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Century of history, memories consumed by Palmer house fire

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DIANA BUCKLEY
Ellis County Press
PALMER — An ancient wrought-iron fence, in some places twisted by intense heat, stands solemn sentry duty before the heaped remains of a piece of Palmer's history.

Fallen walls, ashen timbers, mangled pipes and bedsprings are all piled together. Here and there flutters a page or two of some charred book or magazine, juxtaposed against a discarded soda can which somehow looks incongruously clean.

Atop it all rides a soot-stained, claw-footed bathtub, perched precariously at an angle and looking for all the world like some nursery-rhyme tub headed out to sea.

Jennifer Thomas, a Palmer City Council member, and husband Travis owned the home.

'If I could talk about one thing,' said Ms. Thomas; 'It would be about what our fire and police departments did. If they had not done what they did, we would have lost a whole block.'

As it was, during the afternoon hours of Tuesday, Sept. 19, numerous small fires were started in the area by blowing embers. Winds of 25 miles per hour and tinder-box conditions caused by the drought made the fight extremely touchy. Palmer's volunteer fire department was assisted by firefighters from Ferris, Red Oak, Bristol and Ovilla.

'Chief McElhaney's son lost (to the fire) a utility trailer and some wood he was going to build a deck with,' said Don Huskins, a neighbor. 'While he was up there fighting that fire.'

Thomas said Palmer Chief of Police Stephen Sparks tried to break down the back fence to get in and save the family's three dogs, but he had to turn back when the soles of his shoes caught on fire. All three dogs were lost in the blaze, which took only minutes to engulf the entire structure. Two cats are still unaccounted for.

Tuesday began like any other day for Thomas. She went to Dallas to work. Having recently booked a cruise as an early birthday surprise for her husband, she shopped after work for decorations for a Hawaiian Luau to be held at the house.

'I stopped off at the house, opened the front door and set the stuff inside,' Thomas said. 'Then I jumped back in the car, headed for Waxahachie to look for some hollow fruit.'

Before she could drive all the way to Waxahachie, Thomas received a call from friend and neighbor Lori Huskins.

'She said, ‘Your house is gone,'' Thomas recalled. 'I thought she just didn't know. I thought we'd have a lot of damage, but it wouldn't be gone. But when I got here, it was gone.'

Thomas shook her head, unable to fathom how the house could have been so quickly consumed. Some theorize the fire may have been smoldering inside the house when Thomas opened the front door, giving it the draft of oxygen it needed to erupt into a six-alarm blaze.

Built in 1884 by Dr. James Lassiter Everett, the first physician in Ellis County, the house had been occupied by the original family until 1980.

'It belonged to my grandparents,' recalls Sallie Jane Biehler, the last family member to live there. 'J.L. Everett originally had the house built. The lumber was cypress, and it was hauled in from Louisiana. Grandfather designed (the house), erected it and everything.'

Biehler went on to say she had grown up in the house.

'My mother and father separated and divorced when I was six years old, and we went there to live (with my grandparents),' she said. 'I lived there ‘til I married in ‘49. Mother inherited the house in ‘54 from grandmother. Then I inherited it from my mother in '67. My husband and I returned there to live, lived there until '80, when I sold it, and we came back to Waxahachie to live.'

Biehler was moved to tears discussing the loss and recalled numerous social gatherings and even sleepovers held there in her youth. One of her fondest memories, she said, was of her grandmother teaching her to make teacakes, or sugar cookies.

'Grandmother and mother were the greatest cooks in the world, ' Biehler said. 'We canned every summer. Grandmother had a little three-eyed range and about four canners. We had a huge screened-in across the rear, and we would sit out there and shell peas, shuck corn, can vegetables and fruits all summer long.'

There was a cellar, out behind the house, full of all sorts of canned fruits and vegetables. The family killed hogs every year at the first cold spell. 'We canned those hogs,' recalled Biehler, 'And good ol' cured hams! Oh man, I wish I had some of that good food now.'

The house, which stood on Jefferson Street near the center of town, was a landmark to all the community.

'There was an N.L. Everett, just a little older than I was,' recalled former Palmer resident J.Q. Williams. 'He had a little paint pony, black and white, and it was trained to kneel down, and roll over, and do all kinds of tricks.'

Williams said the blacksmith shop was located next to the house, and he remembers accompanying his father there and seeing N.L. working with his pony in the front yard.

Present-day residents would frequently stop by to see the improvements being made by the Thomas family. Thomas and her mother had made a tradition of decorating the house to the hilt for each holiday and season, and folks would call or stop on the street and ask, 'What are you going to do for Christmas?'

After the fire, residents have offered every kind of comforting word and physical assistance. Even people not personally known by the family have contacted friends to offer help. Many have shed tears at the loss.

'I don't want to say it was everything to us,' Thomas said of the house, 'but it meant a lot.'

The house had become the focal point of family gatherings, including two weddings in the recent past.

'My father-in-law died working on the house,' Thomas said. 'People don't really understand - it wasn't just a house. There were a lot of memories tied up in it.'

For now, the family is living with neighbors, trying to replace physical necessities such as clothing, and working with insurance investigators trying to determine the cause of the fire.

Palmer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ricky McElhaney said Palmer does not have the resources for a thorough investigation, and the state fire marshall's office apparently limited its investigation to determining whether or not the fire was criminal.

'We're going to rebuild right here,' Thomas said. 'I'm going to decorate my iron fence, and that Christmas tree is going up.'

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