Farming community mourns Golonka family members after fatal house fire in Whately
WHATELY — Residents and members of the local agricultural community reacted with sadness Thursday to the news that two members of a long-established Whately farming family died in a late-night fire Wednesday in their State Road home.
Mary Golonka, 94, co-founder of Golonka Farm, and her daughter Sonia Golonka, 64, died in the blaze that began after 11 p.m. Wednesday at their farmhouse built in 1827. State and local fire officials said a faulty fireplace unit was the cause.
For many area residents, the start of the summer growing season is marked by a trip to Golonka Farm and the familiar, steady presence of Sonia Golonka behind the cash register at the farm stand off Route 5.
“During the summer, I’d go there every day,” said Barbara Smith of Northampton who owns the Whately Antiquarian Book Center across the street from the Golonkas’ farm stand. “I’d see Sonia more often than members of my own family.”
Philip Korman, director of Communities Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield, said he knows customers who travel from out of town — “and I mean way out of town in New York and Connecticut” — to buy produce from the Golonkas’ farm stand, especially the sweet corn.
“They always make my own corn look like a distant cousin,” Korman said. “There is something about a family business that’s different. There’s a lot to be said for people who can do that.”
Bill Obear, a family friend and owner of Bear Path Farm in Whately, said the region’s farming community is feeling the Golonka family’s loss.
“I have a lot of friends who go south for the winter and I’ve been talking to a lot of them,” said Obear, who is also a member of Whately’s Agriculture Commission. “We have a lot of special families in the Valley but this is one of the greatest around. Everyone is just devastated by the news.”
The eldest girl in a family of eight children, Sonia Golonka began working at the farm stand when she was just 10 years old, the Gazette reported in a 1986 feature story.
Family members said Sonia loved dealing with customers, whose personal histories she could recount as easily as she tallied their purchases.
The Gazette in 1986 described a typical farm-stand conversation between Sonia and a customer this way:
“A man who appears to be in his 60s, wearing a blue golf hat, spends 10 minutes picking out his dozen cukes. ‘I was here last year,’ he announces to Sonia Golonka. ‘And I remember you,’ she says, smiling.”
Family members said her presence became expected at the farm stand and if anyone else was running the register, customers would want to know why.
A native of Greenfield, Mary Golonka founded the farm in 1956 with her husband, Bernard, who died in 2003 at the age of 89. The couple — who learned to farm by reading books, according to family members — began by growing tobacco, then moved on to cucumbers, corn and other produce.
Mary Golonka worked the fields on the 75-acre farm until she was well into her 70s, family members said. She loved animals, including her cat Panky, who also perished in the fire. Family members said she enjoyed cooking burgers for the family dogs.
Sonia Golonka and her siblings grew up on the farm and went to Whately schools. About 30 years ago, her younger brother, Jim Golonka, now 56, took over as owner of the farm with his wife, Jan.
Sonia Golonka remained with her mother in the family’s home on State Road, just a few dozen yards from the farm stand. Fire officials said Sonia was the one who called 911 Wednesday night to report the blaze. Both women were discovered on the first floor, where Mary Golonka slept.
In addition to Jim Golonka, Mary Golonka’s surviving children and Sonia Golonka’s siblings are: Lawrence Golonka of Sunderland; Marilyn Streciwilk of Montague; Barbara St. Germain of Turners Falls; Susan Francis of Warner Robbins, Ga.; and Elizabeth Fletcher of South Lake, Texas. Another sibling, Bernard Jr., died in 1988. Mary Golonka also leaves eight grandchildren.
Family members said a memorial service will be planned for sometime in the coming weeks.