Learning a lesson the hard way – Never, Ever Light a Fire on the Ground in an Old Barn


This is another “way back when I was just a kid” story that took place when I was about 12 years old in the 1950’s.  I used to hunt rabbits North of our town and on a blustery cold Saturday in January my buddy and I were about two miles North of town on a farm that was great for hunting rabbits.  The property was owned by family friends and there was an unoccupied farm house, a small pond and an old barn that had been empty for a number of years.  I remember the barn had a neat hay loft that sheltered owls and we would climb up in the loft and pick up the funny, furry pellets with little mouse skeletons inside that owls would regurgitate after they digested the good good mouse stuff.

The day was chilly when we started out walking North of town and as we came closer to midday we could see a line of clouds moving in and the wind was picking up and the colder, crisp air seemed to have a slight blue cast as it moved across the fields and the temperature seemed to drop about 20 degrees in a few minutes.  We had already shot a couple of rabbits and we stepped into the old barn to get out of the wind and decide if we wanted to hunt a little longer or turn around and head home with the gusty wind to our backs.  We were dressed that day for cool weather but not cold weather and while we had hats and light jackets we did not have gloves and our fingers were starting to get numb.

It was about then that I came up with the bright idea of starting a fire on the dirt just inside the front of the open barn door, out of the wind, so that we could warm our hands up a bit and hunt a little longer before we had to turn around and head for home.  We gathered up some small sticks and bits of wood and stacked it up with some tender and lighted our fire.   Soon the fire felt good and toasty but then we noticed that it was burning a bit stronger without adding more fuel.  I had never seen dirt burn but I had made fires out of dried cow patties (crap) and I recognized the funny burnt grass smell.

We had no idea that the entire dirt floor of the barn was decades old packed and dried cow manure when we started the fire but we suddenly decided this was not a good idea and it needed to be extinguished real fast so we started stomping on the fire which absolutely did no good at all.  Stomping on the barn floor even seemed to help the fire burn a bit hotter.  After the water we had left in our canteens was poured on the fire which just caused steam to rise up it dawned on us that we were really in a bind and we had to get the fire out as fast as possible.  We were lucky because there was a farm pond about fifty yards away and even though most of it was mud there was a bit of water in the center.

Both of us took off running for the pond and when we got there we ran through the mud, sinking up halfway to our knees and started filling our canteens with slimy, green, scummy water.  It took just seconds for us to figure out that we were running out of time so we took our hats off and filled them with water and rushed back up to the barn and poured the water on the fire.  About ten trips back and forth with a lot of slipping around in the muck and we finally had the fire under control and a few more trips after that and the fire was out.  We hung around a bit longer to make sure nothing was burning further down and we stirred up the wet mess of partially burned cow dung just to make sure.

We were not too happy when it was time to head back, we were glad the fire was out but we were chilled and wet, almost from head to toe and covered in muck and the wind was up more and it was  cold enough to make a frozen crust on our trouser legs.  Bareheaded we picked up our guns and rabbits and started a long cold walk home and we were  glad things had not worked out too bad since the fire had been put out.  Of course you might be wondering why a 12 year old might have matches.  It might be possible that from time to time, in those days, a kid might borrow a couple of cigarettes from a parent just to enjoy with a buddy on a Saturday morning.

About the Author

Joe McElyea
I am an original member and founder of the esteemed High Plains Shooting and Dining Society which is dedicated to fellowship of bird hunters and shooters who also enjoy finding great local places to eat large, unhealthy portions of breaded and fried meats and gravies washed down with the appropriate libations. I am also a retired old man who enjoys fishing, shooting and my wonderful family.