Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Peshtigo - Recording the Survivors' Tales

The following is a transcription from a special centennial edition of the Peshtigo Times newspaper commemorating the Great Peshtigo Fire.  It was published in 1971 and passed on to me by my husband's family.

"Survivors Tell Of The Horrors During Dreadful Fire

Peshtigo Times Interviews Tell Of Survivors Narrow Brushes With Death

(Editor's Note:  The PESHTIGO TIMES has spent many years compiling a list of survivors, recording their experience during the fire and its effect on their later lives.  The story below is a compilation of many accounts the survivors told TIMES reporters.  Some of these people lived their entire lives in the Peshtigo area, others who moved have relatives in the area.

The largest complied [sic] list of survivors was available in 1951 just prior to the dedication of the historical marker.  At that time 44 survivors, (most in their 80s) had been located and several of them came to the ceremony.  As time passed, fewer new survivors were discovered and known survivors died.  Now, 100 years after the catastrophe, one survivor remains. Mrs. Augusta Bruce, of Stevens Point, Wis., not only lived through one of the worst disasters in the nation, but lived to reach 102 on August 4, 1971.  Several of the stories of known survivors which were published in the TIMES throughout the years are compiled and retold here.)

Memories of the crimson night of Oct. 8, 1871 did not fade despite the many years and events which passed between that night and the survivors retirement years.

The survivors, whose accounts are recorded below, were only children at the time of the fire and their memories are dependent largely on stories told to them by their parents.  For many families it was a turning point in their lives -- all property destroyed, sickness, poverty were the rewards for withstanding the night of horror.  Some could not bear to return to the area but others built new homes on the site of their first home.  Many were members of immigrant families who had come to America to homestead, seeking milk and honey.  They were pioneers and thus used to hardships so when this one came they faced it.

'Wake up!  The end of the world is coming!' the late Mrs. Amelia 'Stoney' Desrochers recalled her mother shouting.  The fire reached their home about 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8, 1871.  She was five at the time of the fire.

'There had been fires all along.  The men had been fighting them.  One night a terrible wind storm came, the sky got very red.' she continued.  Then recalling her mother's prediction of the end of the world she said, 'A lot of people perished because they thought it was the end of the world.  They got tired of fighting the fire and gave up.'

But not her family.

'Mother got us up.  I put my shoes on but forgot my stockings.  When we went out the wind was blowing the sand so hard that it punched my limbs.  people told us to go to the river.  A man at the bridge ordered us to get aboard a flat-bottomed barge on the river.'

'On the way down the river, the boat caught fire on top and many jumped out and drowned.  Looking out the boat's window, I remember telling mother 'Look It's snowing fire three miles out in the bay.'

'On our way back after the fire died down we passed a place where there were many dead people laid out on blankets by the river bank.  Beside them was a little baby crying.  I'll never forget that.'

The late Mrs. Desrochers lived her entire life in the Peshtigo area.  She and another survivor Wesley Duket spent their last years int he Eklund Convalescent Home and occassionally [sic] met to reminisce.


He lived in the Sugar Bush five miles from Harmony Corners 'When balls of fire started coming down from the sky.' he said.

'My mother and father took us to the spring and wrapped us in wet quilts.  My sister saved the sewing machine by wrapping it up, too.  We had a team of oxen; one of them stayed at the spring with us and the other strayed away and burned.  We had a shed of colts and you could hear them thrashing as they burned.  My brother wanted to open the shed door but my sister was afraid he'd burn to death, too.'

'I'll never forget the next morning.  My mother and father were (temporarily) blind.  I went to see Mrs. Reinhart, our neighbor and I found her dead.  I liked her a lot and that really hurt me.  Her shawl had not completely burned and I took the corner that was left and kept it with me for many years.' said Duket.


She was only nine days old the day of the fire.  She was born in Peshtigo on Sept. 29, 1871, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lars Korstad.

Her father came from Norway in 1864 and worked to save money for his wife's passage.  She joined him three years later and they moved to Peshtigo.

Anna, the couples first child, was born at night while Lars was at work.  Their home was a one room shanty with a sawdust floor.  Sawdust was also the foundation for bedding.  Her father was a millwright for Odgen & Gardner lumber camps and mills.

The were fortunate enough to reach the river when the fire struck.

'We sat on a raft covered with a feather bed, my mother holding me and my father spilling water over the three of us as fast as he could so our clothing would not catch fire.  But mothers clothing burned nearly off her back.

'Help came from the south and even from Europe.  Each family was given $50 and free passage to any point in the U.S.  Father thought of going to California, but he chose LaCrosse.'


She was four months old at the time of the fire.  She lived with her parents and 18 month old brother on a farm six miles from Peshtigo.  Ezra Jackson, her father, was bed ridden with scarlet fever and her uncle was on the farm to help out.

'When the fire came my father was too sick to run for it and he stayed in bed until the house caught on fire and he had to run.' she recalled.

'My uncle took my brother and hurried out of the house.  My mother wrapped me in a baby blanket and told my dad to come with us.  He said we should go out onto the plowed field and hope that the fire would not reach us.'

'My uncle carried my brother with him, somewhere we didn't know. But my mother took my father's advice and hurried into the field.'

'Mother and I were saved although mother told me that my blanket caught on fire about 45 times and that she beat it out with her hands.'

'After the farm house caught on fire my father left his bed and hurried to the field to join us.'

'We were saved but my uncle and brother were lost.  My father found one of my brother's shoes and some ashes.  Most of the ashes had been blown away, but we know they were dead.' she said.

Though their farmhouse and cattle were destroyed her father rebuilt at the same site.  She lived there until she was married and moved to Green Bay.


'Dadrite' was eleven at the time of the fire, and lived in a fishing settlement, Thomaston, along the Oconto Bay Shore.  He did Nov. 17, 1957 in Dunbar at the age of 97.

'I used to come up to Peshtigo every day for the mail,' he recalled.  'I'd sail our boat to the Harbor and take the morning train up to Peshtigo, then get back home before dark.'

'It was dry, oh it was dry.  We could see the flames of Peshtigo rising above the glow of other fires that night.  It was a terrible sight.  The flames came mighty close to our home, by [sic] didn't set it afire.  My uncle lost all his buildings and the loss drove him out of his mind.'

'It was two or three days before we could get into Peshtigo after the fire -- and what a sight I remember seeing that one home standing on the east side where Bill Dolan lives now, and nothing else.  It was just being built, and only the studdings were there.'

Dadrite told of the harrowing incidents in the Harmony area, which he learned of shortly after the fire.

'Sam Woodward's experience was a tragic one.  They could see the fire coming and told their two little children to sit right by the yard fence, then ran to the road with some keepsakes.  The next morning they found the little ones still sitting there.  They must have suffocated in the terrible heat.'

Another incident Dadrite remembered illustrates the pains taken to identify the burned remains.

'A skeleton was found out near Jerral Boom, and a silver watch lay near it.  It was marked by T. A. Hay, a jeweler.  They traced Hay until he was found, and checked his watch repair records to finally identify the skeleton,' he said.

Each person experienced a slightly different series of events during the fire but for all it was a time of horror.

Grocery prices have really skyrocked [sic] since 1871.  Prices recorded in Peshtigo on July 7 of that year showed that butter was 15 cents a pound, ham, 14 cents per pound, and beans $2 per bushel."

I found it very interesting that at the end of the article they threw in information about the cost of food.  It just seemed completely out of place, but still a good reference.

The stories from this horrible night can be grim as well as inspiring.  I wish more had been published in this commemorative edition of the Peshtigo Times, but you can be sure that when I get back to Wisconsin I'll be looking through old editions trying to find other stories.  They should be passed on!