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See also:   Back Home in Indiana   &   The Clare Family History   and   The Ballad of Harold & Emily

March 20, 1918
The Fire

by Mary Clare Compton
from stories told by the family

It was still dark and earlier than his usual, four a.m. get-up time when Harry awoke with the crowing of the roosters. He quickly dressed and hurried out into the kitchen. It was going to be a busy day. Uncle Ed was coming to help take some hogs to the stockyards in Indianapolis, 30 miles north. Together they would load the hogs in a wagon to the train station in Edinburgh, then leave the wagon there for the ride home. Before going out to check the pigs, Harry stopped in the kitchen to start a fire in the old cook stove, so the room would be warm by the time Myrtle and the children got up.

Myrtle Linke

Myrtle Linke

Harry was already a successful farmer. He had been raised on a farm, and in his early twenties he bought his own land. The Compton family was large. Harry had four brothers and four sisters, and they all lived nearby. Ed’s farm was just south of Harry’s. Ben’s was at the southwest corner of Harry’s. Dan’s was six miles west. Dave lived in Rushville. Ruth and her husband were just 3 1/2 miles north. They each farmed approximately 80 acres. 

Harry’s sisters Sarah, Rhylla and Cora lived in towns not far away. Family get-together’s were frequent, and reunions were often held at camps along the rivers in the area where wonderful food would be spread out on the tables and kids swam and played in the river.

St. George Lutheran Church was a little more than a mile away, and their lives were centered around the activities there. After Sunday School and Church services they often had “pitch-ins” (covered-dish dinners). Those dinners were a common way for all the families and neighbors to get together and exchange stories. The men talked about the terrible prices for corn or wheat or wished it would rain or stop raining. The women talked about the children or school, or they busily wrote down the recipes they frequently shared. It was a happy time.

The church cemetery was on a gentle slope behind the church, where large trees surrounding the area provided shade. Many of the Comptons were buried there. Large granite and marble headstones marked the resting places of parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The names of the Mullendores and the Snepps could be found there — all branches of the family tree.

Harry

Harry Compton

Harry had met Myrtle Linke at one of those community get-togethers. Harry was tall and good-looking — a gentle man who loved good times but was a hard worker at anything he undertook. Myrtle was immediately attracted to him and his gentle, fun-loving ways.

Myrtle was a beautiful young woman and Harry knew almost immediately she was the one for him. Her family lived in Clifford, a town not far from where the Comptons had settled. She had four brothers who lived nearby with their wives — Frank and Cora, “Boley” and Melva, John and Hettie and Hardin and Golda.         

Harry and Myrtle married on May 20, 1908. Shortly after their wedding the little house they lived in burned when a stove overheated. A second house was hit by lightning and destroyed. They built their third house near the road on a high spot with good drainage when it rained heavily. They enjoyed the evening breezes in the long, hot summertime.

They built a big, two-story house with a kitchen, a dining room and a parlor with a big stone fireplace. Three bedrooms downstairs and three more upstairs accommodated their children as the family grew. The bathroom was an out-house in the backyard.

Harry and Myrtle had five children in quick succession. Harold was nine, Lois was seven. Miriam was five, John was four and baby Frank Allen was just turning two. Those early years had been busy, happy years. 

Although kitchen chores claimed a lot of her time, Myrtle loved the farm. She baked all their bread, canned produce from her garden and always had big meals ready for her family and the workers who were there. Myrtle washed the clothes in an old washtub and ironed them with an iron heated on the cook stove. She worked hard morning till night.

Lois was just old enough to help with the chores. As busy as Myrtle was, she always found time for the children. How they loved it when she told them stories or sang to them — and everyone joined in on the choruses.

Harry was also busy from dawn to dusk, raising hogs, milking cows, feeding livestock, planting corn, wheat and clover. There was so much to be done that the days never seemed long enough. It was a good life, though, and they were thankful for their blessings.

Young Myrtle

By the time the wagon was loaded, Myrtle, Harold, Lois and Miriam were up and dressed. They were used to getting up early and going to bed when the sun went down. Breakfast was ready, and Harry and Uncle Ed sat down to fresh side pork, biscuits and gravy, plus three fried eggs each.

Harold had begged his Dad to let him go to the big city with them. “I can help at the stockyard,” he argued. “I’m almost ten.” But Harry was firm. Harold had to stay home this time. He had chores to do before school and the same chores that evening . The livestock had to be fed, the cows milked and wood always had to be chopped and water pumped.

He also had to see that Lois got to and from school safely. She would be eight in August. It was a mile’s walk down the pasture and through the woods to the little old one-room schoolhouse all the kids in the area attended. Lois could go by herself, but her parents felt better if Harold watched out for her.

After breakfast, Harry gathered up his jacket and was ready to go. Then he stopped a moment as he went to the door, turned to Myrtle and gave her a special hug and whispered in her ear that he would be home as soon as he could. How he loved this woman who had made his life so happy. Little did he know that events of this day would change his life so profoundly, so irrevocably.

After Harry left, the kitchen bustled with activity. Frank Allen was changed , dressed and put in his highchair. Lois was busy helping with breakfast and fixing school lunches for herself and Harold, who had completed his early morning chores and was back inside.

As always, Miriam was at her Mother’s side, tugging at her apron. John, who was just four, was still sound asleep in his bed in what they called the “sleeping porch.” Myrtle thought for a moment that she had time for a cup of coffee then remembered that the incubator needed attention.

Myrtle had set up an incubator in the corner of the dining room, protected from the harsh winter winds outside. Back then, most farms had incubators to help hatching baby chicks. Myrtle's was a round, covered container about three feet in diameter.

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The Children of Myrtle and Harry Compton

Harold, Lois, Miriam, John and Frank Allen Compton

First, eggs were candled so infertile eggs could be removed. Then they were placed in the incubator and turned frequently during the three-week incubation period. A kerosene heater provided even warmth.

Farmers everywhere raised chickens, which were an important staple in the their family's diet. When company dropped in, one of the first things a wife would do was to kill a chicken, clean it and have it frying in the pan before anyone was even invited to stay for dinner. Someone always seemed to visit on Sundays, and this was a big part of their social life.

Eggs were gathered each day, too. When the kids were very young they learned to gather eggs. Sometimes it was a game to see who could find the most. Sometimes it was just a job that had to be done before going to school. No breakfast was complete without fried eggs, bacon and that wonderful gravy on homemade biscuits.

On this morning, Miriam followed her Mother into the dining room, where she checked the incubator, which was low on fuel. New fuel had just been delivered the day before, and Myrtle carefully added more to the already lighted kerosene container.
  

The blast was deafening. The room exploded into a wall of fire. Screams from the children in the kitchen could barely be heard, the noise was so intense. Both Myrtle and Miriam were engulfed in fire. 

Myrtle rolled on the floor to extinguish the flames, and Harold ran to Miriam, rolled her on the floor and patted out the flames in her clothes. He carried her outside and rushed back inside to help his Mother.

Somehow they all got out of the inferno through the front door. Lois grabbed baby Frank Allen and ran out the back door to the yard. Everyone was so terrified that later they could barely remember what happened. Fire and smoke quickly came out the windows and shot up the walls. The whole house was engulfed in flames.

Myrtle collapsed on the grass, then realized that John was still inside. She hoped Lois could go get him, but she immediately realized it would be impossible for anyone to get inside and rescue the sleeping boy.

Myrtle knew the only way to get him was be to break the window on the side of the house away from the kitchen and drag John out of the sleeping porch. Lois wanted to help but was so terrified she couldn't move.

Later, no one could believe that someone as critically burned as Myrtle was could possibly rescue John. Her clothes and flesh were badly burned, but somehow she managed to get to the window of the bedroom and break it. She reached into the blazing room, pulled John out, placed him on the ground below, then collapsed unconscious on the lawn.

Though he was only four, John never forget this traumatic event. None of the survivors ever erased it from their memories. John remembers that the neighbors, who had seen the flames and smoke rising from the Compton farmhouse, came racing over to see what happened. Neighbor Asa Sawn, riding on a white horse, was one of the first to arrive. The memory of that white horse has remained vivid in John's mind.

Everyone was aghast at the tragedy and sickened at the sight. There was no hope of saving the house. There were no firemen to call and not enough water to extinguish the flames.

Everyon'’s first concern was  the mother and her children. Myrtle and Miriam were quickly and carefully carried to Aunt Jennie’s house. Relatives had gathered by now, too, and they took the other children. Uncle Hardin and Aunt Golda took Lois to their house. Aunt Blossom took the others. A doctor was called from Edinburgh, and he did what he could to help the two suffering ones. 

In those days before phones, no one was able to reach Harry at the stockyards, and it was almost dark when he drove up in the wagon and saw his smoldering house, smoke still rising from the foundation.

How could this have happened? Where was his family? Were they all right? After hearing what had happened and being assured that the other children were cared for, he rushed to Myrtle and Miriam's side. He knew that they had been burned severely.

Miriam died the following day, March 21st, and arrangements had to be made for her burial at St. George's Cemetery. Overcome with grief, he buried his little girl.

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For the next week, Harry stayed at Myrtle's side, praying that somehow she would survive. Everything was done that could be done, but there was little to do. There were no burn units, nor helicopters to take her to a hospital. She was given laudenum, the only pain medicine available at that time, and she survived - barely conscious — for a week. She died March 29, 1918 and was buried at the side of her precious daughter, Miriam.

The cause of the monstrous event was soon discovered. Standard Oil Company had delivered the kerosene the day before, but somehow gasoline was mixed-in with the kerosene. The company realized their dangerous mistake, and the delivery man was collecting all the fuel delivered to farmers’ homes. All of it had been rounded up, except the container delivered to the Compton’s. 

No one could ever be compensated for such a loss. Nothing could be done to change the events of that day. The Oil Company eventually admitted their error and gave Harry a check for $10,000 — small compensation for the tragedy they had caused.

In spite of the tremendous challenges that faced him, Harry was determined to keep his family together. He wanted to keep their life as normal as possible. Easter Sunday was soon after the fire. All the children remember going back  home that Sunday for an Easter Egg hunt where their house had stood just a few weeks before. 

house

Eventually, a new house with roughly the same floor plan was built on the old foundation. Harry continued to work the farm and built little boxes on the plows and other farm equipment, so he could take the baby with him into the fields. Lois, who was eight that summer, grew up fast and became the mother and did many of the jobs she had only watched her Mother do before. 

Various women came in to help as housekeepers, but none of them lasted long. Three years after the fire, a widow named Lessie Banks  came with her daughter Mary to be the housekeeper. She and Harry eventually married and had two more children, Betty and Allen. 

John, Lessie & Harry Compton

John, Lessie and Harry

Lessie was a good, kind woman, who worked hard making a home for Harry and their family — now seven children — Mary, Harold, Lois, John, Frank Allen, Betty and Allen. 

Life had taken such a different turn from what they had planned. Harry and Myrtle’s dreams were destroyed that fateful day. It was a day that started out like any other day, but it ended up a day like no other.

The kids grew up to be kind, loving, productive people — a lasting reflection of the love their mother gave them as babies and the care of a father who had to step in to be both parents. Together, Harry and Lessie bonded a family of step-daughter, half sister and brother and brotthers and sister, and they remained close all through their lives.

Myrtle's Grave

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