Wednesday, October 10, 2012

We're Burning Up, Send Us Help Quick

From the Peshtigo Times October 1971 (see not below)

As the fires were burning throughout Wisconsin, some telegraphs did go out before the lines were cut by fire.  The response was immediate and long lasting and came not only from people in Wisconsin, but throughout the United States and even from abroad.  The worst fire in American history (that you've probably never even heard of unless you were educated in Wisconsin or read my blog) was responded to by so many and began with the governor's wife.  While he was in Chicago helping them, the Peshtigo fire erupted and the telegram that arrived at the governor's mansion could only be place in the hands of the governor's 24 year old wife....

"Governor's Wife Starts Big Relief Effort Rolling

'We are burning up; send us help quick.'

So read the telegram sent to Gov. Lucius Fairchild Monday, Oct. 9, 1871.  Similar telegrams were sent to the mayors of Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago.

The result -- a tidal wave of food, clothing, lumber, medicine, and cash sent from throughout the nation and Europe.

All cities which received telegrams, with the exception of Chicago which was also the victim of fire Oct. 8, 1871 responded immediately to the plea for help.

Fairchild was in Chicago aiding that city with its relief efforts when the message of disaster in his own state arrived at the capitol.

An elderly clerk received the telegram and not knowing what to do ran to the governor's house and gave the message to Mrs. Fairchild.

Though she was less than 24 years old she did not lack initiative.  Immediately after reading the message she was on her way to the capitol.

'Once there she took charge of everything and everybody, and they all obeyed her.' recalled her daughter, Mrs. Charles M. Morris several years later.

A relief train scheduled for Chicago was redirected north to Peshtigo after she had stuffed the already bulging car with blankets.

The young lady's one day in command as governor ended when her telegram to Chicago brought the governor and his state officers back to Madison.

The attention of the whole nation was on Chicago at that time but Fairchild's appeal opened people's eyes to the fact that though Chicago was suffering the situation in Peshtigo was infinitly (sic) worse.

Relief committees were immediately organized in Green Bay, Marinette, Menominee, and Oconto.  Green Bay functioned as the central depot and two stores were used for sorting and repacking supplies. It was soon apparent that one central committee was not sufficient and another was established at Milwaukee.  The burned region was partitioned off with Manitowoc county, towns of Kewaunee, Ahnepee, Monteplier, Pierce, Lincoln in Kewaunee county, Forestville, Clay Banks, Sturgeon Bay in Door County and Menominee, Mich. supplied by Milwaukee.  The other areas, including Peshtigo, were supplied from Green Bay.

Subcommittees were established in almost every village in the area for distributing the goods.  In Peshtigo the depot was headed by F. J. Bartels.

The Milwaukee Relief committee served 377 destitute families, consisting of 1,509 persons as of Feb. 1, 1872.  Green Bay handled the heaviest amount of losses, supplying 1,157 families or 5, 678 persons with supplies necessary for survival.

'The nature of the losses may be described in a few words.  Besides the losses of life of human beings and animals, in that portion of the district where the fire was most severe, houses, barns and fences were all swept away, together with the crops, the grass roots were burned out, the timber entirely destroyed, and not a vestige of anything left upon which men or animals could subsist.  So utter was the destruction, that the earth must remain for years a barren desert waste, unless seeded anew with grass.  Much of the riches soil was alluvial deposit, and this, particularly in swampy places, was destroyed, the earth burning in some instances to the depth of two or three feet, leaving nothing but sand and ashes where the best land had been.  Under these circumstances, it will be seen that the aid extended will have to be continued during an entire year from the date of the calamity, or until another harvest is secured.  In the spring and summer, seeds, agricultural implements, cattle, horses and wagons must be provided, in order to put the people who go back upon their farms -- as most of the survivors have -- in a condition to help themselves.  Then the bridges and culverts on the roads must be rebuilt, and it is plain that in a town in which every surviving inhabitant lost every dollar he possessed, it is impossible for the town to do this work unaided,' wrote Tilton.

And aided they were.

'Perhaps a calamity so terrible may be partly, or even more than compensated for by the outburst of generosity and the unsealing of the fountains of humanity which had so long been stored up and grown over in the greed of wealth and its attendant selfishness.  Men, who had spent their lives in the pursuit of money turned short in their career and opened their hearts and their purses to their suffering brethren.' wrote C. D. Robinson in the legislative Manual of Wisconsin shortly after the fire.

From the Peshtigo Times centennial edition 1971 (see note below)

The destitute were generously aided by cash contribution, tools, lumber, seeds and general supplies.  They were encouraged to rebuild in the same locality by being given contributions in lumber, cash, and tools to do so.  Only 2 per cent of the survivors burned out in the fire never returned according to the report of the Green Bay Relief Committee made Dec. 31, 1872 by A. Langworthy, chairman executive committee of relief.

Cash contributions as well as material goods were received throughout the year following the fire.  According to the report of the Green Bay Relief Committee to the state assembly it received $229,623.48 from Oct. 12, 1871 to Oct. 2, 1872.  Tilton reported that the total disbursements at Milwaukee up to Feb. 5, 1872 wee $144,000.00.

The largest cash contribution from any organization other then the relief committees themselves received at Green Bay was $2,449.05 from the town of Norwich, Conn..  The Presbyterian Church, 5th Avenue, New York gave $2,174.57.  The largest contribution by a single person totaled $1,000 and was received from William B. Astor, New York on Oct. 26, 1871.

The smaller contributions, many anonymously sent illustrate the degree of empathy aroused throughout the country.  The smallest contribution recorded in Green Bay was for 20 (cents) from 'boy in Rockford, Ill.'  A poor woman, from Madison sent $2.50 and a poor man, of Black River Falls contributed $1.10.

Contributions of all sizes came from all over the world and from almost every type of social organization.  Citizens of various communities particularly in Wisconsin periodically sent in cash contributions.  Citizens of Watertown, sent $150 on Oct. 12, 1871, citizens of Viroqua, sent $210.88 Oct. 17, 1871.  Other Wisconsin cities to contribute were Brandon, Middleton, Chilton, Mineral Point Oak Grove, Shawano, and Sheboygan.  But this list is only part of those contributions within the state.  The German Musical Society Watertown sent $82.70 on Oct. 18, 1871.  On the same day the State Normal School, Platteville gave $105.

New York, Washington, D.C. and Massachusettes (sic) seemed to be the largest contributors outside of the midwest.  The Baptist Church, Washington D.C. sent $43. on Oct. 19.  Some other contributions from that city include $100 from 'a friend' $218.05 from the citizens, and $202.50 from W.S. Huntington.

W. C. Masey, New Bedford, Mass. sent $50 on Nov. 4, 1871 Church of the Unity, Springfield Mass. gave $150.54 on Dec 18 of that year and the citizens of Southborough, Mass. contributed $162.68 on Jan. 3, 1872.

Contributions even came from such far away places as Evangelical Church, Zurich, Switzerland.  They sent $3 to the Green Bay Relief Committee on Jan. 10, 1872.

People sending goods rather than money first sent cooked food, remembering that there were no stoves or cooking utensils in the burned area.  Later, flour, meal, potatoes, butter, honey and pastries came.  One day 15 carloads of clothing arrived in Green Bay which had to be sorted and repackaged.  Some had to be mended and others contained extra buttons, needles and thread stuffed in the pockets.

Some contributions were so elegant and unfitting the destitution of the victims, they were almost humorous.

'One box, from the ladies of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, contained dainty kid gloves, toilet boxes, kid slippers, embroidered underclothing, laces and ribbons.  A brocade silk gown was sent from Philadelphia, Pa., which was estimated to have cost hundreds of dollars.  The frilliest baby apparel, little crocheted stockings, and the most expensive shoes were common.  One lady sent the entire outfit of her dead baby which she had packed away until it was needed again.

Staple goods came from manufacturers of almost every kind.  Clothing, boots, shoes, bedding, mattresses, axes, helves, hay forks, sah  and doors, bags and wooden ware were sent in abundance.

General Sheridan in Chicago, was given orders by the national government to issue supplies from his stores for the destitute.  He first sent 4,000 heavy woven army blankets, valued at $1 a piece, 1,500 army pants ($3 a piece) 1,500 army overcoats ($6 a piece).  Later came 100 army wagons $50 a piece) and an equal number of harnesses, ($30 apiece (sic)).  They also sent 200,000 rations at 30 (cents) a piece.  The army contribution totaled $83,000.

The amount of losses paid by Wisconsin insurance companies as of May 1, 1872 totaled $124,351.36. Among the companies paying claims were Dodge County Mutual, Madison Mutual, Milwaukee Mechanics Mutual and Northwestern National..  These losses coupled with the losses during the Chicago fire totaled 76.97 per cent of all losses paid by the insurance companies during 1871.  The total cost in insurance was $573,059.70.

The final report of the Green Bay Relief committee termed the efforts a general success.

'It is now more than a year since the fire occurred, and there still remain very many people who are partially demented, and a few whose reason has entirely departed, as the effect of the fire.  Upon the whole, the 'relief' afforded those who were burned out, may be considered a success, and but for the generous response in their behalf, thousands of people would have been thrown as paupers on the community, and fully nine-tenths of those who went back upon their uninviting lands, could not have done so but for the assistance afforded."

NOTE: the newspaper clippings shown here were published in a centennial edition of the Peshtigo Times in October 1971.  They were not newly written articles from 1971, but from the time of the fire and articles that had been published in the aftermath and as some of the survivors aged and told their stories.  This was one of many, many articles in the centennial edition that was passed on to me by my Green Bay family.

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