Living on the West End (Fires of March)

Bill Shepard

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a column Bill Shepard wrote last year.

By Bill Shepard

Ah, those merciless fires of March! They still burn inside the mind of this old writer, and the sounds of the March winds whistling through the treetops cause me to shiver. I remember them both all too well.
By the time I had reached the tender age of 12, I had developed a dread of seeing the leaf on the calendar turn to the month of March. I knew that a new season for sailing kites into the wild blue yonder had arrived. The kite that I had been working to build would be ready to sail. The skies over the village would be filled with kites the village children had been putting together.
There were also memories not so pleasant. They were reminders of burning houses and frightened children. There were sounds of men hurrying in the darkness working to get belongings from a house that was being eaten by hungry flames of fire.
They were fighting a losing battle! Memories too deeply entrenched in my young mind! I could just as well bypass March and move on to April.
We had no fire protection on the mill village when I was a boy. No fire hydrants and water even if a fire truck would have crossed “over the creek” to that part of the old mill village. If a house started to burn there was nothing one could do but save what they could from the house and then stand by and watch the rest go up in flames!
Why March? Why the village? All of the houses were built before or shortly after the turn of the last century. Timber in those days was of rich pine that burned easily and the roofs were of cypress shingles. When the shingles dried they were tinder boxes ready to burn! The smallest of sparks would start a fire that would spread over the rooftop in minutes!
Most people in that day heated their house and cooked their meals while using wood or coal for fuel. The mill houses had a chimney for heating, in the bedroom, and a chimney for the wood-burning stove used in the kitchen for cooking!
To stir the fire in either of those places would send sparks aplenty up the chimney and outside to land on the roof. Another fire! In March, the winds would carry sparks from the burning roofs to other housetops; thus, another house on fire!
Some of my most frightening moments as a child were when I would be awakened in the night or early morning, hours before daylight, by the sound of loud voices screaming in darkness, “Get up! The house is on fire!” I wouldn’t know if the voice meant my own house or another.
My older brother would fire his shotgun time after time, hoping the sound would awaken sleeping folks. It did seem that most of the fires happened at night, and that added to the awesomeness of the fires.
I have watched folks climb on top of their own housetop and have folks on the ground pass buckets of water to them, and they would splash water on burning sparks as they landed on the housetop!
The saddest of all scenes was when I would see a family standing in front of their burning home and see a child shivering from fear and the cold March winds. In some cases the only clothing a family had left was what they were wearing.
All that was left of their furniture lay disappearing in the dying flames! Helplessly they would stand, wanting to go, but to where? The chimney was now all that was left. If another house on the village was vacant they might be allowed to move in. If not, they would have to move on!
That part of the village at one time contained 50 or 55 houses. I’ve counted them all many times in my mind. Today there are far less than that number! Not all were lost to fire but a large number were. I remember several, and they burn in my mind as fiery and frightening at times when March blows in each year.

Author: Rachel Howell

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