By Grant Welker
GROTON -- Blood Farm has been a landmark in town for generations.
To cattle farmers, it was one of few places in the area to bring cows or pigs for slaughter, and for restaurants and individuals, it was a step-back-in-time kind of place where meat could be purchased from a familiar face instead of shipped from a sprawling corporate operation in the Midwest.
Blood Farm, which dates back five generations in the Blood family, faced tragedy Sunday morning after an overnight fire destroyed the main slaughterhouse building, which includes butchering operations and the retail component.
Fire officials still hadn't determined the cause as of Sunday night, but Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait said the fire started in a smoke room.
"There's going to be a void for a while," Selectmen Chairman Peter Cunningham said. "It's going to be a huge loss."
Connie Sartini, the Groton town diarist, said the Blood family has been actively involved in the business generation after generation. Though the Blood Farm does very little advertising, she said, it has become well-known across the area among farms that bring cattle there for slaughter, and restaurants and individuals who purchase meat there.
"It's always been a centerpiece of West Groton," Sartini said.
Town history books date the Blood family purchase of the West Main Street property to 1724, she said. At least one house on the property dates to 1780.
Owner Elliott "Barney" Blood Jr. and his wife, Doris, have been mainstays in the community for decades. Barney, who is in his 90s, is also a former selectman, Sartini said.
The farm has been an institution in the area and a part of Groton history, Cunningham said. It was also a major supplier for restaurants in the area, he said.
"It's pretty much all gone," Cunningham said of the fire's damage.
The slaughterhouse is overwhelmingly popular on the customer-review website Yelp, with regulars praising its quality and trustworthiness.
"I'm tempted to think there is no better place on Earth to get your meat, but I'm damned certain there's no better place in MA," one wrote.
One restaurant that has used Blood Farm for decades is Gibbet Hill Grill, located about 3 miles away.
From where the cattle are raised on Gibbet Hill Farm, adjacent to the restaurant, to Blood Farm and back to the restaurant is a short distance nearly unheard of in the industry, said Jed Webber, a co-owner of the Webber Restaurant Group, which owns Gibbet Hill and seven other restaurants and facilities in the area.
Gibbet Hill Grill and many others will need to try going through one of the very few other USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the region, Webber said.
"Those places are going to be overloaded at this point," he said.
The fire was noticed by a passer-by, who called authorities just after 2 a.m. It took about four hours to get the fire under control.
The four-alarm fire brought crews to the scene from Ayer, Lunenburg, Pepperell and Townsend. Firefighters from Dunstable, Littleton and Shirley staffed the Groton fire stations while the town's firefighters were at the scene.
"It's a big loss for the town," Bosselait said.
A police officer at the scene late Sunday morning said the Blood family asked that the public be kept away from the property. No one answered the phone listed for the business in the morning or late afternoon.
The types of materials used for the building, including cinder-block walls, made fighting the fire more difficult, Bosselait said. By the time the fire was spotted, it was already spreading extensively inside the building.
"It's kind of like an oven, with the block construction with metal roof," he said.
The fire was not deemed suspicious, Bosselait said.
Only hours after the fire was put out, Maria Borino, owner of Pizzeria Maria in Nashua, already had an idea to start a fundraiser to benefit workers who would be out of a job, at least temporarily. Pizzeria Maria highlights that the bacon on its meat lover's pizza comes from Blood Farm.
Borino, a Westford resident, has been a regular customer for about 15 years -- and she was just there Sunday.
"I've been going there for years, even before I opened this up," she said of her restaurant.