Family celebrates discovery of beloved heart-shaped rock after 2020 wildfire destroyed Breitenbush cabin

Updated: Dec. 10, 2021 at 12:06 PM PST
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DETROIT Ore. (KPTV) - (KPTV) - Historic wildfires devastated the Santiam Canyon in 2020, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres in national forests and leveling entire communities.

Throughout the cleanup process, crew members have recovered incredible things from underneath the rubble to return to families. Sometimes it’s the most unassuming objects that hold the most value. That became true for the Seaton family, who owned a cabin in the Breitenbush area, east of Detroit.

Breitenbush No. 9 was one of a few dozen cabins built in the Willamette National Forest in the mid-1900s.

The area was remote, serene and surrounded by 100-foot-tall pine trees. It was the perfect getaway for Clayton and Oleta Seaton and their five children.

“No sirens, no talking, no additional noise from the outer areas like cars and trucks and what not,” Clayton said.

No electricity or running water, either. And the Seatons kept it that way, even after rebuilding the cabin from the ground up in the early 2000s.

“It was very peaceful, very peaceful,” Clayton said.

A stone mason by trade, Clayton made sure the cabin was a reflection of the family and the beautiful scenery around it. The entire family pitched in during the construction process, using stones from the river and downed trees on the property.

“We milled out those gigantic, and I mean gigantic trees, into the wood to build the cabin,” daughter Shelly Seaton explained.

A uniquely shaped river rock - about five inches in diameter - became a part of the walking path to the outhouse in the backyard.

“There’s thousands of tons of rock out there, and that’s the only heart stone I ever saw,” Clayton said.

Clayton described the stone as an almost perfectly symmetrical heart, formed naturally by the river. The family eventually moved the rock to a more prominent place in the cabin after Oleta started to develop dementia.

“We decided to put it in the fireplace, so I told my wife I put the stone up there because that’s my heart and you can see it up there in the fireplace and you can remember that I love you,” Clayton said.

Clayton and Oleta met in high school and were married for more than 70 years. The symbol of their love became the focal point of the cabin’s gathering space - the heart of the hearth.

“I projected it out from the face of the stone so it was more visible,” Clayton said.

Even in his eighties, Clayton hadn’t lost his touch and artistry with stone. He worked as a stone mason for decades before retiring.

In September of 2020, only two years after the Seatons finished rebuilding their cabin, the Lionshead Fire swept through the canyon and destroyed it, along with many others.

“It just rips your heart out because we just put so much into that,” Shelly said.

The family’s heart was in every part of that cabin, but a single piece pulsed the strongest. Shelly was determined to find the heart stone for her dad, going back twice to where the cabin once stood to look for it.

“It was all rubble, it was all rubble, and we were moving rubble and there was just nothing,” Shelly said.

Shelly says she reached out to ODOT crews who were doing cleanup in the area for help. It didn’t take much convincing to get a search party organized.

“It just became this huge motivation for me, like no, we’re not done until we’re done,” ODOT on-scene incident commander, Drake McKee, said.

A small group including Drake, Shelly and a couple others met at the site on a rainy November day to dig through debris. Contractor Steven Gardner helped pinpoint where to look, since he was the one who had to tip the chimney after the wildfire.

“We used the excavator first, and then we got out some picks,” Steven explained.

The process was slow-going. After more than an hour of searching, Shelly remembers seeing Steven, down about a foot and a half in the rubble, throw his pickaxe to the ground.

“I hear him gasp,” Drake said.

Steven said he picked up a smooth, heart-shaped stone.

“I turned around and said ‘this must be it’ and that was when all the tears started flying,” Steven said.

The stone was intact, with no chips or cracks in it, Shelly said. It just had a newfound sheen on its front face from the heat of the fire.

Courtesy: Seaton family
Courtesy: Seaton family(KPTV)

“I burst into tears,” Shelly said.

She wasn’t the only one. Shelly and her siblings decided to wait until around Thanksgiving to reveal to Clayton what they had found.

In the video the family recorded at home of the surprise, you can hear Clayton gasp and see his face light up as he pulls the stone out of a wrapped box saying, “You did find it!”

After hearing about the recovery efforts, Clayton said it was the fact that so many strangers wanted to help his family that touched his heart the most.

“How many people - over a rock,” Clayton said.

Now, that rock has one more layer to it.

“I will look at that rock and think of those what six, five people involved and I’ll be thankful to them for the rest of my life,” Clayton said.

When the time comes, Clayton says he wants the heart stone incorporated into his and Oleta’s final resting place.

The family will still have a heart stone to pass down and tell this story, though, thanks to the ODOT crew that helped them. In the middle of the search efforts when things were looking grim, Shelly says a crew member found a smaller heart-shaped stone that she gave her in case they couldn’t find the original.