As I wrote in my last post, Wilder’s description of a forest fire near the Ingallses’ Wisconsin homestead captured my imagination. She wrote in the Bye revision of Pioneer Girl of “the trees. . . burning like great candles” (p. 14). This description compelled me to look deeper into the history of Wisconsin forest fires. Growing up in the state, I had heard of the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, but I hadn’t realized it occurred in the same year the Ingallses returned to Wisconsin from Kansas. The Peshtigo fire occurred two hundred fifty miles to the east of the Ingalls home, but news of the fire would have reached Pepin quickly.
Some readers may not be familiar with the Peshtigo fire, but most have likely heard of the Great Chicago Fire. Both fires occurred Sunday night, October 8, 1871. The Chicago fire burned dozens of buildings and killed five hundred citizens. Peshtigo’s lesser-known fire claimed the lives of twelve hundred of the region’s residents and leveled the town. Father Peter Pernin recounted a starker depiction of fire than the young Wilder did. “I perceived about the dense cloud of smoke overhanging the earth, a vivid red reflection of immense extent,” he wrote. “Then suddenly struck on my ear, strangely audible in the preternatural silence reigning around, a distant roaring, yet muffled sound, announcing that the elements were in commotion somewhere.”1 The priest escaped to the river, where he spent several hours dunking his body in the water. By Monday morning, the fire had burned itself out, but the town of Peshtigo lay in ruins.
The survivors of the Peshtigo fire pulled themselves out of the river and began the slow process of rebuilding their lives with the aid of residents of the nearby towns of Marinette and Green Bay. A mixture of elements had combined to cause the disaster. The dryness of the summer, debris left from logging, a few careless individuals who did not fully extinguish their cooking fires, and sparks from trains have all been listed as contributing factors. In any case, the Ingallses were fortunate that, unlike the fire that destroyed Peshtigo, the fire of Wilder’s memory headed away from the family’s homestead. Readers interested in learning more of Father Pernin’s detailed remembrance of the Peshtigo fire can access it online here.