Smith House fire of 1954


With cold weather upon us, and people heating their homes, the danger of house fires increases as temperatures drop.  This story takes place in 1954.  Mass vaccination of children against polio had just begun, Elvis Presley started hound-dogging, and the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, was launched by the First Lady of the United States and Boone, Iowa native, Mamie Eisenhower.   

            Bill and Shirley Smith lived just south of Mt. Pleasant on Highway 218, which is now Iowa Avenue.  It was a cold and windy March morning.  Bill looked out the window of their farm house and noted the wind swaying trees back and forth.  “Bad day for a fire,” he told Shirley as she spilled cobs into the cook stove to start the morning fire.

            “Is there a good day for a fire?” she asked.

            Bill headed off to work in Mt. Pleasant, as Shirley roused her kids—three little girls.  There would eventually be five girls.  Little did she know that the wind was sucking sparks from the cook-stove up through the chimney onto the shake roof.

            An insurance salesman that Shirley knew happened to be driving by and saw the roof fire.  He stopped and ran up to the door.  “Shirley!” he hollered.  “Your roof is on fire!”

            “Quick!” she instructed.  “Get the girls over to my mother-in-law's.”  (Which was right next door.) 

            The salesman did as he was told.  He grabbed the four-year old, two-year old, and ten-month old, Michelle, Nancy and Chris, and off they went.  Shirley cranked the party-line phone, so all who were listening knew what was happening.  “There's a fire at Bill and Shirley Smith's house!” she told the operator.  She did not give an address.  Everybody knew where everybody lived.  Besides, there were no rural addresses in those days.  Everything was Rural Route. 

            Bill Smith was on his way to work.  He saw the fire truck coming toward him.  “Hmm,” he said.  “I wonder where they're going?”  His question was soon answered.  One of the firemen, Bob King, recognized Bill through the windshield and motioned for him to turn around and follow the fire truck.  Bill Smith did as instructed.  When he came over the hill, he saw his house on fire.  Panicked gripped him.  Were his wife and kids okay?

            When he got to the house a gaggle of people were there.  They were carrying furniture out.  Some of them decided they should carry the cook stove out of the house and got it wedged in the door.  There it stayed.  (Keystone Cops.)

            A school bus also stopped and a couple of high school boys jumped out and decided that they were going to help fight the fire.  They hurdled the cook stove and ran up the stairs to where the fire was.  Shirley screamed at them to get out of the house.  They did, and had to clamber back over the cook stove.  

            Well, the house was pretty much toast, but no one was hurt, which was a big relief to Bill and Shirley.  A picture of the burned structure made the front page of the Mt. Pleasant News.  Bill and his father-in-law, Wilbur Lightfoot, rebuilt the house.  They added running water and indoor plumbing. 

            Shirley has passed away.  Bill, 95, is still alive.  Susie Smith Clark, the fourth daughter in line, takes him out for supper most every night.  They reminisce about the way it used to be, and their house fire of 1954.  “Never ever,” Bill cautions her, “start your cook stove with cobs on a windy day.” 

            Susie pats his hand.  “You're right, Daddy.”     

Empty Nest, Curt Swarm, Mt. Pleasant, editorial, column, Sunday, Pen City Current, fire


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