By Tia Lyn Lecorchick staff writer

A group of locals are organizing The Brookwood Benefit, set to be held at the Thomas Cotton Gin in Watkinsville on March 29 at 6 pm, to raise funds for the Brookwood Equestrian Center, a horse farm located at 2165 Union Church Road in Bishop, to help recover the losses incurred from a devastating fire that broke out in late January. Melanie Howington, owner of the Brookwood Equestrian Center, a facility that offers a variety of services, including training and boarding, is grateful for the support from local and surrounding communities.

“The overwhelming outpouring of help and encouragement has been a source of great strength for us. It’s just been amazing,” said Howington.

The late-night electrical fire claimed the lives of 18 horses, two belonging to Howington and 16 belonging to other owners boarding their horses at her farm, and destroyed one of her three barns on the 22 acre property. “Everyone who has been touched by this has had their lives changed forever. The grief and horror of it is something that words cannot even express.

I don’t think any of us will ever be the same. We are trying to move forward and remember all the happiness our horses gave us and hopefully experience that again someday,” said Howington. Dana Peroni, veterinarian and owner of Cupboard Bridge Equine in Watkinsville, and local organizing committee, are spearheading the upcoming fundraiser for the Brookwood Equestrian Center.

Mark and Diane Thomas, owners of Hot Thomas Barbeque in Watkinsville, offered to host the fundraiser at Thomas Cotton Gin, and old cotton gin mill they have restored and use for weddings and other events. Donna Griggs, owner of Bar G, a horse and cattle supply shop, is on the committee organizing the Brookwood Benefit.

“We want to help ease the pain that these people have been through,” said Griggs. “It was a horrible tragedy and a lot of people were affected by it, especially those who lost their horses. It’s been a really hard road for them.”

Howington does not yet know how much it will cost to rebuilt the barn or to compensate the owners of the 16 horses that died for their monetary losses. “We set a goal of $50,000, though I don’t think we will be able to raise that much. But it’s a realistic amount considering the damage.

We would like to raise as much as we can. We want to help everyone as much as we can to help recover as much as we can,” said Howington. Howington noted that no amount of money can replace the beautiful horses that were lost, but that she at least wants to recuperate loss of supplies (saddles, bridles, and other horse equipment) that her customers lost in the fire.

Howington is currently researching how to rebuild her barn in a fashion that is most fire-resistant. “Everything in a horse barn is flammable: the wood, the shavings, the animals themselves, their manure. It’s almost impossible to build a barn that won’t burn.

But we want to build a barn in the safest, most fireproof way possible,” explained Howington. “While most people think of barns to be mostly wood, this particular barn was mostly metal. And still, the huge steel girders looked like spaghetti after the fire.

They just melted and crumpled because the fire was so hot.” Howington recalled how the community came to her aid as soon as the fire was discovered. “The fire department came quickly and remained at the scene throughout the entire night,” said Howington.

“The response and kindness and consideration that the Oconee County fire department, sheriff’s department and road works department showed us were absolutely remarkable. They were professional and kind and they did a wonderful job.”

The upcoming benefit on March 29 is free to attend, but there will be tickets for sale to eat at the event, $10 for adults and $7 for children. Mark and Diane Thomas will be providing the food from their barbeque restaurant. The event will also feature live music, a silent auction, and a raffle. The organizers are asking people planning to eat at the event to purchase their tickets in advance so the Thomas’s can plan accordingly for how much food to make.

To purchase tickets, you can contact Peroni’s office at 706-769-4749 or The Piedmont Equine Associates in Madison at 706-752-1818. The Thomas Cotton Gin is located at 3753 Greensboro Highway in Watkinsville. “It should be a good time for everybody as we try to help those who have been affected by this horrible tragedy,” said Howington.