Peshtigo Fire Museum, grounds quietly preserve horrific history

graveThe devastation happened almost 142 years ago, but it remains on the local newspaper’s online front page, where an easy-to-find link leads to somber details: One million acres burned. At least 1,200 lives lost. A community’s dreams destroyed, in minutes.

“The City Reborn from the Ashes of America’s Most Disastrous Forest Fire.” That is how the Peshtigo Times frames the lumber town community’s identity.

The catastrophic Peshtigo fire on Oct. 8, 1871, gets overlooked because the less-deadly but better-publicized Great Chicago Fire happened the same day, killing 300 and gutting 2,100 acres of the bigger city, leaving 100,000 homeless.

Chicago’s population in 1871 was 324,000. Peshtigo’s was 1,750. Now it is 3,500.

“In 1870, the wood industry was the heartbeat of this area,” explains Pauline King, a volunteer guide at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. Chicago’s first mayor, William Ogden, owned the Peshtigo Company, a lumber mill and nation’s largest producer of woodenware – shingles, broom handles, buckets and more.

All that remained after the fire were the contents of a fireproof safe or, as Pauline tells it, “the ledger with the company’s debts.”

Before the incident, the area’s last measurable rain was in early July. Although it was not unusual for the people in Peshtigo to deal with fire during the summer of 1871, because of the drought, the October blaze was different.

Tornado-level winds from a cold front, Pauline says, increased the velocity of an evening blaze – and “it wiped out the area in an hour.”

The few who survived fled, in nightclothes, to the Peshtigo River and dipped themselves into cold water all through the night to avoid being burned or overcome with smoke.

“When they finally could leave the river at dawn,” Pauline explains, “they rolled over and over on the riverbanks, to try and get warm again.”

It has been 50 years since the volunteer-run museum opened as a way for local residents to make sure the story of Peshtigo wouldn’t die. Most amazing are the three display cases of fire artifacts and stories that survived the smoke and blazes.

Some of these simple remnants of history are little miracles.

A Catholic church tabernacle, taken to the river by a priest, was found intact three days after the fire. A local resident’s Bible also was found floating in the river.

The remains of a watch helped one family identify the ashes of their former home. “In the rush to the river all they took was a blanket which they kept wet and over their heads,” writes a son, W.H. Bentley of Breckenridge, Minn. “The blanket saved their lives.”

Sidonia Tagatz of Neshkoro donated a brooch and earrings worn by her grandmother on the night of the fire, with this explanation: “Her two sons were running with her to get to the safety of a plowed field when she died of a heart attack. They dropped her and she was found later, burned. They made a casket of charred boards and buried her in the Harmony Cemetery, where other victims of the fire were interred.”

Surrounding the fire artifacts are rooms full of typical attire, furnishings and appliances of the 1870s. These donations came from neighboring towns not damaged by the Peshtigo fire.

The museum is a former Congregational church, and a short stroll outside of it leads to a mass grave where the bodies of about 350 fire victims who couldn’t be identified are buried. About 75 of these people lived at the Peshtigo Company’s boarding house, “so completely consumed by fire that one could not tell man from woman or child from adult.” Plaques of explanation also say some bodies were intact, “bearing no trace of burns” but overcome by smoke.

As time marches on, it becomes more challenging to find devoted stewards of the museum. Many of the Peshtigo museum’s volunteers are in their 80s.

“We really are in need of younger blood,” Pauline acknowledges, to keep the life-changing story from being lost with the passage of time.

The Peshtigo Fire Museum, 400 Oconto Ave., is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily from Memorial Day weekend until Oct. 8, when closing ceremonies include a bell ringing and music by the local high school band. Museum admission is by donation., 715-582-3244

Wisconsin Historical Society Press recently published “The Great Peshtigo Fire: Stories and Science from America’s Deadliest Firestorm” ($16) by Scott Knickelbine. It is a book for children, and the author discusses his research from 12:15-1 p.m. Oct. 1 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, 30 N. Carroll St., 608-264-6555

The publisher’s previous titles include “The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account” ($13) by the Rev. Peter Pernin.

Other books about the fire include “Remembering the Peshtigo Fire,” a compilation of memories; “I Lived at Peshtigo Harbor” by F.C. Burke; and “Burning Bush” by Alice Judy Behrend. Total cost for the three titles is $30.95; order from the Peshtigo Times at 715-582-4541.