Peshtigo, Chicago burned in 1871, but did you know Kewaunee County did, too? Historian writes book on deadly blaze
GREEN BAY – Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871, and the even more devastating and deadly Peshtigo fire of the same night that killed five to eight times more people. Also that night, a similar fire ripped through southern Door County and ravaged its mostly Belgian community.
But with the 150th anniversary of those fires coming up, little has been said about how the Door County fire also swept into Kewaunee County, reportedly killing hundreds if not thousands of residents and wiping out families and settlements.
That may soon change, as Virginia Feld Johnson has set out to make people aware of the devastation that took place in Kewaunee County that disastrous night, as well as the even lesser-known devastation that took place when survivors found they were being foreclosed by insurance companies, and the resilience of the survivors as they rebuilt their lives.
The local historian has released "When the Night Rained Fire: Oct. 8, 1871, Kewaunee County and the Great Fire," a 154-page, illustrated book chronicling the fire, what led up to it and what happened in the county afterward.
This is Johnson's ninth book covering various aspects of Kewaunee County history. She also has written numerous related newspaper and magazine articles, including a long-running weekly column and historical "Snapshot in Time" news photo that ran in the Kewaunee County Star-News, and she and the late George Miller co-founded the Research Center of the Kewaunee County Historical Society, which won a Governor's Award for Archival Achievement in 2005.
For someone so invested in the county's history, it was important to Johnson to bring its part in the conflagration to light as the 150th anniversary approaches.
"I always thought it was a Peshtigo thing, and I knew about the Door County Belgian communities," Johnson said. "When I was about 25, I realized how heavily impacted Kewaunee County was. It wasn't just (the towns of) Lincoln and Red River but the whole county … What happened in Kewaunee County, except for the Belgian communities, is totally unknown."
Johnson said she's been collecting information on it for years, but it was just in the past year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that she decided to assemble that information into book form.
"Probably forever," Johnson said with a laugh when asked how long she'd been working on it. "Not as a book per se, but the fire interested me. I've been compiling information for a long time. With the COVID lockdown, I started putting stuff together."
The timing of the book's release also comes as a record number of wildfires raged across the western U.S. last year, with even more raging this year, destroying lives, communities and the land. Johnson has friends living on the West Coast who are near some of the danger areas, and she compared the fear they might be experiencing with the horrors of those in the path of the 1871 fire.
"In the last couple of years, if you think about what happened in California, then this year in Washington, and then you think of this fire (in Kewaunee County) and what they were going through," Johnson said. "This was an environmental disaster; the West Coast is an environmental disaster, too. 150 years ago, it was a different event, it's not the same thing, but there are parallels."
It's also a little personal to Johnson. Her grandmother lost a three-week-old sister in the blaze, and her mother taught in Door County at Tornado School in what was then Williamsonville in the 1930s. The "tornado" name came from stories of "tornadoes of fire" that destroyed the village that night, and Johnson's mother interviewed survivors of the fire.
Among them was a child who was trapped in the chapel where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared 12 years earlier in Robinsonville with her mother and other people who prayed to Mary for protection. The child described the terror of watching the fire advance on them, but they also "knew they would see the glory of God," Johnson said.
The chapel, miraculously, was not consumed by the blaze while everything around it was, and it is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Hope in Champion. Other survivors talked about hunkering down in wells as the fire raced overhead.
Also in the 1930s, the Door County Advocate and Algoma Record-Herald also tried to get some of the survivors together to talk about their experiences, and some of those stories are included in the book, along with news reports of the day.
While the reports often were quite graphic about the injuries and damages the fire wreaked on humans and animals, the survivors spoke more about the aftermath, the bodies they saw pile up and later buried, and how they moved on afterward, Johnson said.
"I think maybe for those people, it was just too too raw for them to share (stories of getting through the fire) because they'd lost so much," she said. "You don't find the kind of stories you would have expected. It's more about people and houses and getting life going again."
'The whole year was fire and drought'
It's not known precisely what was the spark of the fire that started north of New Franken, swept northeast into Door County and spread east into Kewaunee County. There is no equivalent legend like that of Chicago's long debunked "Mrs. O'Leary's cow" here, and scientists and other experts also have debunked the legends that the fire that started in Peshtigo was so hot and the winds so high that it jumped across the bay of Green Bay, or that fragments from a comet fell from the sky and lit off the fires.
What is known is that a combination of environmental conditions — very hot weather, a long and severe drought and high winds — set the table for a blaze that didn't need much to not only combust but render it virtually uncontrollable.
Also, the county and most of Northeast Wisconsin experienced wildfires earlier that year and in the past few years. Some were large, but none where on this scale.
"The whole year was fire and drought," Johnson said of 1871, noting the Chicago and Peshtigo infernos were joined on the same day by similar ones in Port Huron and Holland, Michigan, along with other fires taking place at other times of the year in other parts of the country.
"High wind velocities, high temperatures, drought, it all went together," Johnson said. "The climatic conditions were absolutely right at that time. Each was bad enough in itself, but so many of them together produced what happened."
Plus, Kewaunee County, as well as the surrounding areas, was growing. People came to the county and began clearing the previously untamed forests, and Johnson noted farmers often set "pasture fires" to burn out leftover tree trunks and possibly weeds and other undesirable plants to create fields more suited to planting and grazing.
"The woods were so thick," Johnson said. "Our ancestors started coming. They needed food, they needed shelter, they wanted to be prosperous, so they started cutting and burning … It was this need of having to have land, feed your families, be prosperous."
It's not known how many people died in the fires in Peshtigo, Door and Kewaunee counties. Estimates for the Peshtigo Fire, which generally includes Door and Kewaunee counties, range from 1,500 to 2,500, and Johnson said Kewaunee County's toll certainly was in the hundreds. About 1.2 million acres burned, and it remains the deadliest and biggest wildfire in history. The Chicago fire is estimated to have claimed about 300 lives, although about 100,000 were left homeless.
And the inferno could have been much worse for the county. It burned through most of the county and was nearing Kewaunee and Ahnapee (now Algoma), its two biggest communities.
Johnson said nothing was capable of fighting the fire and people who were there gathered what they could and ran for Lake Michigan, thinking the world was coming to an end and they only hope was to pray for rain — which is what happened, a torrential downpour around 9 p.m. that squelched the fires and saved the lakeshore cities.
For many of those who survived, Johnson said their troubles were far from over. First, there was little if anything left to live on or in; food and shelter were gone and waterways that hadn't evaporated during the fire or the drought were undrinkable because of the dead animals and people decomposing in them.
One of the things she said surprised her was the extent of fraud and scamming perpetrated upon them, especially by insurance companies.
Johnson said one company in particular had one of its executives make off with about $150,000 of its money — what would be over $4.1 million in today's dollars, though an exact conversation isn't available as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' inflation calculator only records values after 1913. The company tried to recoup its losses by tacking a surcharge onto the policies of people who already were insured. But, many of those clients lost everything they had in the blaze, and some may not have been aware of it in the first place, so the company foreclosed and took their property when they didn't pay.
Johnson said it happened to the well-off as well as the downtrodden, and lawsuits over the foreclosures were still in the courts into the early 1900s, although she added that the companies won most of the cases. Plus, U.S. marshals were paid to come in and investigate the cases, with one making $6,300 (again, in 1871 dollars) in two weeks.
"(The insurers) foreclosed on people who escaped with barely anything," Johnson said. "And it wasn't only the poor Belgian farmers … Then, there were marshals' fees, attorney fees. They were devastated by what happened, then they got taken."
The book does carry stories of hope and inspiration, too. Johnson noted that ship captains sailing out of Kewaunee and Algoma, then thriving port cities on Lake Michigan, in the aftermath reported the devastation when they arrived in Milwaukee. Eventually, donations started coming in to help the survivors, and donations for the rest of fire-ravaged Northeast Wisconsin arrived in the two Kewaunee ports.
Plus, word got to Madison Gov. Lucius Fairchild, who was out of state at the time along with other Midwestern governors who were helping coordinate relief efforts in Chicago, and First Lady Frances Fairchild took the lead on coordinating relief efforts for Northeast Wisconsin.
"The governor's wife organized relief efforts," Johnson said. "For a woman to do that in those days was kinda stepping beyond her role. Everything was sent for the whole area from Milwaukee. Kewaunee and Algoma took in supplies in their harbors from all over the world. The Belgian king even gave $5,000. It got to where the governor had to announce no more clothing was needed."
Some good came out of the horror, Johnson said. Besides the resiliency residents demonstrated in recovering over the years, better land management practices came into use — although Johnson noted that farmers continued setting pasture fires for several years, drawing stern rebukes from the local newspapers — and the ash and decomposition created soil conditions in Kewaunee and Brown counties that she called the best for farming in Wisconsin.
Plus there might have been other, lesser-known but longer-term acts of public service.
"There were five doctors who came out of Lincoln in the years following the fire," Johnson said. "And an additional one from Gardner (in Door County) who practiced in Algoma. I'm sure the fire had something to do with these men turning toward education, wanting to serve the area."
"When the Night Rained Fire," Virginia Feld Johnson's book on the history and impact of the Great Fire of Oct. 8, 1871, is available at Yardstick Books, 317 Steele St., Algoma; and the Belgian Heritage Center, 1255 County DK, Brussels. It also can be checked out from the Algoma Public Library, 406 Fremont St.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Peshtigo, Chicago burned in 1871, but did you know Kewaunee County did, too? Historian writes book on deadly blaze