When I was Young No. 31 – Spontaneous Combustion

Spontaneous Combustion

Our coal furnace and coal bin were in the dirt floor cellar of the Wilber house.

Every winter morning I took the still warm, sometimes still glowing clinkers from the furnace fire pit with tongs and put them on the floor against the cellar wall. I was also responsible for taking the clinkers to a pile near the outhouse after they cooled. We kept the ashes in a separate pile to be put on the snow for a non-slip path to the road and to the outhouse. Sometimes, I would take a small still glowing clinker with the tongs, run up the stairs and pitch it into the snow to see how far down it would sink before it got too cool to melt the snow. The steam from hot clinkers or ashes on snow has a smell I have not forgotten.

One night the fire went out and it took me nearly an hour to ignite the lignite coal with pages from an outdated catalog soaked in kerosene. We didn’t have kindling wood.

I came up with what I thought was a clever idea based on some flawed observations made during my fire building experiences. Later that winter the night fire went out again and I initiated my idea.

Small, thin pieces of coal started easier than larger pieces, even if the larger pieces had thin edges. My inexperience logic was: if small chips ignited quicker than chunks, the fine coal dust would start even faster. I soaked some small chips and catalog pages with kerosene and started a small fire with some glowing clinker shards on the bottom of the firebox.

I sorted the coal residue on the floor into separate piles of dust and chips. My plan was to put coal dust on the starting fire to make it hotter and have a scoop of small chips ready to put on top of the burning coal dust. I scooped about a fourth of a shovel full of dust thinking that more than that might smother the “starter chips” in the firebox.

I pitched the dust into the firebox and turned to scoop up the chips.


I landed face first in the coal bin with a terrible ringing in my ears. I must have been propelled into the coal bin wall too. Several jars of vegetables were knocked off the shelves and broken.

Mother came running down but decided I was not hurt except for singed hair on the back of my head. She went back upstairs because the other six kids had been awakened by the sound. I still had to start the fire and clean up the broken jars and vegetable mess.

Years later I learned about grain elevator and sawmill dust explosions. Then, I understood what had happened.