The big fire in the greenhouse

George Brown
By George Brown

This is the fourth in a series of short stories about my Dad. Like the previous stories, this one is adapted and edited from a brief narrative Dad wrote in 1988, at age 70, about his boyhood adventures. Dad passed away five years ago. Now, as I approach age 70 myself, I appreciate his narrative more than ever. This story, unlike the previous three, is written in first person narrative, letting Dad personally share his story with you.

“At an early age I was assigned the task of burning trash in the fire pit at the end of our backyard. It was also my job to rake and burn leaves in the fall, and sometimes I carried a coal oil lamp to the barn at night to check on the cow and chickens. I guess Dad didn’t want me to become a firebug because he often told me, ‘Remember, fire is a tool. Always use it wisely and carefully.’

The danger of a house or barn fire was very real when I was growing up in Marion, Ohio in the 1920s. Most houses were wood frame and many, like ours, were log homes that had been covered with wood siding to make them look ‘modern.’ Dad and Mom lived with my Grandmother Brown for the first few years after they eloped in 1915.

When I came along in the summer of 1918, Dad (and no doubt Grandmother) decided it was time he and Mom had a home of their own.

Dad bought a little log cabin that was located on Center Street and paid some men to move it about six blocks to my Grandmother’s large lot on Pennsylvania Avenue. I wish I could have been there to watch.

Dad said the men used wedges and jacks to raise the cabin off its foundation. Then bolsters (large long round logs) were placed under the cabin to transport it. The bolsters were rigged with crude interconnecting axles that allowed a team of horses to slowly pull the cabin six blocks down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, which was still dirt at that time. When they arrived at Grandmother’s lot, the men slowly turned the rig into her yard and placed the cabin over a basement that had been dug to just the right dimensions. A fieldstone foundation was placed under each wall, and then the axles were removed from the bolsters, leaving the bolsters in place as support beams over the basement. Dad said it was quite a feat of engineering.

During the 1920s electricity trickled into our neighborhood. Dim street lights were installed at each intersection, which quickly became favorite places to play after dark. Then lamps with ‘light bulbs’ began to appear in the windows of homes along our street.

When you walked down the street at night you could easily see which families had electricity and which still used coal oil lamps and candles. I think it was around 1928, when I was 10, before we had electricity. Dad spent the entire winter working at a construction job in Florida, returning the next spring with enough money to increase the size of our home and to install a fuse box and lines for electricity. Dad said a fire could start from an electric short, but it was a lot safer than using coal oil lamps and candles.

Like most families of that day Mom and Dad were blessed with a new baby girl or boy every year or two. By 1932 we numbered 10, counting my older sister, me, and all of my younger brothers and sisters.

With so many children, Christmas was a big event in our home.

Planning started early, and the excitement and anticipation grew as the big day approached. Decorating our tree was a family affair. Our ornaments were mostly homemade and included hanging candles on the tree. I remember Dad carefully trimming the needles off the branches close to where each candle was placed. We were cautioned to never touch the candles, and the candles were only burned for a short period of time each night both for safety and so they would last until Christmas Eve.

We never had a serious house fire on our street, but I remember on more than one occasion hearing the firemen sounding the bell on their truck as they rushed to a fire somewhere on our side of town.

Even with electricity for lights, the danger of fire was great because most families still had coal furnaces and wood burning cook stoves, and even with electricity they still often used candles in the bedrooms. Without fire hydrants, homes that caught fire were almost always a total loss.

On March 3, 1932, our luck finally ran out. It had snowed early in the day and there was a cold blustery wind in the air as night fell.

Dad had gone out just after dark to check the fire in the boiler in the greenhouse. He and grandmother had a good floral and truck garden business, and the greenhouse was full of seedling plants that would be ready to sell in April and May.

Finding everything in good order in the greenhouse Dad returned to the house for supper. We had finished eating and were clearing the table when my dog, Prince, ran to the back door and began barking ferociously, as though someone was trying to break in. Dad rushed to the door but by then all of us could already see through the back window that the greenhouse was ablaze. We didn’t have a phone but Grandmother did so Dad told me to run to Grandmother’s house and tell her to call the fire department, which I did while he raced to the greenhouse.

I don’t know how long it took, but a pumper truck from the central fire station finally arrived, hooked their hoses to the pumper and put out the fire. Chief McFarland told Dad it was a good thing the greenhouse was mostly metal and glass because that probably prevented the blaze from spreading to Grandmother’s house.

Unfortunately, all of the plants in the greenhouse were lost, either from the fire or the cold after the fire was extinguished. Almost all of the glass shattered from the heat, but the frame of the greenhouse was still intact so it could be rebuilt. The fire chief said the fire started in the boiler and estimated the damage at $500. (Note: about $10,000 today.)

The whole affair lasted about an hour and a half. We kids all stood around watching and thinking about what Dad had taught us, ‘Remember, fire is a tool. Always use it wisely and carefully.’”

You can be sure we always did.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.