Four Perish In Burning House
Mrs. Shelts And Three Children Lost In Fire At Evans
An explosion in a heating stove into which kerosene oil had been thrown to start a fire cost the lives of Mrs. J.W. Shelts and her three small children at Evans early Saturday morning, February 7. Mr. Shelts and Theodore Frost, brother of Mrs. Shelts, were dangerously burned but are expected to recover. The house was consumed by the flames in an incredibly short time.
The tragedy, the most serious in the history of the county, was enacted in a few terrible minutes at daybreak. Death had overtaken the four victims before the two men had time to realize what had happened. A few hours later, the ashes which had ceased to smolder around the wreckage of stoves and iron bedsteads, barely marked the spot. The four human bodies were nearly consumed in the flames.
Shelts and his family, and his brother-in-law, Frost, lived in a frame house a couple of hundred feet back from the county road perhaps an eighth of a mile west of the Evans station. Shelts worked on the railroad section gang under Foreman W.R. Breshears, who lived near by. Other close neighbors were C.F. Whitehead and Mark Harris.
Mrs. Shelts had been in poor health and early Saturday morning complained of being cold. She lay in a bed with an iron bedstead in the northeast, corner of the house, with her baby, Robert, a little past three months of age, at her side. The two other children, James, aged 3, and Florence, 2, lay sleeping in an iron crib with high sides, which was close to the other bed.
A sheet iron heating stove stood near the middle of the room, at the foot of the two beds. Shelts and Frost, arose at about 5:30 and Shelts tried to start up the fire in the heater while Frost went to the barn. The wood was green or damp and did not blaze up briskly altho it was smoldering in the bottom of the stove.
To hasten the fire, Shelts threw in a dash of kerosene, he said afterward. Almost instantly a violent explosion shook the room. The stove appears to have been blown apart and flames, oil and gas filled the room. Shelts bolted from the door, or was blown out by the blast, and the flames prevented his getting back to save his family.
Frost came running up at this moment and frantically broke in the window near the beds. Seeking to enter, he fell in and found himself in an inferno of flame. Shelts helped pull him out and Frost ran, with his clothing in flames, toward a plot of plowed ground in the yard and threw himself down and rolled on the soft, earth, seeking to extinguish the fire.
The cries of the men had been heard by neighbors but had not been taken seriously at first. Then the light of the fire was seen. Frances Breshears and her smaller brother, Vernon, dressed hastily and ran towards the Shelts house. She met Shelts who was wringing his hands, which had been burned very seriously. The house was burning savagely and Shelts said Frost was on fire and had disappeared and he feared he had been killed also.
In the field the girl and boy saw something burning and they ran to it. At the same time Mr. and Mrs. Harris ran from their house on the north and they hurriedly tore and cut Frost’s garments from him. Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead and daughters, Marie and Margaret, came from their home a few minutes later and other neighbors arrived. The men received such first aid as could be given but nothing could be done to save the occupants of the house, nor the building itself.
It burned like a huge bonfire until the light, wooden walls fell and all was consumed. No one ever will know what happened inside in the brief moments following the explosion and before kindly unconsciousness had robbed Mrs. Shelts and her babies of sense. The charred remains of the four bodies were found inside the wreckage of the iron bedsteads showing that none of them had moved from their sleeping postures.
Dr. J.B. Gregory was called form Wallowa and he took the two men to his hospital. Later they were taken by the railroad company to the La Grande hospital. Coroner C.L. Booth arrived from Enterprise in the early morning and he gathered up the few blackened remnants of the human bodies and removed them to the undertaking rooms. They were sealed together in one casket, and funeral services were held at the undertaking chapel at 10 o’clock Tuesday morning, with a short service by Rev. G.L. Matlock. Burial was in the Enterprise cemetery.
Deborah Frost was born in Kansas, Jan. 18, 1900., and so was just past 25 years of age. She was married to James Wellington Shelts at Yakima, Wash., nearly five years ago, and they came to Wallowa county shortly afterward. Their three children were born in Lostine: James Wellington, Jr., Florence Mabel, and Robert Thomas.
Mrs. Shelts is survived by her father, L.D. Frost., five sisters and two brothers: Mrs. J.R. Cary of Norfolk, Neb.; Mrs. E.V. Yarbrough of North Bend,; Mrs. Oscar Christenson of Salem; Mrs. R.R. Graves of Yakima; Bonnie Jean Frost of Snohomish, Wash.; Theodore Frost who lived with her; and Terrence Frost who is in the army.
Mrs. Shelts was a member of the Christian church, having united with that body several years ago.
Mr. Shelts is 36 years old and is a son of Mr. and Mrs. Parker Shelts, who moved to Lostine from Summerville two weeks ago. They came to Oregon ten years ago. Their other children, all living near Lostine, are Perry and George Shelts, Mrs. Harley Courtney and Gertrude Shelts.
Enterprise Record Chieftain, Front page, Thursday, March 12, 1925