One Fine Autumn Afternoon at the City Hotel
This is a work of historical fiction grounded in the facts as catalogued in My Woman Warrior . This is just one incident in my 2nd great grandmother’s life. It is my first attempt at historical fiction, so be kind. At the end I will briefly talk about my process.
Mrs. Catherine Adeline Mosier ran a tight ship. Lunch for full board guests of the CIty Hotel in Dodge was promptly served at half past one, as it always was on weekdays. This being a Tuesday, it would be promptly at half past. She knew her honeymooning couple would be starving as they had not been down for breakfast, nor requested a tray. She simultaneously grinned and said a “tusk, tusk” to herself when thinking on it. Her daughter Emma was married in this very hotel six years ago and her daughter Anna five years, next month. My how time flies she thought. Wonderful smells coming from the kitchen quickly ended her reverie. She went to check on the fresh apple cake she was serving for desert, with warm cream of course. It was her first cake of the season from her Cox’s Orange Pippin trees from out on her husband’s farm. The orchard was planted nine years ago, in 1886, when they bought the farm outside of Dodge. The apples were producing nicely and this years crop was the best yet.
Today’s lunch fare featured Catherine’s own pea soup and squash biscuits, as well as some fine sausage, homemade breads, jams and preserves. Mr. Arnold, one of her regular travelling salesmen, was always good at entertaining the other guests and today was no exception. However, our newlyweds seemed more interested in each other than Mr. Arnold’s exciting tales of adventure. There were two couples who would be headed out tomorrow. Mr. Arnold had his wares set up in Catherine’s sample room. They included books, stationary, fine fabrics, linens, notions, jewelry, watches, perfumes and even some crystal. These always attracted some of the local merchants, farmer’s wives, as well as those staying at the hotel. It was a lucrative arrangement for both Mr. Arnold and Catherine. He got a discount on lodging and she got a discount on all her purchases plus a small percentage of his sales.
This September afternoon was particularly warm, with temperatures expected to reach the upper 80’s. The only thing that kept them from sweltering was the rather robust breeze that was turning downright gusty. Catherine watched as the lace curtains began dancing rather vigorously in the wind and decided to close the sash windows to the south and west as it seemed a storm might be brewing. As she reached up to close the window she caught the acrid smell of fire. Followed moments later by the rigorous clanging of the fire bell. “What can it be now?”, she thought. Walking out onto the front porch and looking down the street she could see the billows of dark smoke and flames being whipped about by the wind. People came running and shouting, “get out, get out now!” In the moments that she had stood there it seems the fire consumed the block between them.
As she entered the dining room the guests were already headed outside to see what the commotion was about. Catherine quickly exited out back, rushed across the small yard, unlatched the gate, and urged her chickens to flee for their lives. Meanwhile, Mr. Arnold had wasted no time in gathering up as much as he could and was dragging two large trunks onto the porch and down the front steps. Most of the other guests grabbed their bags as best they could and quickly moved down the street to be further away from the encroaching flames. Catherine slipped the crystal and silver salt and pepper shakers from the side board into her deep pockets. They had been a wedding gift from her grandfather Daniel Stewart. She clutched the guest registers in her arms and glanced around her hotel knowing it might be the last time she did. Some made efforts to pull as much out of the buildings as they could. Mr. Arnold was back and helped her move a few things outside; a side table, a mantle clock and several ornate lamps. Catherine found it hard to choose what to save. She took one last look, sighed heavily and joined her guests down the street. She looked at the watch pinned to her breast it read 2:17 and wondered to herself, why she was checking it.
Even though the fire was still half a block away the smoke was causing her eyes to water heavily. It looked as if she was crying and many people were, but Catherine stood stoically as she watched the flames licking their lips at the back of the hotel where the sample rooms were being consumed by a fire breathing monster. She comforted herself having seen her hens headed to a nearby cornfield. All you could do was watch mesmerized by the flames. Even the hook and ladder truck and fireman stood silently watching the beast devour everything in its path. There was no water and the wind was a gale making short work of it for the monster.
It seems it was over almost as quickly as it began. All that was left of Dodge was smouldering, steaming, rubble. Aside from 3 brick buildings that were saved and a wagon here and there with a tumble of furniture and wares there was nothing left where the town of Dodge once stood. Some 50 business and 16 homes were gone! Just like that! Only one person had been injured in the fire, she was grateful for that. Joe Wiesner had a badly blistered arm from trying to pull goods from his store as it was being engulfed in flames. “Silly man,” she thought. Catherine mused this must be what it looks like after a tornado, although she had never seen one. She was circumspect; yes she could rebuild but she had no insurance. It was exorbitantly expensive so few had insurance and even those that did were underinsured. She hadn’t noticed how exhausted she was. She enjoyed running the hotel, she liked the changing kaleidoscope of visitors, but at 66 she was getting tired. It had been a good eight years at the hotel, perhaps she needed a rest. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. She knew this all too well.
Husband John showed up in his wagon having seen the smoke from the farm. He was devastated. All he could think about was the money and how the sample rooms he had helped to build were in ashes. He was talking about rebuilding the hotel in brick. Meanwhile Catherine was thinking of where she might live—surely not with John—full time? She liked the Hotel precisely because it gave her just the right excuse to be away. There were rumors that the Railroad had started the fire and another that it started in the hay barn at the livery. Catherine didn’t much care. Friends and family were gathering and neighbors from nearby towns of Snyder, Clarkson and Howells as well as larger North Bend were bringing food and household goods. Catherine was lucky she had her home and farm to return to. She had lost her livelihood, but not her life. She turned back once to look at where her lovely hotel had stood then climbed up into the wagon and fixed her eyes on the sun, slipping below the horizon.
It started with the word “acrid” which I couldn’t get out of my head as I stared with the horror at the War being waged on Ukraine and feeling helpless. Ideas occasionally surfaced and a story started to take shape. Then I woke up early one morning and managed to fall back to sleep. In that dream state more images materialized. Once I had the basic outline in my head I revisited articles about travelling salesmen, sample houses, newspaper accounts of the Dodge fire, old cook books and menus etc to make sure what I was writing was historically accurate. I tried to give Catherine a voice that was consistent with her life. All the events are fictionalized. I hope they do her justice. A note on the flower picture—I just thought it needed a flower photo. I did not know its meaning at the time but the photo is of Hypericum [St. John’s Wort] which literally means above a picture and comes from the tradition of hanging plants over images, pictures, or windows. Furthermore common folklore suggests it wards off evil influences and protects against harmful, unseen forces.
Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights reserved.
That was very good! Acrid is a sharp word. My house caught on fire when I was 7 and for years I would remember the acrid smell, though I didn’t know there was a word for it. This story reminded me of the New Year’s Eve fire by Denver, close to where I live. So sad. 1000 homes destroyed that night. It costs so much to rebuild here in Colorado and with the new building codes, I think many will just leave.
It’s funny how just one word can speak to all our senses. Having lived through several round of fire here and watching the images of war really made the whole thing real to me. I imagine that memory of your house on fire is indelible. Hope you write about it for your friends and family.
A dramatic story well told! Thank you for sharing the lead up to writing that story; it is always a treat to glimpse what was in the writer’s mind that prompted the story. I used that strategy in a recent post of mine
Thank you Carole. It was a departure from my usual writing. And yes, I think the process is important. I don’t force myself to write. I used to write a lot of poetry and it came out of the need to express something to difficult to hold inside. The conjunction of researching Catherine’s life and the horrors of the Ukrainian Genocide needed an outlet.