Riveredge lost a dear friend during this year’s maple sugarin’ season, Ernie Pochert. In remembrance, we offer this memoir to Ernie…. to “Father Fire.”
The hum of a car driving up the winding approach to the old stone house was almost a surprise. A sunny and warm spring afternoon was a great day for an Open House, but so far no one had appeared. I was new to the real estate business in the early 1980s and this was my first listing—a beautiful, cozy, historic old stone house on a curvy road, perfectly named Hilly Lane, way out in the country. A car door thunked shut and I stepped to the door to meet a slight, trim, grey-haired man with merry, smiling eyes. He introduced himself, Ernie, and his friendly wife, Loretta.
Old houses drew them out each Sunday on their search for just the right one. I was hoping Hilly Lane was a fit. It wasn’t. But this visit was the beginning of a long, pleasant, wide-ranging search together for their next home.
They lived on a hilltop in a modern house. From their comfortable home they could see sunrises and sunsets, look down on open fields and see deer grazing, even though the city wasn’t far away.
Ernie was recently retired from the phone company, AT&T. Their family was grown and they were ready for a change and willing to move almost anywhere in the area. Not a single old farmhouse or stone house for sale had escaped Ernie’s notice.
We fell into a pattern. I called him each week with new listings. He called me with FSBO’s (For Sale by Owners.) Soon we were running out of old houses to look at. A week or two might go by without a new one being listed. In the meantime they got ready to put their home on the market .
One afternoon we found it! The perfect place was an old farmhouse with many nooks and crannies and gleaming wooden floors, sitting in the midst of fields and trees. Ernie and Loretta were excited and we wrote an offer. We had noticed some foam insulation in the basement. That would need to be checked out.
In the early ‘80s there was a ban on UFFI , a type of expanding foam used in the late ‘70s to insulate hard to reach places. In response to the oil crisis in the ‘70s, people began paying attention to insulation as possible relief from the high oil costs. People claimed that Urea Formaldehyde Foam insulation made them sick. The ban was lifted in 1983, but the stigma created by the claims put it out of use.
The news came back about their farmhouse. The basement insulation was UFFI. What a disappointment. It was a deal breaker. We needed to start over, but at the moment there was nothing to look at.
About a month later I saw a new listing on the border of Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg, but it was a ranch style—not old historic or stone. I called to tell them about it, selling the setting, the trees and the added 370 acres of Riveredge. It was the opposite setting of their hilltop home as this one was tucked in amongst trees. Ernie always wanted to go house hunting. There hadn’t been much activity lately so he said, “Let’s take a look.”
To my surprise, this was the house! They loved it, even as they talked about redoing wallpaper and making some changes. There was the added attraction of a small cabin-like house on the property that would be perfect for their daughter, Carol. We wrote an offer, put their house up for sale and closed the transaction. Loretta gave me a framed homemade needlepoint of an antique coat rack—“Home is where you hang your hat.” My gift to them was a membership to the Nature Center next door.
Soon after, Ernie became a familiar sight at Riveredge, making friends, and helping with any odd job. A group of men called “Don’s Boys” came each week to help with sanctuary maintenance. Ernie could walk over any time and join them.
When Maple Sugaring time came in late February, Ernie was at the sugar bush every day, helping with the fire and making pancakes for the school children. He also began tapping the trees in his own yard.
Volunteers often wore twine necklaces with large wooden circles. They had names like Big Sap, Maple Mama, Syrup Slurper, Pickle Puss and Father Fire. Ernie began to regularly wear Father Fire.
He and the sanctuary manager, Don Gilmore, also known as Big Sap, had such good chemistry. An entertaining give and take developed between them as part of the school program at the evaporator. Ernie grew a trim grey beard and really looked like an ageless, diminutive Father Christmas, still with the twinkling eye. He became the master of the wood fire grill, knowing when it was just right for cooking the pancakes. He made thousands over the years.
The Riveredge teachers started to incorporate Father Fire into our dialogue when we approached the Sugar Shack. The first half of the class was spent in the woods, learning to identify maples and then tapping a tree. The second half began when we gathered near the Sugar Shack to see how maple syrup is made. The highlight at the end is one of Ernie’s pancakes, maple syrup and a pickle.
As we leave the woods and approach the Sugar Shack, we stop the children and tell them that Father Fire is up there waiting for us, but he is VERY old and hard of hearing. We don’t want to startle him and need to let him know we are coming. The children all call out as loud as they can, “Father Fire, are you ready?” Big Sap usually calls back to say that isn’t loud enough for Father Fire. He can’t hear. They then muster up all their loud voices and call again. Finally they get their answer, “Father Fire says come on up.”
The joking continues. Big Sap tells the children that Father Fire takes a bath in Maple syrup and that’s the reason he doesn’t look like he’s over 100 years old. The syrup acts like the beauty creams that their moms and sisters use. The reason he doesn’t hear very well is that the maple syrup baths clog his ears. Then Ernie perks up and approaches the children to ask, “Is he talking about me? Don’t believe what he tells you or you won’t get any pancakes.” By this time there are smiles all around, from the kids, the teachers and the chaperones. It’s all fun, which lasts until the children are on their way and call out a loud, “Thank you, Father Fire.” Ernie waves to them and says, “I always can hear the Thank Yous.”
A special treat at the Sugar Shack is sap tea. The fresh sap collected from the trees is boiled and boiled and boiled. It becomes sweeter as the water evaporates. After the children leave, Ernie offers tea, knowing exactly which part of the paneled boiling pan has the perfect sweetness. We offer a cup and he scoops the steaming sap according to our preference—very sweet, not so sweet. A plain old Lipton tea bag completes this cup of winter cheer. We all linger and chat, holding our tea in gloved hands, catching up on the outside world. Over the years we learn that Ernie loves his cabin up north; he still looks at old houses for sale; his granddaughter marries a classmate of my daughter’s; a great grandchild is born and Loretta is battling diabetes and loses a lower leg. Ernie always has a smile, but sometimes it’s a sad one.
Then came the day that Loretta didn’t wake up from a nap. She had slipped quietly away and Ernie was alone in the house in the woods.
In March of this year, I took my group of children to the fire, but Ernie wasn’t there. His health had taken a turn for the worse. There were several Father Fires doing it their own way. They seemed much too young. The pancakes were made on a gas grill. For awhile some were a little burned. The “script” didn’t work in the same way. The children still had a good time, but many classroom teachers remembered the old Father Fire and missed him, just as we did.
After the Sugaring season, at a special volunteer day, the name and tag of Father Fire was officially retired in Ernie’s honor, after more than 20 years. He was there to accept the Thank You’s.
This fall Ernie had a stroke. I hear that the little house in the woods will soon be for sale, but this time it will have some interesting history of its own. “ Once upon a time there was a Father Fire…………”