MANSFIELD -- Ron Bigelow described the recent demolition of his childhood home as a “happy-sad moment.”
Many memories were made inside the little three-bedroom house on Tracy Street. Bigelow’s parents, Dallas and Shirley, bought the home after moving to the area from northern Kentucky. Just about everybody in his family has lived there at some point -- his parents, his sisters, his nieces and nephews and even his own children.
But the house needed to go. After Bigelow’s widowed mother got sick, the house fell into disrepair. By the time the family realized it, it was beyond the point of rescue.
“When I moved in, the house was already starting to decay,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow will soon have a new house on the family homestead, thanks to community donations and Love Our Hero’s, a Bellville-based non-profit dedicated to helping area veterans.
Founder Tami Oyster first connected with Bigelow two years ago when a family member referred him for food assistance.
During phone conversations with Bigelow, she noticed nearly all the foods he asked for were ones that could be prepared in a crockpot or on the grill. She thought perhaps what he truly needed was a stove.
After convincing Bigelow to let her visit, Oyster discovered a much greater need.
“He finally let me in about 45 minutes later and it was caving in -- the foundation was caving in, the roof was caving in,” Oyster said.
Ever the optimist, Oyster told Bigelow she was going to fix things -- though she didn’t quite know how at the time. After determining the home was past the point of renovations, Love Our Hero’s purchased a trailer in Bellville’s mobile home park for Bigelow to move into. Then Oyster and board member Gina Stillion set out to raise funds and in-kind donations to build him a new home.
“We don’t have a ton of money set aside for this so every single piece of this project has been donated by either a supporter or a business,” Oyster said. “We are doing this donation by donation.”
Stillion, the project manager, said she hopes to have Bigelow home for the holidays.
"I'm shooting for Thanksgiving, but I'll settle for Christmas," she said.
The family homestead
Bigelow's childhood home was situated on a unique piece of property -- multiple acres nestled in the North End. He and his three sisters had free reign of the property growing up -- the hidden paradise had woods and a pond perfect for summertime.
“It’s like living in the country in the city," Bigelow said. “My dad was a country-type person, coming from Kentucky.”
Like his father, Bigelow grew up to love the outdoors.
After graduating from Mansfield Senior High School at 17, he spent a year hunting, fishing and working at Parker’s TV, where he repaired and resold discarded televisions.
He enlisted in the Army shortly after his 18th birthday and completed basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Then he was stationed in Fort McClellan, Alabama. From there, he shipped out to Giessen, Germany.
The Army trained him as a 54 Echo -- a nuclear biological chemical specialist.
“My job was to train the guys that actually went out and did the fighting,” he said. “We taught them how to identify and survive in a nuclear, biological or chemical environment."
He was based in Germany for 18 months, but completed missions in Spain, England and France. He was also deployed during the U.S. Invasion of Grenada.
“The best one that I ever got was three weeks in Thailand,” he said. “I didn’t want to come back.”
After six years, Bigelow decided not to re-enlist. Looking back, he wonders if it wasn’t divine intervention.
“It could have been other forces at work getting me to get out,” he said.
Bigelow returned to Mansfield. A few years later, he found out his mother was battling a terminal illness. She’d been hiding it from him and his siblings. To this day, they aren’t quite sure why.
Bigelow was the most financially stable and flexible of the siblings, so he moved in with his mother to help care for her during her final few months. One day he went to the mailbox and found a notice inside.
“They was getting ready to take the house on property back taxes not paid,” he said.
Bigelow began making payments on the back and current taxes -- chipping away at the debt to rescue his family property. It took nearly a decade.
Meanwhile, he was doing everything he could to rescue the house. Racoons had climbed up a nearby tree and burrowed into the roof, ripping holes that let rain water seep into the house.
Bigelow cut down the tree and replaced the leaky roof, but it was too late.
“When the house started drying out, the plaster separated from the lattice. And then it just started cracking and crumbling and then it was just falling everywhere,” he said.
Bigelow started remodeling with new drywall, insulation, wiring, plumbing and even a new bathroom. But the racoons were relentless.
“They weren’t your normal coons, they were monster coons,” Bigelow said. “Those things was coming in the house and they just looked at you like, ‘Hey, how you doing? Welcome home.' -- Eating a dog's food. Every dog we had was scared of these things.”
The condition of the house continued to worsen after Bigelow's mother died.
“It got to a point where it was too overwhelming for him," Oyster said. "He couldn’t do it by himself."
A family cornerstone
The new home will be just over 1,000 square feet with two bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths -- on the same property as his old home.
“We are trying to put him into a new home with new furnishings,” Stillion said. “We're going to make him comfortable. It's not the Taj Mahal, but it's what he needs to get back on his feet."
Bigelow said he's honored and humbled by the community's outpouring of support.
"I just want to make everybody proud, take care of the place and keep it nice for as long as I'm here," he said. "I want to do that to show my appreciation. There's so many different companies and individuals that have donated their time, their labor, their money.”
Bigelow refuses to look at the plans for the new home -- he wants to be surprised. He hopes the new home will be a fresh start for his family -- restoring the homestead to the cornerstone it once was.
"It's going to mean so much to my children, my nieces, my nephews, my cousins. Because that property and that house can stay in the family for a long time," he said. "That was my main goal. I'm glad that within my lifetime, we are going to achieve that goal.
"It's an opportunity to make new memories.”