Zeiders Family Loses Landmark Barn, Keeps Legacy Intact

This photo shows the Zeiders barn, built in 1938, with its original coat of white paint. It was ...

This photo shows the Zeiders barn, built in 1938, with its original coat of white paint. It was repainted red in 1979.
(Photo courtesy Zeiders family and "Images of America: Menifee Valley" book by Elinor Martin and Betty Bouris).
This photo, shot by family members in the early morning of Aug. 21, shows the barn engulfed in flames.
Family members stand on the barn foundation, which is all that remains after the fire.
Menifee lost a piece of its history last week, but the spirit of the pioneer family involved remains very much alive.

Descendants of Walter and Frances Zeiders (left) are saddened by the loss of a landmark Pennsylvania Dutch style barn built by Walter in 1938. The large red structure, recognized by many locals as a reminder of Menifee's past, burned to the ground last Wednesday, Aug. 21.

At the same time, however, they have been uplifted by the community support of their family, which is represented by four generations living on a sprawling farm and adjoining properties southwest of Scott and Haun Roads.

"We were real pleased with the concern of people who contacted us and came out to help clean up," said 85-year-old Merle Zeiders, son of Walter and Frances, who still lives on the property with his wife Ina May. "This barn was the pride of my life.

"My grandsons are bugging me to rebuild it. They said, 'Don't worry, we'll all chip in to do it.' Even a couple of the firemen said, 'If you put a new barn up, we'll be here to help you.'

"I don't know. Time will tell. But at least if we decide to do it, we've got a start."

Merle Zeiders laughed as he nodded toward the only remaining part of the 30-foot by 60-foot structure: A toilet surrounded by parts of three charred walls.

Zeiders maintained his sense of humor about the loss, surrounded by members of his family. A proud patriarch of the family, Merle sat in a small utility vehicle similar to one that was lost in the fire. He hugged a great grandchild, Grace May Sutherland, as she clung to his suspenders, which are embroidered with the names of all 14 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren.

Merle Zeiders was born in Menifee in 1928. He and his buddy Herk Bouris used to give each other rides on a tricycle down a nearby dirt road, where Merle says they might see five or six vehicles a day pass by.

That dirt road later became Highway 395 and now is Interstate 215. Menifee today looks somewhat different than it did then, its rural landscape now dotted with modern housing developments. Yet there are enough sites such as the Zeiders barn -- located on Zeiders Road just south of the Shops on Scott center -- to allow the old-timers to hold on to part of the past.

Rachelle Zeiders and her children surveyed the damage after the smoke had cleared.
"I'm always grateful for progress," Merle said, "but my loyalty has always been with the old days."

Situated on 40 acres of land owned by a family that once owned about 200 acres in the area, the Zeiders property includes the Zeiders ranch house, built in 1933 and still visible from Zeiders Road, looking much like it did 80 years ago (below). Robert Zeiders, a great grandson of Walter and Frances, lives in that house with his wife Rachelle and children Wyatt (7), Cash (5), Hank (2) and Huck (10 months). Although the barn is now gone, several outbuildings and quite a bit of old farm equipment remains.

Merle and Ina May live a few hundred yards to the south. Sharon, one of their daughters, lives just to the west of them. A son, Don, lives directly west of the old ranch house. Another son, David, lives a few hundred yards to the north, just the other side of Scott Road. The couple's fourth child, Gary, lived in the ranch house for 35 years before moving to Texas.

Robert Zeiders went out behind the barn at 4 a.m. Aug. 21 to feed the cow before he left for work. He noticed nothing out of the ordinary at that point. Around 6:30 a.m., his wife looked out the window and saw the barn on fire. Firefighters responded quickly, but it was too late to save the structure. No one was injured.

An investigator told Merle Zeiders the fire began at a circuit box in one corner of the barn. Although Merle believed all power to that box had been turned off, it appears that electricity arced across a remaining power line and ignited dust that had collected in the circuit box over the years.

In addition to the small recreational vehicle that was lost in the fire, hundreds of empty beekeeping boxes were destroyed. They were the remnants of a bee and honey business Merle and his sons ran out of the barn until about 2 1/2 years ago, when they shut it down.

"I had insurance on the barn all these years, but I took it off when the bee business was gone," Merle said. "I don't see how I could afford to rebuild now. Depends on the city and what they would want in permits and all that."

More than 20 friends and family members showed up to help with the cleanup last Saturday. Debris was piled into five large dumpsters provided free of charge by CR&R Waste Services. Today, about all that remains of the barn are the memories.

But how vivid they are.

Merle Zeiders smiled as he told the story of his father, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1886. In 1909, Walter Zeiders and a friend rode across country on motorcycles, ending up in San Bernardino, where they worked in an olive orchard.

"Dad had $17.92 in his pocket," Merle recalled.

By 1913, Walter Zeiders had moved to Menifee and married Frances Evans, member of another pioneer family in the area. After living for a short time a bit to the south of the current site, Walter and Frances bought the present property for $50 an acre. The barn, patterned after the Pennsylvania Dutch architecture Walter had seen as a young man back east, originally housed sacks of grain. Later, Merle had 35 head of cattle on the farm.

At one time, Merle owned several acres of land off McCall Boulevard, where Menifee Valley Medical Center is now located. Purchasing the land for $2,500, he grew wheat there before selling the property in 1952. Later, the property was sold to a citrus grower, who planted the orange trees now seen from the street adjacent to the hospital.

In Merle Zeiders' mind, however, all of that pales in comparison to his memory of the hard work and creativity his father put into the ranch house, farm and the old barn that lasted some 75 years.

"After dad died in 1974, I found some pamphlets he had," Merle said. "Way back then, he wrote to companies back east, got sketches and designs of those old Pennsylvania Dutch barns, and designed it himself. I wish I had his brains."

At any rate, he has his father's legacy, and together with three generations th