first structures on the frontier were dugouts built into a hill
or creek bank. Some buildings in the first settlements were built
of rock, if available, close by.
Later, most structures, both homes and commercial buildings, were
constructed of raw, fresh-sawed lumber and were heated by wood-burning
stoves. This combination, aided by rusted stove pipes, carelessness
and poor attendance of stoves caused many fires. In fact, almost
every town or country school in the old west burned or partially
burned at least once during its history.
Long before volunteer fire departments of today came the fire brigades
whose volunteers rose to the occasion using whatever means and equipment
at hand. They were faithful and tried hard, but the results were
Great American West has always been short on water and simple means
were about all that could be devised to assist in combating a fire.
For example, water storage in the form of wooden whiskey or vinegar
barrels were set all about town being placed under the gutter spouts
and roof overhangs to catch water from the dews and occasional rain
showers. If no moisture came, the merchants or homeowners tried
to keep the containers full with water drawn from the nearest water
well. Some towns even hired a man with a tank wagon to keep the
barrels full of water.
Most fire equipment was limited to "bucket brigades" consisting
of a line of men and women handing buckets of water forward to the
head of the line and tossed onto the blaze. At first, wooden buckets
were about all that were available. These containers were so handy
they often mysteriously disappeared. When a fire started, it was
usually out of hand before enough buckets could be gathered up to
form an effective bucket brigade.
This problem had a simple answer. Manufacturers invented a unique
metal bucket with a bulging round bottom. Called a fire brigade
bucket, it would not sit up without turning over and was useless
for domestic purposes. However, held by the bail in hand it could
be used in a fire brigade line for tossing water onto the fire.
Towns bought these buckets by the dozen, keeping them hanging on
the water barrels.
strange but true story with fire as the villain
happened in the Texas ghost town of Belcherville.
Established in 1886, the town lived until 1954. Being an "end-of-track"
town, it prospered until the railroad extended on through to other
towns. This started the decline of the settlement and fostered dissension
between two factions living on opposite sides of the track.
According to legend, one side of town burned and was believed to
be started by the opposite side residents. The residents of the
burned-out side retaliated by setting fire to the remaining side.
These two incidents jinxed the town for newcomers and the burned
areas were never rebuilt with Belcherville becoming a ghost town.
Could this be termed "the town that committed suicide?"
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
November 12, 2007 Column