The Day We Went to Peshtigo

📅 March 27, 2020

You have heard of Golf Widows? I was a Fire Extinguisher Widow.

Mr. B. was a firefighter and specialized in fire extinguisher training. At one point, we had 80 fire extinguishers in our garage, mostly Ansuls, because The Ansul is the Cadillac of Fire Extinguishers.

Mr. B. loved work so much that our family took only two vacations. One was a brief trip to New Jersey to see some friends and the other was to Marinette, Wisconsin, where Mr. B. attended Ansul Fire School.   

We loaded our luggage, secured by a blue tarp, on top of our jumbo-sized white Chevy station wagon with wood-grain paneling on the sides, and lurched north on I-95 to Marinette, home of the Ansul Fire Extinguisher, Mecca of the Western world.

While Mr. B. went to fire school every day, the children and I remained in the Dome Motel, which, for some reason, we ended up calling “The Doom.” With Mr. B. going to Ansul School every day, it fell to me to provide entertainment for the week. So I would get up before the sun rose and drive Mr. B. to his classes, then return to the motel and plan our schedule. We were fortunate the hotel had an indoor pool.

The other good news: there was a small town nearby called Peshtigo with an exceptional museum. There we learned the story of The Forgotten Fire.

Peshtigo was a prosperous lumber town, bordered on two sides by dense forests. The year 1871 had been unusually dry. Little rain had fallen in many months. Because the woods were so dry, farmers and railroad workers found it easier to chop and burn trees to make clearings for homes and the advancing railroad. Indians lit fires at night to keep away wild animals.

Few, if any of these fires were put out completely. Embers burned slowly underground. By September fires began breaking out all over the woods. By early October, the smoke was so thick in the air that on nearby Green Bay, navigators had to guide their ships by compass, even during the day.

On the night of Sunday, October 8, there appeared an unusual glow in the sky. The smoke thickened and townspeople heard a roaring in the distance. Soon the alarm of fire sounded. A tornado-like wind ripped through the village, hurling flaming debris through the air.

Everyone ran to the Peshtigo River and threw themselves in to escape the blaze, having to splash water on their heads continually, because the winds whirled the fire just above their heads.

A few hours before dawn the fire weakened and people climbed onto the shore.

Peshtigo was in ruins. The people sent word to the capitol, Madison, but the governor had left with supplies for another city in another state, which fire had also destroyed on October 8.

That city was Chicago.

Though more than five times as many people lost their lives in the Peshtigo Fire, it is the Great Chicago Fire which is remembered as “The Great Fire of 1871.”

That’s what we learned at the Peshtigo Fire Museum. We bought a book written by an eyewitness, Reverend Peter Pernin.

Eventually, each one of my children used “The Forgotten Fire” as a topic for a research paper.

Now your kids can use it, too.   

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Holly Bebernitz

Native Texan Holly Bebernitz moved to Jacksonville, Florida in 1967. After thirty years of teaching speech, English, and history on the secondary and college levels, she retired from classroom teaching to become a full-time grandmother. The change in schedule allowed the time needed to complete the novel she had begun writing in 1998. When Trevorode the Defender was published in March 2013, the author realized the story of the Magnolia Arms was not yet complete.