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Feb 24th, 2006 - 15:14:45 


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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of the Smoking Chimney

Edie's keen ears saved my house.

By Lois Barton

Posted on Feb 4, 2006

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By the Hearth, photograph courtesy of Harris Interiors' Gallery, Dorset

Here I sit in my easy chair, a rocker that swivels, listening to the fan in the wall heater recently installed for heat in this 15 x 24 foot living room. My mind goes back over the 54 years, as of this week, that it has been home for me and for other members of our large family.

When we came to the unfinished farmhouse on this old homestead, the living room was heated by a fireplace. The chimney had been built in the mid-30s by Paul Ziniker and his brother, professional masons: a business-like structure built with a smoke shelf inside to deflect the rising smoke and increase the draft.

What is now the bedroom on the other side of the fireplace wall has that red brick chimney exposed in its entirety more than half filling the wall from floor to ceiling.

In the early years our children slept in the unfinished upstairs under the exposed rafters and shingle roof. There was no heat up stairs and our waking youngsters dashed down the stairs to huddle on the hearth, soaking up warmth from the fire that smouldered over night around a large solid oak chunk of firewood. They dressed here to face the day.

Because we dared not close the damper completely, the flue always drew air from the room, and when the fire burned low, little heat radiated into the room through the fire screen even though the hearth was always toasty. Winter mornings that room temperature might be around 50 degrees in spite of the fire.

About ten years ago we bought and installed a fireplace insert which covered the opening and did a much more effective job of maintaining a comfortable temperature in our living room. As long as my husband was around to keep the woodbox filled with suitable large chunks this has been a very satifactory source of heat for this end of the house. He died several months ago. All the children are long gone from our household and I live alone.

For most of last November I had friend Ruth from Ohio bunking with me while she renewed contacts with friends and fellow workers in Eugene, her former home.

Daughter Edie had come out on a Thursday morning to spend some time and have lunch with us. We hadn't yet had a fire in the fireplace this fall, but it was filled with paper trash. Ruth and I lit the paper and added firewood, starting a good fire while we were cooking and eating breakfast that day in the other end of the house. At that distance my elderly ears did not hear the roar of a flue fire in the front room, and Ruth was unacquainted with the system, so failed to notice anything unusual.

When Edie arrived an hour later she heard the noise and we all went outside and looked at the chimney above, where there were still some sparks coming up and the rain-cap was burnt out in places and had sooty "icicles" trailing from its edges.

I called son-in-law Frank just down the road. He and a helper came. They shoveled the remaining fire and coals from the insert and dumped them outside. Frank went up on the roof and looked down the chimney from the top. He saw clean bricks in there and thought the worst was over. As they left he cautioned us to keep an eye on the situation.

We went on about our daily affairs but Edie kept hearing sounds of snapping and the expansion noises caused by heat. We assumed all would be well for some time. It was after we'd had lunch that she went back to check again. The fire was still apparently roaring in there those 3 or 4 hours later. She lit a match and held it to the heat vent over the firebox. The draft pulled the flame in and blew out the match. So she soaked an old towel and stuffed it in the vent. The fire noise continued. She used matches to check other possible air vents and eventually had wet rags and newspapers plugged all around and under the insert. That cut off the draft enough that the fire evenually died down. It had been burning creosote that had dropped onto that old smoke shelf built into the original fireplace.

The fire had heated the bricks in the bedroom too hot to hold one's hand against as well as the panelling on the wall above the mantle. Frank came again and removed that panelling and a short piece of shiplap lumber that was part of the facing over the chimney. That lumber showed scorch on the side next to the bricks. He also removed the frame around the insert that closed the fireplace opening, and could see coals glowing on the smoke shelf just above. It was clear to us that the whole house could have caught fire except for Edie's vigilance.

The heat and the accumulated smoke had so contaminated the air in the house that it was damaging both Ruth's and my lungs without us being wise enough to recognize the danger. Four days later Ruth insisted I see a doctor about my serious cough. The doctor recognized the damage to my lungs and told me not to go back in that house for at least 72 hours. Then a detox firm was employed to clean things up. They washed the walls, ceilings and floors, shampooed the living room carpet and used overnight ozone treatment to reduce the smoke damage and clarify the air.

Those heated bricks in the bedroom continued to emit strong smoky fumes and were painted with a product to deodorize them. This lemony product had such a penetrating odor that it smarted my lungs as much as the original smoke inhalation. More ozone treatment for another 24 hours. The helper told me ozone separates the components in normal air so that one could be "smothered" spending time in its active presence.

I stayed with a friend for 5 days and nights and then with daughter Margie and Frank for ten more before I could come home to my clothes, my computer and a regular routine. Ruth had returned to Ohio when I moved out.

The chimney, 75 years old, was in such bad shape that more fires were forbidden. No other heat had ever been installed in this big living-dining room. So son Dave put in a good wall heater which does the job adequately, but I miss the fire sounds and the peculiar comfort of a wood fire which had been our cool weather companion for so many years.

Copyright ©2006 by Lois Barton

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 86 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of Big Oak Stables

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Fishy Story

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Different Peace

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Hal and the Mountain

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure

Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development

and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife–The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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