THE ESQUAGAMAH FIRE
by Mary Murphy Ottum
Interviewed by Anastasia Vellas, 1996
Esquagamah Township, Unorganized
It was a cold blustery Saturday in January of 1920. My mother, Hazel Crabtree Murphy, had got up early that morning. She fixed breakfast and we ate. She and Miss Olive Harrington, my teacher who boarded with us, had carried in snow to melt in a washtub on the heater that morning. After heating the water for washing, my mother and Miss Harrington washed the clothes and the rugs and hung the wet clothes on the line. The cold air immediately froze the clothes stiff as a board. Then mother and Miss Harrington decided to walk to the mailbox out on Highway 35 three miles away.
Dad, Ervin Ravell Murphy, finished the outside chores, came in about 10:00 o'clock and put some wood in the barrel stove. We were burning Tamarack that winter, which burns very hot. After Dad banked the fire in the heater he went down to the horse barn. He was going to turn a horse loose for me to ride. It was my everyday chore to climb on her back and ride down to the swamp, chop a hole in the ice and drive the cows to the water.
Our house didn't have a chimney, it had only a stovepipe. The wind had begun blowing hard early in the morning. The wind was whipping the stovepipe back and forth working the pipes apart at the place where the pipes overlapped. The stove was roaring and the hot sparks were shooting up the stovepipe to the roof as the stovepipe came apart. The sparks began falling out between the roof and the attic floor where the pipes had separated and that started the fire in the attic. Then the sparks caught the ceiling on fire.
I was getting ready to go out to the barn, but first I had to go upstairs for my coat. I had to climb a wooden ladder to get up upstairs. When I reached the upstairs landing, sparks from the stovepipe starting falling around me. When I looked up I could see the house was on fire. So I went back down the ladder without getting my coat.
I hollered to my brother, Everett in the living room and told him to go tell Dad the house was on fire. Well, he went out and he just went "Yoo-hoo" but he didn't tell Dad that we needed help right now. Everett went back into the house, sat on the floor and started taking his shoes and stockings off. He had been sliding down hill and his clothes were wet.
I come down the stairs and I said, "Is Dad coming?"
He said, "He went back in the barn."
I said, "You kids get your shoes and stockings on grab your coats and go to the horse barn." It was a good two blocks to the barn. "You stay there and tell Dad he's got to get up here and help me. The house is on fire!"
They just kind of giggled at me.
I said, "Well, burn up then!"
I went outside and let out a blood-curdling scream. When my dad came out of the barn, I screamed, "The house is on fire!" He said he could see the flames were going up in the sky from where he stood. Dad came to the house and we tried to get things out but instead of taking out the small things he grabbed the big dining room table and started to pull it out through the doorway. It lost a wheel in the crack of the floor and the table lodged there. He couldn't get it out of the way. He tried to tip it up and back but he couldn't move it.
Then he crawled over the table back into the house and took a window out. He tried to throw things out through the window. The wind was blowing so hard he couldn't do much. Neither he nor I ever thought of getting the "dresser drawer" out. That was one of those things they preached to us every time they left the house. ‘If the house gets on fire take that dresser drawer out and put it the outhouse,' because it was quite a ways from the house. ‘And get the boys out'. I got the boys out but I didn't get the dresser drawer and what money we had burned up with the house.
Dad grabbed some papers lying on top of the organ and threw them out through the window. They did save some important papers. He pushed those things out the window to me. Then he collapsed from the smoke.
I got him out, I don't know how. It had to be the Lord helping me because he weighed a 180 pounds. I finally got a hold of him and I was tugging and tugging trying to pull him.
I hollered at him, "Push with your feet! Push with your feet!"
I kept pulling and I finally got him out through the window into the snow. I didn't get him too far from the house, maybe about seven or eight feet away when the roof, instead of falling inward, split and slid outward. The roof was burning right there by his feet. I covered him with snow and tried to bring him to. I slapped him in the face with snow again and again. Finally, he got where he could breath again.
The cellar under the house was full of food for the winter. There was also meat in several barrels just inside the back porch. There was venison and pork in the barrels. Dad had recently butchered a calf so there was also veal. What a loss. Several barrels of frozen meat ~ gone. We never thought of pulling the meat away from the porch. We could have easily rolled the barrels away from the house. The roof came down over the porch trapping the barrels and Dad hollered, "Oh, God, the meat!" But by then there was nothing we could do about it.
We had nothing left. I didn't have clothes and I didn't have a coat. The man we had been renting the house from had given me his daughter's coat. He said his girls couldn't wear it anymore. To me it was a new coat and I was so happy to have it. But that too burned up in the house.
Dad said, "We can't do any more here. I don't know what we are going to do." He wanted to know if I had turned any of the cows loose. I said, "No, I didn't get out there." He went out to check the cows in the barn. He came back after he had given them hay. He didn't get any water to them that day.
Then he went back to the barn, hitched up the horses and put us on the sled, covered us with hay and said, "I'm going to have to take you down to your grandfather's." My grandfather was C.W. Crabtree.
I said, "Dad, why can't we take those rugs off of the line. They're frozen, but if you put them on top of the hay wouldn't that help keep the wind from going through the hay and keep us a little warmer?"
Well, he didn't know if it would do any good, but he said, "We'll take them off of the line." And he took the rugs and the clothes that were on the line and threw that on the top of the hay to keep the wind off.
We started down one of the logging roads along Esquagamah Lake to Grandpa's house. As we were going down the road we saw tracks that crossed the road where our teacher and my mother had walked on a cow trail back toward the house. Dad ran along the trail after them yelling and hollering. He finally headed them off and they came back and rode to Grandpa Crabtree's house with us.
Dad told them, "The house is gone, no use trying to go there. Gotta get these kids to their grandparents and get them something to wear. They ain't got no fit clothes on." I didn't have a thing because my clothes were burned so badly to my body. He had got us in the sled and got us covered with hay and the wet rugs. That's the way we went for two miles down the tote road to my grandfathers house. We saved only what was on the clothesline.
That night and for many nights after that I slept on a pallet on the floor next to my grandmother's bed. She slept with her hand on me. I guess I was shivering. Every little while she'd shake me, "Come on, Mary, you're all right. You're with your Grandma."
I didn't get over the fire experience for a long, long time. After that I could tell when there was a fire nearby. I didn't know where but I knew there was a fire. When we'd go into town I'd tell them, "There's a fire and the whistle is gonna be a blowing!" "You don't know what you are talking about, get busy with your work," They'd tell me. Then the fire whistle would start to blow.
We moved to Swatara that year and back to Esquagamah in 1927.
HISTORY OF THE MURPHYS AND THE CRABTREES
My maternal grandfather was D.W. Crabtree. When Grandpa Crabtree was young he cooked on Wanigans (a houseboat for cooking, eating and sleeping on river drives) and in logging camps. At one time he carried mail from Waldeck to Emily in Crow Wing County. My uncle did the same thing. There was a post office there that we called the Esquagamah Post Office. He also went down the river to Waldeck and picked up mail.
Many winters Granddad worked in the logging camps cooking for the lumberjacks when he was young. One day he baked at the camp and the next day he walked to my grandmothers, I forget how far it was. That was the day she baked bread and rolls for the loggers. As soon as dinner was over in camp Grandpa washed up the dishes and then walked down where Grandma lived to take care of her cattle. When he finished he would load up in a bed sheet the bread grandma had baked that day onto his back and carried the rest in his arms back to the lumber camp.
One night on his way back to camp a pack of wolves was following him. If they got too close to him and began howling he turned around, threw a loaf of bread at them, and walked on. As soon as the wolves finished that bread they would come in close to him again. He said he didn't have much bread left when he got back to camp because he had to feed most of the bread to the wolves to keep them away from him.
The men in camp said they heard the wolves howling and they knew someone was in danger, but not one of them would come with a light to help him. You would only be in danger from the wolves if you were walking at night, especially if you were carrying meat or fresh bread.
The camp had tote sleds that they took to Aitkin in the winter for supplies. There were many times they had to throw the meat off to keep the wolves away from the sled. The men didn't carry guns. As soon as it started getting dark they wouldn't be safe. Wolves very seldom attack if there is only one wolf.
My dad was Ervin Ravell Murphy. He was born in Kansas. He was a blacksmith. He also drove livery teams for the Livery Stables in Aitkin. Dad was good to us. He worked and did what he knew how to do, but he didn't like to have to learn something new.
When we lived in Swatara from 1921 to 1927. Dad worked in the lath mill for Gillson, Walter Gillson's dad, hauling logs to mill into lumber. He worked wherever he could get a job to earn a little money. In the summer he would work on the highway. They were putting in Highway 35 through Swatara when we lived there.
My mother was Hazel Della Mae Crabtree Murphy. My mother made my clothes. She knit and crocheted and helped with the chores. After my folks quit trying to farm she did house cleaning for others and wallpapering. She also took in washings.
Interview with Mary Murphy Ottum, 1996,
who celebrated her 91st birthday on March 22, 2003.
Interviewed, Transcribed and Edited by Stacy Vellas
Edited by Bill Farris