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All That Remains... The Story Of A Fireplace
Update February 26, 2015
I took a drive recently and stopped alongside the highway to take a picture of The Fireplace. It stands at about mile marker 61 or so, on the south side of I-44 just east of Mount Vernon and west of Springfield, Missouri. It may be a bit worse for wear, but still it stands tall and aloof, to look, think and wonder at its history.
UPDATED JUNE 24, 2015
I came across an eyewitness account of the Trail of Tears as one branch of it traveled through Arkansas. It made for compelling reading and I thought I would tag it to this hub.
The family had traveled over a thousand miles in search of land; land to live on, to raise a family on, to have a future on. In the rolling hills of what was to become Missouri the family found their dream. Beautiful rolling hills, deep valleys filled with an abundance of turkey and deer, and an occasional herd of bison moving through the area promised a life they could sink their teeth into. This would be their home.
The year was 1809, and they had been on the trail some four months. Leaving Massachusetts and their families behind had been the hardest and most terrifying decision any of them had ever had to make. But the man of the family, Josiah, had a yearning for the new land, one only recently brought into this country. The wife, Hannah was her name, was fearful. She was afraid of the distance they would have to travel and even more afraid of the savages they would find in the wilderness. And wilderness this was, make no mistake about it. Towns were few and far between once they had passed St Louis. And compared to those cities in the East, even St Louis paled. Why, it was nothing but a collection of ramshackle buildings filled with roughened men from the frontier.
But they had persevered and here they were. Although where they were was something to be concerned about. The first thing Josiah set out to do was build a fireplace to form their home around. "Ain't a home lessen it's got a hearth" he said and he began to gather stones from the ground. Over the years it would be said that the Ozark's primary crop was rocks, and this area did not disappoint. He gathered stones for days then began to build a fine fireplace.
They had arrived in late June and had a home before the first cold breeze blew in from the north. After constructing the twenty by twenty log cabin with the fireplace on the West wall, he had built their bed and one for their two sons. A loft would be the area for the children to sleep in while they bunked down on the South wall of the homestead. The door entered from the East and a root cellar exiting the North wall completed their humble abode.
In the Spring he broke ground on this virgin land, planting corn and beans. Their sons grew tall and strong and helped with the chores, including cutting firewood for their fireplace. It served them well, and for a man who knew nothing about fireplaces he did a surprisingly good job in its construction. The draft was good and not much smoke found its way back into the home.
After the early concerns about the savages in the area, they found the reality much different than the fear. The tribes in the area were peaceable enough and oftentimes traded venison for grains. Their first year there was good, better than she had expected. The second year was even better and she began to lose her fear of the frontier. That is, until December 16, 1811.
They awoke that fateful morning; him to stoke the fire, she to cook breakfast on it. The fire was going well as the ground began to shake, fairly hard at first but rapidly increasing to the point where they could not keep their feet. The walls began to shake and gradually cracks appeared in the timbers comprising the little house. For several minutes the shaking continued as they held onto one another for dear life. Finally, after an eternity spent in total fear it subsided. Josiah took the boys outside to see what they could see. Their corral was destroyed, their solitary cow long gone, Their horse and mule were gone as well. Taking up his musket, he set out to search for their stock for without them the family might well starve.
Later that day another quake hit, not as bad as the first but terrible nonetheless. Hannah was scared to death for Josiah as she huddled with the boys. She was too afraid to build a fire lest the shaking shatter the fireplace and scatter embers about the home, thus setting it on fire. They ate what scraps they had left, and waited. Waited. Waited.
Two days later, Josiah returned; riding the horse and holding a lead on the cow, he collapsed on the front step. The mule had not been found. He told of the devastation he had seen, of the trees demolished and sinkholes created smelling of sulfur, reminding him of his perception of Hell. But this was their land and damned if he was going to be run off of it!
Then some five weeks later another quake hit. It felt as though the earth was trying to tear itself apart. Ground waves appeared, tossing anything upright upon it high into the air. Great cracks appeared in that same ground and areas solid one moment may turn to liquid the next. Again they held one another on this cold, snowy day waiting for an eternity for the episode to end. And after another eternity it did.
"Josiah, I love you and hold you dear but we cannot live in this place anymore!" Hannah cried that evening. Josiah patted her and assured her the worst was over, that nowhere had there ever been this many quakes in such a short time, and that surely the worst was truly over. She nodded her head in acceptance and they set out to fortify the home once more. One wall had collapsed and the door hung awkwardly on a broken hinge. Josiah worked for a week correcting the damage nature had done them.
Barely a week after he had fixed the home another quake hit. In the pre-dawn hours a sound grew and grew until it had substance and could be felt as well. The ground surged up and down, tearing at itself until it seemed as though nothing would survive. They heard the roof timbers creak and groan as though alive and being tortured. Running out into the dark they just cleared the doorway when the house came down in pieces. Embers from the banked fire flew out into the night air and found a home amongst the destruction, setting a great fire bent on consuming all it could. All the family could do was stand in terror at the mayhem around them and watch as their life was destroyed.
Later that day they gathered what they could and began to walk the long miles to St Louis. They carried his gun, miraculously resurrected from the destruction, their clothes on their backs and little else. As they trudged toward their destination they neither knew nor cared what their future held; their sole hope was simply survival. As they left, the fireplace cast a long shadow on their departure. Somehow it had survived and stood tall amidst the destruction.
Samuel Stebbins rode his bay mare west from Cape Girardeau searching for something. He wasn't sure what he was searching for but knew he'd know it when he found it. He had a few traps and his gun and that was enough. He was going to make a name for himself somewhere sure enough.
He had come from the East Coast, up near Rhode Island. He had recently read James Feminore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and felt he should be one of those who lived off the land. The area he was raised in was becoming too civilized for him so he bought the things he felt he needed and set out one fine Spring day. For some months he meandered across the country, seeking that which would sooth his restless soul. He traveled generally west by southwest and eventually made his was to the new state of Missouri.
Ten days out of St Louis he spied a fireplace standing tall on the prairie. It was abandoned he could tell. "Strong, built to last. Wonder why no one's here?" He had been a child when the New Madrid Earthquakes had occurred and knew nothing of them. He set out clearing the debris to begin a small cabin in order to beat the winter. Snows were fast approaching and within a few days he had a ramshackle shack built against the fireplace.
The creeks and rivers held beaver and fox, with enough bobcat thrown in to allow him a good winter's pay. For several years he held sway over his little kingdom, taking what he needed with no one around to give him trouble.
One morning in late winter 1839 he awoke to a strange sound. A gentle rumbling in the ground foretold of someone coming, a large number of somebodies. Taking his rifle from above the fireplace he opened the door and peered out. What he saw astonished him.
A long line of Indians, led by a few troops on spavined horses were trudging by his home. As he watched an old woman stumbled and fell, trampled by those following her. They were so tired they did not even have the energy to avoid her in the snow. Somewhere a baby cried, singing its sorrow to the world. But if the world heard, it cared not. These were the remnants of the once proud Cherokee, one of the Five Civilized Tribes. President Andrew Jackson had declared war upon them, driving them from their homes in the winter with nothing but the clothes on their backs, forcing them to walk through the cold winter some fifteen hundred miles or more to their newly appointed reservation in Indian Territory. One branch of the tribe had separated itself from the others and wound up here. It appeared as though there might be five hundred or so Cherokee, all clothed in tattered scraps of clothing, their once bright colors faded and dirty. He turned and went back inside to get some jerky intending to share his meager goods with those even less fortunate then he. But one of the officers held a leveled rifle at him, demanding he back away. These were enemies of the Government and as such not worthy of his food. He watched as they stumbled along, hungrily eying his offering, knowing that to take it meant certain death there on the plains. By night's fall they had disappeared far into the West, following the setting sun into oblivion.
He sat beside his fire that evening, snug and warm, and thought of those unfortunate souls driven into oblivion. His heart went out to them as he thought of the differences between the fancy of Cooper's works and the reality seen with his own eyes. How heartless some people were, so driven by greed and malice as to force the people he saw onto this trek towards a home they neither knew of nor wished for. Long into the night he sat thinking on this.
In the Spring of 1861, Stebbins was now an old man by the standards of the day. Some years over sixty he still lived alone, trapped and hunted for his sustenance. There were more people about nowadays, traveling West towards the sun. They brought news, news from the home he had left far behind. It was said a great war was coming, one that might separate the country into two distinct halves. Slaves were the issue according to most. The South desired slavery to continue while those in the North wanted freedom for those oppressed souls.
As the year moved along he continued to hear news of battles fought in far off places. Then the battles began to move westward, even coming closer to his cabin. In early August of 1861 Confederate forces swarmed his property, demanding he decide to join their cause or be driven from his home. As he held no slaves, nor had he known anyone with slaves he attempted to defer. They were not to be mollified and gave him a short minute to gather his things and exit the cabin. He grabbed what he could and climbed onto his old horse, watching as they set fire to his old homestead. The flames climbed high into the sky as they whooped and hollered, then dashed off towards Wilson's Creek. A few days later, while he was sheltering in Springfield he heard of a battle that had taken place along the hills and creek at Wilson's Creek.
He was there the day the Union soldiers staggered into Springfield, and was reminded of the day years before when the Cherokee stumbled by his home. The soldiers were beaten and bloodied, stumbling on tired feet carrying their wounded and dying with them. That was enough for him. He loaded his gear and took his sixty odd year carcass up into the saddle, making tracks for the mountains he had heard of far to the west. There wasn't enough space around here anymore for a man to live unencumbered.
1890's and Beyond
William Shore and his wife and children had left Springfield for the more open spaces of the prairie west of town. His buckboard held their every belonging as the oxen trudged along a half-seen trail to nowhere. He saw the fireplace in the distance, standing alone there in the dying sunlight and made for it. As darkness fell, they arrived at the location of what was once a log cabin but now consisted of nothing more than a tangle of brush grown up where a house had once stood. The ground told the story of a fire once upon a time, but that story was of a time long ago.
They set up camp beside the old fireplace that night and in the morning decided the grounds looked like it would support their large family. Four sons and six daughters rounded out the clan and he and the sons set out to cut sufficient timber to make a decent home. Loading it onto the wagon they walked alongside some miles back to where a sawmill stood and bartered with the owner to cut their trees into lumber for a portion of the wood. After two days of sawing they loaded up and headed back to the girls.
In a short time the house rose from the ashes. Two stories tall, with a luxurious four bedrooms, each ten feet by ten feet. A living room stood in front of the fireplace and a kitchen just off of it. He had returned to Springfield and purchased a newfangled stove that was fueled by wood. Set up in the kitchen and with cupboards and a table they felt like kings. A well stood a short distance from the home, with a privy standing some distance away.
Just to the north he built a barn and corral. To the south, where the land was slightly more level went the garden. Day and night they worked to make this a substantial farm and by Winter they had succeeded. In the Spring he broke more ground, enlarging the garden further. As evening came each day the family gathered by the light of the old fireplace to listen as Mother read from the Family Bible and Father told of the blessings they had received there on the place.
The years went by, each filled with both gladness and sadness. Mother died in 1922 and was buried beneath the tall White Oak tree beside the garden, where she had spent so many days hoeing and harvesting their crops. Father made it another two years, finally succumbing in the early Spring of 1924. The children grew and left home for their own families, all but the youngest, Mary. She held out for many years, a spinster with no hope of marriage or family. The rest of the nieces and nephews would gather annually between Thanksgiving and Christmas, journeying from far away places to the homestead for a family dinner.
Then, in the Summer of 1969, Mary followed her parents into that next life. The grand-nieces and nephews began to come less and less, instead staying put in the cities with their own families. The farm went into disrepair and the State took control of it. A new highway was planned, running from St Louis and beyond to Tulsa and further west. The house was demolished but for some strange reason, the fireplace left alone. One of Mary's original nieces would make the trek from McDonald County where her family had settled to the farm each Thanksgiving, and would hang a wreath upon the mantle there. As the years passed cars would fly by the fireplace and perhaps one out of a thousand cars would notice the fireplace, and perhaps one out of every thousand who saw it wondered about its story. Why was it still there? Who hung the wreath each year and for whom? How long had it stood there? Who built it?
Then one Winter's day one of those few who saw and wondered noticed the wreath was no longer being hung there during the holidays. He wondered if finally, the last vestige of those affiliated with the place had died, or perhaps become so infirmed as to not be able to travel there anymore. The fireplace stood tall and alone, with no one to comfort themselves in its warmth anymore and no one to even know who had lived, loved, and grown old there. The hearth which had warmed so many for so long lay cold and vacant, and the fireplace was truly alone.