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Fire taught difficult lessons on frontier

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
Of all the forces of nature and man, fire is the most feared if it's out of control.

In an instant a fire can kill, maim, destroy or devour whatever is in its path.

Since the beginning of man, he has used fire to warm his hearth, cook food, clean his meadow lands and forests, or deter his enemies.

Just like a hammer or saw, man uses fire as a tool to help him exist. Yet that same tool, out of control, can destroy his health, hurt his family, render his fields and crops worthless, and scorch the very earth where he lives.

In early America fires were commonplace, constant and catastrophic. Every dwelling place or business was heated by wood stoves and fireplaces. Building materials for chimneys were often inferior or deteriorated, causing fire hazards. Though economical, metal stove pipes soon rusted or burned out if not replaced.

During the long hard winters, large fires built in stoves created sparks that ignited grass fires, rooftops and nearby wooden walls.

Time and again, entire towns were burned to the ground from fire pushed by high winds. Many small, wooden schoolhouses in the Texas Panhandle were burned.

San Francisco suffered many fires in its early days until business owners began building with brick. They often advertised their building was fireproof and safe to enter for doing business. This was especially true of banks and Wells Fargo offices that stored money and gold.

Until a town became large and prosperous enough to support a volunteer fire department, wooden whiskey barrels were often kept under roof down-spouts to catch dew and rainwater where buckets could be filled to throw onto fires.

One man invented a metal bucket with a cone-shaped bottom, so the bucket could not be set down without spilling. This prevented theft of a valuable fire-fighting tool for domestic purposes.

Many fires were set by lightning strikes, giving birth to lightning rods being installed on the roofs of buildings. Some believed it sent electrical strikes to the ground while others believed the rods merely drew more lightning.

Do you remember the little glass globes of liquid hanging on wall brackets? If fire was seen, you merely tossed the globe onto the fire. When it broke, it choked out the blaze immediately. We kept them for years and as far as I know never tossed a one except the one my brother and I stole to test. Strangely enough, I can't remember the results.

I heard a story of two brothers who once used a foam-type fire extinguisher in an effort to remove a skunk from a dirt cellar where canned goods were stored. They said that was the maddest, wettest, "stinkingest" skunk in the West when it finally departed the cellar.

The foamy chemical mixed with the skunk odor to create a permanent stench that was unbearable. The cellar was finally abandoned and filled in with dirt.



July 20, 2010 Column Delbert Trew

More "It's All Trew"
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.
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