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Keeping the Hearth Fire Burning

Back in the 1770s or 1780s, a man named John Morris built a house in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.  Using flint and steel, John Morris started a fire in his fireplace.  And nobody knows why, but it became a point of pride in the Morris household not to let that fire go out.  When John built another cabin for his family later on, coals from the original fire were transplanted to the fireplace of the new house.  Members of the Morris family proudly declared that they would keep the fire going, to honor the wishes of John, who had charged his family, "The fire must never be allowed to go out."

That fire became the catalyst for passing down family history through the generations.  In the 1920s, the care of the fire rested with one man, William Morris --the great-great-grandson of John Morris.  William had never married or had children, and he was nearing eighty.  He tried to inspire his nieces and nephews with tales of the family fire, but none of them seemed interested in keeping the fire alive after William was gone.  The fire was 150 years old by now.  It marked a proud family tradition, one that everyone in the area admired.  Would that tradition end once William died?

William took it upon himself to see that it didn't.  From an interview in the Spartanburg Herald, his story spread to newspapers all over North Carolina.  William was invited to Washington, D.C., to tell the story over a national radio program.  He began getting phone calls and letters from all over the country, many from people with the last name Morris.  The National Park Service considered buying William's cabin, fireplace and all, and moving it to one of their national parks, where it could become a tourist attraction and the park rangers could tend to the fire.  By now the "Saluda fire," named after the town where William Morris lived, had sparked the public imagination.
Preserving the Saluda fire seemed like a noble undertaking.

One day, not long after the publicity stir over the fire had started, one of William's neighbors came to see him.  The neighbor, Hamp Alexander Owen, had only one thing to say that day, "I've come to tell you that I'll keep your fire going." Owens wasn't doing it for the publicity or the glory.  He just admired the legacy, and believed that it was worth preserving.

We don't know when William Morris died.  But when Hamp Alexander Owens died in 1948, his obituary stated that he was "the keeper of the Saluda fire."

The fire itself had been burning continuously for more than 170 years.  But that is the last record anyone has of the Saluda fire.  Did it die out?  Or is it still burning somewhere, tended by some anonymous soul who believes in what it stands for?  We just don't know.

- From Gary Carden & Nina Anderson, Belled Buzzards, Hucksters, and Grieving Specters, Appalachian Tales  (Asheboro, NC Down Home Press, 1994), pp. 151-153.

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