Amid charred rubble, Hilton family's antique piano still stands

Feb. 01, 2013 @ 06:15 AM

Three people and five dogs escaped into the pouring rain Wednesday evening as flames engulfed their house. Still inside were one tiny dog and an antique Kholer and Campbell upright piano, a treasured family heirloom.

Firefighters rescued the dog.

The piano stayed put, within feet of the kitchen stove where the fire began, but somehow survived. Little else in the house remained unburned, save for a closet-full of clothing that now reeks of wood smoke.

“That piano survived because it was my grandmother’s," said 52-year old Shelia Hilton, who with her brothers Randy and Bobby Joe Jr. grew up in that house. "I’m sure of it.”

The old single-story house had survived since the Great Depression. From 1935, it occupied a corner lot at the intersection of Pinewood Road and Dudley Shoals Road in Granite Falls. It was not the first house on the site, but the original homestead burned to the ground, giving then-owner Clyde Shafter Kirby a chance to rebuild. His daughter, Linda, spent 67 of her 72 years in that house. Since the death of her husband, Bobby Joe, in 2008, she has lived next door with son Bobby Joe Jr.

Randy Hilton and his girlfriend, Judy Welch, and her 15-year-old daughter, Sierra, lived there until about 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Hilton had just returned from his sister’s Longview home, where he fixed a toilet that wouldn’t quit running. He shuffled into the kitched, filled a cooking pot with oil and threw in some frozen french fries, then went to the bedroom where Welch lay sleeping and plopped down on the bed to relax. Sierra was in another bedroom. Before long, Welch woke to see black smoke filling the air.

“She shook me and said, 'Randy, what have you done?'” he said. “There’s smoke coming from the kitchen.”

In a panic, Hilton vainly searched for baking soda to throw on the fire to douse it, but the flames quickly grew out of control. He called 911, then he, Welch and Sierra gathered the dogs and fled. Outside, they realized their small mixed-breed pooch, a basset hound/dachshund mix named Tiny, was still inside. Sawmills firefighters arrived to find the house fully aflame yet were able to rescue Tiny and turned her over to emergency workers, who gave her oxygen.

Caldwell Fire Marshal Robbie Wilkie said the entire house suffered fire, smoke or heat damage. Damages were estimated at $40,000.

Hilton returned to what remained of the house Thursday to salvage what he could. Stepping over and around the charred rubble covering the floor, he inched his way through the house. The cooking pot still sat on the stove. The acrid smell of smoke hung heavy in the air.

“My mind’s everywhere right now,” he lamented. “I grew up in that house. It’s been home to me forever.”

Amid the ashes stood the piano, as if waiting for someone to play it, like in the old days. The old upright was a wedding gift to Lala Harwell Kirby, Clyde’s new bride, in 1935, the same year the house was built. Lala passed on her love of gospel music to grand-daughter Shelia Hilton, 52, who spent hours practicing favorites such as “In the Garden,” a gospel song written by American songwriter C. Austin Miles, or “Amazing Grace.” The piano now belongs to Shelia, but her apartment is too small for it.

The dogs stay next door with Linda and Bobby Joe Jr. Randy, Welch and Sierra found temporary shelter at the Red Roof Inn in Lenoir, thanks to the American Red Cross. Soon, the place they called home will no longer occupy the corner lot where it once stood for nearly 80 years.

Shelia Hilton will find a home for the piano.