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Burning Down the House

Jewel purely hated south Georgia.  They moved there for Hood’s new job with AB&A Railroad. Her infant daughter Mary Belle (Sister Baby) had died two years earlier, and Jewel was pregnant again when they got to Fitzgerald. But after a while in that hot, dusty and brown flat land, Jewel wanted nothing to do with the place.  She’d had three babies there in a row. Ben, then Ray then Andy and barely three years between each one.  It felt like she’d had two babies in diapers at the same time forever.  Ruth and Janie helped around the house. They were grown really at 19 and 24, but not married yet. They could cook and helped keep the little ones changed, but Jewel knew she was going crazy – slowly and surely crazy.

After oldest son Boykin broke his back in an accident, the money wasn’t coming in as fast either, so things were getting tight even with Hood’s good job on the railroad.  He was a foreman of the trestle crew – and it paid good money, but he was a farmer at heart with a house with property back home and he wasn’t too thrilled down in the rented houses himself. He couldn’t see a way to leave, not with all those mouths to feed.  Plus, he was gone a lot with the crews working the rails, leaving Jewel with that herd of kids.

As fortune would have it, the decision was made for them to go ‘home’  when the house burned down.

Jewel was yearning for home.  Having her sister Ethel nearby in South Georgia made things a little more bearable, but still it wasn’t home – it was hot and flat and the boys were always under foot.  Ben and Ray were going to school at least, but the cooking and cleaning chores were endless.  Especially the cleaning. When somebody got sick in that tiny house, all of them got sick…except for Hood.  He’d brought her here for the extra money the job offered. The money WAS good, but the house the railroad offered was tiny.  Three rambunctious little boys plus teenaged Boykin, now recovering from a broken back jammed into one room, Ruth and Janie in the room with all the clothes and winter clothes and quilts they’d never need in this hellish place, and then the other tiny rooms, including the little kitchen with the wood stove.

She was up late, stirring bedsheets in boiling water on the stove top, trying to sanitize and clean them.  She was tired, sick, miserable, homesick.  Then suddenly, “FIRE!  FIRE!, Mama, the house is on fire!”  Somebody was yelling, but she hardly heard it.  Then Boykin had her by the waist, pulling her from the kitchen.  There were flames, nothing but flames.  Boykin dragged his mama into the yard, away from the fire.

Groggy, she cried “Where are the boys?”  She spotted Ruth and Janie, pulling one of the steamer trunks from their room out into the yard.   The house was one big flame now.   Boykin held her tight as she pulled back toward the fire and pointed to the boys, over in the neighbor’s yard across the street.  “We got ‘em Mama, we got em out first.”  She stopped fighting, but watched as everything she owned went up in flames and settled back into embers as ash.  The fire brigade showed up too late to do anything but save the other houses nearby.

Janie and Ruth stayed with the trunk, and the house burned – nothing else would be saved.  No clothes, no furniture, nothing at all but old quilts and papers in a steamer trunk that two very small girls has drug out of the fire as if it contained their family.

The whole crew stayed at Ethel’s house, but for only a short time. Jewel wanted to go home. Hood arranged to go back to Meriwether County, where they went back to the property his father had given him over on Hurricane Branch out Raleigh Road. They stayed there until Jewel and Hood died there many decades later.

Note about the veracity of this story:   I heard different versions of this story, as is the case with many family stories. The house burned down and nobody was injured.  The one trunk that Janie and Ruth ran out with was all that came out in the way of possessions and it contained basically nothing of use (except intriguingly everybody’s birth records).  Daddy remembers it vaguely.  I asked him what he knew from actual experience and he remembered watching the fire from across the street while wearing his night shirt, and spending the night at the school teacher’s house that night.  He started the fifth grade back ‘home’ (I have his report card). Nobody alive knows who got everybody out of the house, so Boykin gets the credit.

Grandma (Jewel) later told some of the grandkids that she set the house on fire because she wanted to leave and go back to Meriwether County,  which they did.  Nobody really knows if it was true, but the fact that every body got out safely and early does seem a little suspicious.  The fact that none of us dismisses that tale outright says a lot too.

In Jewel’s defense, from 1922 until this happened in 1935, she lost her closest brother and his family in a train/car accident, her infant daughter Mary died in her arms in 1923 after which her husband went on a three day bender with the baby’s body left outside a liquor house. Her father and mother died in 1925 and 1926, she moved away from her house in 1925 then had three babies in four years. Her oldest son was nearly paralyzed while trying to crank a hand-cranked car, putting a major dent in the family finances. The fact that she ONLY burned down a house and that nobody was hurt is a minor miracle.

© 2019 Susan Bulloch

Categories: Dad's Stories


I write. I fix computers. I feed cats.

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