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Couple Sacrifice Home to Firefighter Training

Couple Sacrifice Home to Firefighter Training

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Chicago Tribune via Yellowbrix

May 22, 2010

SUMMERFIELD, Ill. – The little dogs — Zipper and Molly — barked their heads off. Ruby Widicus looked out her kitchen window in the rainy darkness at 5 a.m. recently and could just make out several fire trucks.

The firefighters were parked at the end of the quarter-mile-long driveway to a farmhouse off St. Jacob/Summerfield Road where she and her husband of 58 years, Kenneth, call home.

“When the dogs kept barking I thought I’d better get up and look. The yard was full of fire trucks. I knew the time had come.”

Right on schedule, the firemen arrived to burn down a much older and abandoned farmhouse at the edge of the yard, a brick structure dating from the 1830s, with a large, wood frame addition from the 1850s. Until recently, it sat about 50 yards from the couple’s current home.

Ruby Widicus was born Ruby Seibert in the old farmhouse 83 years ago and grew up in it. The familiar old building loomed just behind a knot of firemen, busy laying hose.

Their decision to destroy the old home, where Ruby’s earliest memories were born, didn’t come easy to the couple. It was based on unrepairable termite damage and property tax bills that never went away.

By destroying the old house, the couple hope to reduce their annual St. Clair County tax bill of $4,200 by maybe a fourth, or about $1,000. Just this fall, a county assessor visited the property and spent more than an hour measuring the old homestead, which has been vacant for years.

“It didn’t matter to him that nobody has lived there since my mother died 20 years ago. You still have to pay taxes on it,” Ruby Widicus said. Her husband agreed.

In exchange for allowing several local fire departments to train for several weeks in the abandoned home, the firemen agreed to safely burn the structure to the ground. That left only the clean-up costs, which were far lower than the estimated $10,000 it would cost to have a private contractor demolish the structure.

“You get sick and tired of looking at it. It’s depressing to see it get run down,” she said of the first home she had known.

But the controlled burn wouldn’t start for several hours. The fire departments, led by the Lebanon/Emerald Mound Fire Department, used smoke bombs to simulate emergencies and let their men practice getting in and out of the old house.

Then, about 11 a.m., they set fire to the earlier brick structure attached to the rear of the farmhouse which once was home to a physician and his brother.

Archaeologist Floyd Mansberger, who heads Fever River Research of Springfield, visited the 19th century home a few months ago and studied its construction.

Mansberger said he is sure that famed British novelist Charles Dickens, who visited the Mermaid House hotel in 1842 in nearby Lebanon, probably saw the little brick house, which then stood alone, when he rambled about the countryside. Dickens may even have remembered it when he wrote about “crude” American homes in the book he wrote about his trip to America, “American Notes.”

“It was far from a crude house,” said Mansberger, “it was a well-built, two-room brick home with two fireplaces. I’m sure Dickens would have seen it. He called these houses crude. … He should have stayed home.”

Mansberger, a strict preservationist, said there was no way to save the old home because of termite damage.

“I’ve never seen termite damage to this extent,” he said, “every board was infested.”

When the flames erupted in the attic of the wood frame home, Ruby Widicus said taxes or no taxes, it was hard to watch. Still, she took photos with a small camera.

“I was still a little sad. But we needed to get rid of it. For me, it was watching all those years go up in smoke. All those years so far back, me and my family.”

But a day later she posed happily in front of the still smoking ruins.

“It had to be done,” she said, “There’s no going back.”