help replace it.

John Matson confers with his son Walt. "This is overwhelming," the elder Matson said. "It's not as big as it was, but it's bigger than I deserve."

Volunteers help rebuild John Matson's barn Saturday.

Roy Matson, brother of John Matson, joins volunteers as they help rebuild his brother's barn.

John Matson stood back and trembled with emotion while dozens of people scurried around his Hockinson property, trying to replace the irreplaceable.

“This is overwhelming,” said the retired carpenter and builder, 74. “It’s not as big as it was, but it’s bigger than I deserve.”

It seemed like the whole neighborhood turned out Saturday morning to prove otherwise, raising a new wood shop for Matson on the spot where the old one went up in smoke on the morning of Jan. 9.

A team of experienced framers and roofers scrambled up above, guiding into place the triangular trusses that were hoisted up and over by a crane; below, a crew of younger guys with shovels dug around the old foundation to lay new water pipes. Others sawed boards and two-by-fours to size. And still others stood around drinking coffee and remembering how much Matson has meant to them over the years.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said John’s son Walt Matson, 45, sizing up the busy crowd of 40 or so. “Knowing Dad and all the people he helped over the years. Whether it was bringing food to someone who was hungry or helping fix a broken door or leaky roof or whatever. If somebody was in need of help, he always helped.”

Matson, who has lived in the area all his life, spent nearly 40 years milking cows and then building cabinets — and all manner of other stuff — in the barn that evolved into a woodshop. “It was my putter shop,” he said. He blames his own less-than-professional wiring for the fire, he said.

“It was his whole life, after he retired,” said Matson’s brother and next-door neighbor Roy, 73. John Matson said he and his wife, Dolly, raised 12 children on this property.

“I remember pingpong tournaments,” youngest son, Wesley, 32, added. “There was really a lifetime of memories in there.”

Wesley Matson was the farthest-flung volunteer to turn up and help: He flew in Friday night from his home in Greenville, S.C., for the big day, which was organized by son Walt and son-in-law Jamon Holmgren. Holmgren built a website via a do-it-yourself fundraising host, while Walt pulled together the community of carpenters, builders and other handymen that is the extended Matson family.

Holmgren was hoping for $8,000, but the donations quickly surpassed that. The sum listed on the website ( was over $10,000 on Saturday morning; there were also donations of materials like windows, doors and roof trusses from such local suppliers as New Tradition Homes, TrusWay and County Restoration.

The surplus will do more on the shop than its planners had hoped to accomplish soon: insulation, interior drywall, workbenches, maybe even tools to replace those lost in the fire.

“We love to come and finally help Uncle,” said niece Donna Aho, who joined the chorus of folks who insisted they are in Matson’s debt. Aho confessed to breaking and never returning a hammer tacker (for installing insulation) that she borrowed from Matson, oh, about 13 years ago now. She doubted he remembered, she said.

“I’m going to buy him a new one now,” she promised, laughing.

An estimated $100,000 of tools, equipment and supplies were destroyed as the uninsured building burned to the ground, Matson said; also damaged were a restored 1941 John Deere tractor and a 1964 Pontiac Bonneville that used to belong to Matson’s parents. As the work party progressed at a rapid pace, the Pontiac sat to the side, still covered with black coals from the fire and reeking of smoke.

“It’s just stuff, I guess,” Matson said. “The whole thing is to remind us that we come in naked and we leave naked, with nothing.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525;;;

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