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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Old West fires
often impossible to tame


by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

The 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 usually disastrous.


The 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.


A 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


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