After the heat of summer receded, we started concentrating on getting the house ready for a training drill for the fire department. We pulled all the windows and the doors. We pried electrical boxes from studs and pulled all of the electrical wiring, both old and new. We managed to get the cast iron (but sadly not claw foot) bath tub out, shoved it through the side door and eventually loaded it into the bucket of the tractor and gave it a ride down to the barn where it sits for now. We removed any copper pipe we could find because it can be recycled and the newer PVC pipes because there was no reason for those to go up in flames and emit toxic smoke. One weekend, D. cut a hole in the roof. Over the course of four days this fall, D. pried the asbestos siding off the house. This project entailed goggles, protective gloves and a respirator and he ruined four Tyvek suits. We built a crate on a pallet as we were advised to from the waste company in a nearby county which could accept asbestos waste and on the second Saturday of the deer hunting season we had a busy morning with a deer shot at first light and still needing to haul the box of asbestos, all 1,820 pounds of it away for disposal. And then there was nothing left for us to do but turn it over to the fire department for a training exercise burn.
Just over a week ago, we received a call from the fire chief. All the paperwork was finally in place, including the permit from the DNR and was it o.k. to burn the house this past Tuesday? Yes! Did we want to be there? Wouldn’t miss it!
Tuesday night was cold. Monday might have been colder, but we drove out to the farm and found that the cable was not across the driveway. Someone had already been there to open up. We drove in, half expecting to find someone already there, but no, they must have come and gone. We waited a while and eventually we saw headlights of two vehicles. They drove in tentatively, but they had to be in the right place. Our road doesn’t see much traffic. Our driveway sees even less. One of the vehicles stopped where the old, unused road diverges from the driveway and we got out of the car. Even though we were a great distance away, I could here a woman saying that she used to live here. I grabbed my flashlight and told D. that I was going to talk. The other pickup truck drove back out, but the lady in the car rolled down her window. She told me her name and said she lived there, but that they moved out when she was 13 years old… over 40 years ago. She said they’d come to watch the fire. Her brother was in the car with her. They decided to come with me and walk closer to the house. Then the fire department rolled in with at least two trucks and I don’t know how many firemen. I stood talking to the lady who said they had been out on Sunday and that they went in the house. This gave me pause because of how unsafe the house is now with the raccoon poo, the buckling floor and all the tarpaper and roofing nails we’d thrown back in since there was no better way to get rid of them than to let them go in the fire. She said they’d gone upstairs to see where their bedrooms were and told me that the wood stoves were downstairs when they were kids and that in the winter they often woke up to frost on the walls. She said that their parents raised 10 kids there and that she had no idea how they did it. She went on to say that sometimes there were 13 of them in the house, mom, dad, ten kids and one of the grandfathers. This was not a large farmhouse! She described the huge dining room table and said she had no idea how her mother got it in there. She asked me about a corner china cabinet that was built in and I had to tell her, no, I was sorry, I never saw it, the house was really gutted before we bought the farm. She asked me if I’d been in the cellar. Sure, I have and I shuttered to think that they’d gone down with all the broken glass and dead raccoons in various stages of decomposition, but they managed to overlook all of that saying, “That ledge in the back (on the north side) of the cellar where mom kept all her canned goods is still there.” They also noted that the floor was still dirt. She talked of swimming in the creek, which was hard for me to believe, but I guess some of the pools could have filled in since then. Besides that everything feels bigger when you’re a little kid. I have the same sensation going back to where I was a little child, everything seems small now… the distance from the old house to my school, the yard…just everything. She talked of sledding on the other side of the valley. They were amazed at how big the windbreak pines are now and I told them that a pair of hawks had nested there this past spring. Her brother said they planted those trees a couple of summers in the 1960’s and they had noticed our tiny tree nursery. She told me of slaughtering chickens in the yard and tying calves they showed for 4-H to the posts near the barn and sitting on the ledge and watching the men and maybe old brothers milk the cows. I asked about the barn and whether or not there were gutters. Yes, there were. I don’t know when or why the gutters were later filled with concrete. Her brother talked of a day mixing and pouring concrete and that their dad collapsed in the heat. Then we were standing between the barn and the house and he said, “This is where I shot Jim!” That led to a story of new BB guns, dropping hay from the loft into the lower part of the barn where the cows were, boys going into the loft to see if there were any birds up there that they could shoot and one brother daring another, “I bet you can’t shoot me as I run from here to the barn.” Sure enough, he did shoot the brother. No one was seriously hurt, but they were both in trouble and didn’t see those BB guns for some time. I also asked about the size of the farm since our parcel is now just over 38 acres. I asked if it was at one point 160 acres which would have been typical in this area for an older farm and which I thought I had pieced together looking at old maps. She confirmed for me that the original farm was 160 acres and it was what we have and some of the tillable land to the north. They were sad to see the house go, but at the same time understood. And the questions followed: “Where were we from? Did we plan to build? Were we going to live there?” We sure hope so. She told me that she has an album of what it was like there when they were kids and said we were welcome to stop by and said they were interested to see how things go for us. In the back of my mind, Joel Salatin is telling me that everyone local thinks we’ll fail and move on before too long. I don’t want that to be true.
Some of the wood D. had salvaged from the second story was too close and he was trying to move it further out of the way even as the fire was starting. The wind was from the west and they started fires in the northwest and southwest corners of the house. It didn’t take long for it to really take off. The fire fighters mainly watched to see that the fire didn’t jump to any of the dry grass further away and then get out of control. I learned that another brother and a nephew of the lady that I was talking to were on the fire department squad at the fire. I wasn’t surprised. I knew that there were several people of that last name in the department and I wondered if they’d be there for the fire and I wondered how they’d feel about it. One of the fire department concerns was the electric company pole not too far out from the house. It did get hot, but it didn’t start on fire. The fire got close to the old oak, but I wasn’t worried. Old oaks have survived the periodic fires that keep prairie from turning into woods. Luckily, nothing required them to actually use the hose from the truck in the single degree temperatures. If they had, the hose would have frozen and it would have been hanging in the firehouse for a couple of days to thaw and drain before they could put it away. I can’t recall how long after the fire first started that the roof and the first wall collapsed, but I think that is was just under an hour in that the first floor collapsed into the basement. Just before that happened, the fire chief had picked up a few bricks that I had salvaged and left outside of the house. Like a little kid throwing rocks onto thin ice, he pitched these bricks, one by one onto the first floor. Maybe I can still retrieve those bricks, maybe not…but eventually the floor did collapse. Once it appeared the fire was in no danger of getting out of control, the fire department got ready to depart, verifying that we’d be around for a while. The chief said they’d be at the station for a while and I confirmed that his mobile number was in both our phones.
After the fire fighters left, D. said that a raccoon ran out of the house. He said it seemed disoriented and we were really surprised that after all that time there was one in there that managed to get out. The possibility of raccoons in the house was something that had occurred to both of us though before we even came out that night.
We waited for the floor and the beams to collapse, but even after we left, I’m sure the fire burned for several hours. At one point when the fire department was still there, we were talking about burning things and I commented that lighting things on fire was fun. The chief’s ears perked up a little at this pronouncement, but I also pointed out that they’d never been out here when it wasn’t planned. D. mentioned the pile of brush and willow we’d been burning and that last winter, we couldn’t light it up since there was never enough snow, but that this winter with over a foot of snow, we did light it up. We’re careful about the fires. In the absence of snow cover to keep a fire from spreading, we always have water on hand and we don’t burn when it is too windy or everything around us is essentially tinder.