Fire at the Cookhouse

(taken from Lena MICHIE's History)

When I was 19 years old [1882], before I was married, my future husband's sister, Alice [age 16] and I were cooking at a sawmill for about 20 men. My six older brothers owned and ran the sawmill and the rest of the men were working for them. They built one house there which served as the kitchen, dining room, pantry, and bedroom for Alice and me. The boys slept in tents.

One day after dinner when the work was all done, I stretched myself out on a long bench (we had one on each side of the table) and said to Alice, "Shall we lie down and take a snooze or go down and pick some strawberries?" It was June and the wild strawberries were just getting ripe.

The boys had seen a bear up in the timber, but we didn't think it would come that close to the mill on account of the noise, so we didn't worry about bears. We decided to go.

We thought we could smell cotton burning, so before we left we looked in the stove, went outside and checked the tents where the boys slept, also looked in a box of cotton wadding, but couldn't find anything burning. We took our little tin cups and went after the berries which were thick about half a mile away.

We had just picked enough to cover the bottom of our cups when the mill whistle blew. We knew something had happened for that wasn't the time of the day for the whistle to blow. We ran toward the cookhouse. In a little while here came my brother, Joe. He had an awful look on his face. I thought something had happened to my brother, Dan, who was the sawyer! The first thing Joe said was, "You girls are goners!" Then he told us the cookhouse had burned down.

When the men saw the fire, they thought we were in the house and ran and opened the door and saw that the whole thing was ablaze and we weren't in there. They couldn't go in and get anything out of the house as there was a gun in each corner and they kept going off. They had all they could do to keep the mill from burning, so they had to let the house go. Some of the piles of lumber got on fire.

They had just got in a big load of food stuff the night before and stored it in the house. It all burned up so we were left without any supper. The first thing to do was to send a man to Benchcreek to borrow some flour to tide us over until we could get to Kamas for more supplies. While the boys were decided who would go, along came a tribe of Indians and the boys got some deer meat from them. The Indians saw the smoke and came to see what happened. They knew about the sawmill and they knew my brothers.

The boys put the stove up under some trees and plastered the cracks with mud, but we couldn't make it bake, so had to cook biscuits on top of the stove. We got all the tin dishes, knives, forks, and spoons and scoured them to eat with. We all had meat and dough gobs for supper. We had no table so ate in all kinds of positions.

Alice and I had no bedding and only the clothes on our backs. The boys divided their bedding with us and gave us money donations for clothes. We had to go home to Benchcreek on the next Sunday to make ourselves a house dress each and get what other things we needed.

The cotton we had smelled burning was the covers on our bed which was in the corner of the cook house. Somehow a spark got in there and smouldered till it broke out into a fire. If we had gone to take a snooze instead of picking strawberries, we would have found that fire!

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Some editorial license was used in telling this story. If you would like to read Lena's unedited version, you may go to her history. ~Venita


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