In honor of Sesquicentennial Plus One, I’m devoting the Speaking of Idaho blog to my family’s history during August.
The Black Cat
By Agnes Just Reid
I can still hear myself screaming: “The house is on fire!” And, I see my husband, who had been sound asleep beside me, landing in the middle of the floor at four o’clock on a July morning, and following a peculiar light that filled our house. The light was reflected down from the second floor where the steep stairway led up to sleeping rooms, but there was no door either below or above the stairs.
It wasn’t a roaring inferno that greeted him, just a quiet fire that you could almost believe was in a fireplace, but it filled the entire space, a storage room, between the two sleeping rooms on the second floor.
After the first realization, I have very little recollection of what I did or thought, but it must have been almost as soon as I gave that wild alarm that one thought flitted through my mind: “That black cat crossed just ahead of the car as we came from the show last night.”
It was the only home I had ever known. It was the only home my husband had ever known for his mother had died when he was twelve and he had been a “pillar to post” person, living where he could find work.
We had prided ourselves on being the most unsuperstitious family in the world and on this particular night, we had reached the height of happiness. Our oldest son had been married one month, bringing us the daughter that we’d needed so long, the sister for our five sons. [Eldro and Gerry were married June 5, 1930] Our youngest [Wallace] was one year old and we had all had an evening out seeing Will Rogers in So this is London. Life was good.
This home was not just a house. It was an achievement of the pioneers of Snake River Valley and at the time it was built  it was the most comfortable home for miles around. What might have been the basement was built at a lower level, two thick stone rooms that fitted into the hillside, with beams a foot in diameter, peeled and shining. In this room was kept the supplies, a thousand pounds of flour set up on an open foundation so that the cats could travel through the tunnels and overtake a stray mouse that might invade the sport. Beans and rice and dried fruits and canned goods were stored there in proportions to match the flour. By the time my people had graduated from the “dugout” epoch and the log cabin epoch, they had reached the time when many helpers had to be employed and helpers then were part of the family.
The second basement room was a milk cellar, with long shelves that would hold thirty-two big pans of milk while the cream raised. It was the cleanest, coolest place I the world with its dirt floor that was always a little damp so there was never a speck of dust and the ten-gallon barrel churn, the butter bowl that could handle twelve pounds of butter and the handmade cedar butter paddle were all the pride of my mother’s heart.
She loved the butter industry. I always wondered if it took away some of the back-break, because Thomas Moran the greatest Nature artist of his time had once visited her humble home and as he stood in the cellar drinking buttermilk, he looked at the long rows of butter she had just smoothed with her cedar paddle and asked, “Mrs. Just, what do you use to polish your rolls of butter?”
A short flight of stairs ran up from the storage room into the thirty-six-foot kitchen where that stack of flour soon became loaves of bread by the alchemy of my mother’s hands and a bottle of everlasting yeast.
Midway of the east wall of the kitchen a hall ran to the front porch. On one side of the hall, two small sleeping rooms, on the other side the living room, called at the time “the big room.”
It was a multipurpose room. Many times, it was a hospital. I could remember very well when my mother had been confined there for six long weeks. I was eleven and during that period I learned to make bread and order groceries. My first list had a request for six pounds of mustard. We did not run out of mustard for a great many years.
This room was also the Presto Post Office for fourteen years. It was there my husband first said “Hello” to me as he stopped to ask for mail when I was home on winter vacation [from attending Albion Normal School].
It was also in this roomy room that three of our five sons were born. The third one [Fred] saw fit to come even before the doctor did, but he did not seem embarrassed, and his father knew just what to do with any newborn thing. Ten years later the same son almost died of measles in that room. Twenty-three years later he was married under the Christmas tree in the same room. [Fred and Alma were married December 27, 1942] That house was our home.
Somehow we got organized [to fight the fire]. My husband stood on the stairs and threw buckets of water that the ground force delivered to him at the ever-spreading flames. The house was 40 years old [actually 43 years old]. Every board and rafter was as dry as tinder.
We are not a noisy family so it was all done quietly, so quietly that the youngest members of the family continued to sleep after their night out, babies both of them, one [Doug] was three.
The sixteen-year-old [Vin] had a friend visiting him about his own age. They ran the buckets and the younger boy [Fred] helped fill the buckets at the kitchen sink, then when the supply of water ran low, he “manned” what we called the black pump which was not connected with the windmill.
It was before the days of electricity so wind power was all we had and wind was the thing we prayed would not come on that particular night. In fact, there had been a few drops of rain during the time we were at the show, the grass was set when we got out of the car but the moon was bright.
That was the part that always made us wonder what wakened me. Never during the whole episode was there any smell of smoke on the first floor and there was no crackling or roar of fire. Was the light of the fire enough brighter than the moonlight to arouse me from a sound sleep? Who can say?
How long the battle raged I have no idea. I do know that never a soldier in the trenches fought harder for home and country than my husband did during those terrifying hours. He kept saying he could manage it when I would suggest calling the neighbors a mile away. We never even considered calling the fire truck twenty miles away for we knew the battle would be either won or lost before they could come over unimproved roads.
Once when the fire began to break through the shingles my husband called to me: “Better get the babies out, Mom.” I was prepared to put them in the car whenever there seemed to be no hope of saving anything but ourselves
After that the confusion increased. The water boys had to transfer their operations to the outside of the house and the shingles were just wet enough to be slippery. Just as I turned from closing the car door on two screaming boys, our oldest helper came skiing down the roof, long legs swaying and crashed at my feet from the edge of an eight-foot porch.
I could not imagine anything less than a broken leg from such an experience, but he only groaned a little and went back to fill his bucket.
“Water quenches fire.” The fire was quenched but the water was still to be reckoned with. There was no time to rest. The furniture had to be gotten out of the first-floor rooms to keep everything from being ruined by water instead of fire. No one could imagine the water that had been used until it came ripping back ruining every ceiling as it came.
When the weary workers and the babies went back to sleep, my husband and I drank a cup of coffee in the kitchen that was still intact and he said very quietly, “That damned black cat. Why didn’t I kill him?”
A little later the insurance adjusters came and listed the things they would pay for, among them the winter coat belonging to our bride that had cost her a whole month’s salary. We felt very lucky that July day.