A straw pile fire sparked by a lightning strike threatens a farm family's barn.
Not unlike the start of a dime store novel, it really was a dark and stormy night. Threshing was just over and three mountainous straw piles were behind the big barn. The grain harvest was bountiful that year, during the late 1930s.
We could not sleep because of the lightning and thunder. Suddenly, an extra loud boom rattled the house. Shortly, we heard a furious honking coming from the driveway. My aunt Stell stuck her head out the window and shouted, “What is it?” A loud voice yelled back, “Your straw pile is on fire!”
It was Rasche, the new butcher in our little town of Capron, Illinois. At the time, he was single and returning from a night of celebration in the big city of Harvard, with a population then of about 5,000. Later, he reported seeing a lightning bolt strike one of the straw piles as he drove across the flats (what we called the prairie to the east).
I got up and looked outside. The barn was juxtaposed against an eerie red glow. My uncles Amos and Everett were already getting buckets of water from the big stock tank. They futilely tossed the water at the growing inferno.
If it had just been a straw pile, they would have let it burn, but sparks were blowing toward the barn. Someone said to call the Capron Fire Department. It was a volunteer group and another uncle, Jerome, was the fire chief.
Illuminated by lightning, a surprising sight unfolded outside of a kitchen window. My older sister, Allene, was leading the draft horses to the small pasture in the orchard. She was going to make sure no horses were in the barn if it burned. This would have been a dangerous job for a man, let alone a teenage girl. Horses can be unpredictable in a storm, especially if there is a fire nearby.
After what seemed an interminable amount of time, Uncle Jerome called and said they could not get the old Model T fire truck started. He said to call the Harvard Fire Department. Harvard was in McHenry County and Capron was in Boone County. Part of the farm was in each, so taxes were paid to both counties.
The Harvard Fire Department lost no time in arriving. Their big pumper truck had a small tank of water, which they quickly exhausted. They then put a suction line in the stock tank. Even with the pump jack refilling the tank, that source was also rapidly drained.
About then, the Capron Fire Department arrived. To solve the water problem, they decided to build a mud dam across a nearby creek. But even with that water supply available, every time they thought they had the fire under control, it would blaze up again. “The fire is deep inside and we will have to upset the straw pile to get at it,” the Harvard chief said. “Get two big tractors. We will pull a cable through it.”
Amos got out the McCormick-Deering 15-30. Jerome asked Frank Nettleton, who was in charge of the Boone County road equipment for that area, to get the big Caterpillar. I do not know what size that crawler was, but it had a fully enclosed cab and it kept Frank dry. Amos, who was already soaked, got even wetter on the 15-30.
They ran a steel cable around the straw pile, hooked the 15-30 to one end and the Cat to the other. It was as though the two tractors were having a tug-of-war. The 15-30 spun its lugged wheels and yawed back and forth. The big Cat slowly pulled the cable through the straw pile. The fire flared up at that point, but the firemen were ready to douse it. Soon the fire was tapped out.
Meanwhile, someone drove my aunt Gine to Capron. She worked at the general store and had a set of keys. She opened up and bought every doughnut they had. I am sure the proprietor did not mind, because it was a “fire sale.”
Back at the farmhouse, Grandma Johnson was vigorously turning the handle to the coffee grinder, which was attached to the kitchen wall. The vibrations reverberated through the house. Grandma always made fresh ground coffee.
After the firemen secured their gear, they were invited in for coffee and doughnuts. It was like the big threshing dinner all over again, except this time it was 3 a.m. They joked and told stories. After they left, it was already time for Amos and Everett to start the milking. The rest of us got to go to bed and get a few hours sleep.
Later that day, Everett got a hay wagon and started loading up what was left of the still-smoldering straw pile. He hauled it back to the same field it came from and spread it out as best he could. Fortunately, the barn was still there, the grain was in the bins and no one was hurt.
While this was a scary event, three good things came of it. Capron soon got a new fire truck, the farm’s lightning rods were inspected and straw piles were never again set that close to the barn. FC
Clyde Eide shares remembrances of his boyhood on the farm from his current home in Texas. Contact him at 3801 E. Crest Dr., Apt. 3205, Bryan, TX 77802.