Fires common in the Old West prairies

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western fires

We’ve heard a lot the past few years about the terrible fires that are plaguing the west, causing much loss of life and property destroyed. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon — fires were a scourge to the settlers in the prairies of the Old West.

The following account of the fires was edited and published in 1920 by the Rev. John B. Reese who grew up in the Dakotas and experienced several of these fires.

Reese writes, “During this decade of getting the ground ready and gradually getting equipment for real farming there was one great enemy which was a continual menace and terror to the homesteaders — the semi-annual burning of the prairie.

“From times immemorial, before the settler came, the prairie fire had stalked in majestic splendor over the vast and boundless sea of grass, covering this and adjoining states, licking up with his red and cruel tongue everything before him and leaving a barren desolation behind him.

“Sometimes set by the lightning, or Indians, or the campfire of the early explorer or trader, this fire, driven by the wind, would meander back and forth over the prairie for days and weeks until rain or a considerable stream might at last stay his stride.

“With the first influx of the settler the fire menace greatly multiplied, for not understanding the nature of this menace, they themselves unintentionally set many of these fires. Thus there came to be a fairly certain expectation on the part of the homesteaders of a visit from this monster twice a year — spring and fall — unless he made a clean sweep in the fall, which was not generally the case.

Fighting fires

Reese then recounts a story told by an older relative, H.B. Reese, who fought several fires.

“It was Good Friday, 1887. In the morning we noticed smoke in the northwest with a strong wind from that direction. There had just been several days of wind and sunshine, so everything was dry as tinder. We knew at once what the black flag, hoisted to the sky in the northwest meant.

“It meant a challenge from the Fire King to come out and fight for our own and our neighbors’ homes — buildings, stock and everything we had that could burn. We hurriedly got our weapons of sacks and water ready and started out to meet the giant and offer him all the resistance we could.

“But our antagonist was terribly swift as well as strong, and when we reached Jonas Vaabeno’s place, three miles to the northwest, he had already done his terrible work, making a clean sweep of all out-buildings, mostly made of hay or straw, as also of the dugout which served for a dwelling. Where the stable had stood were the remnants of some half-burnt cattle.

“We hurried on to Peter Johnson’s, but the Fire Demon was victorious and took everything except the dugout dwelling. The same fate was dealt out to Ole Liabo farther north. We were now driven back on our own farm, and after desperate efforts we saved our buildings, but lost everything not on the premises where the buildings were, such as trees, hay, etc.

“When night came and we could return to the house we just threw ourselves flat on the floor completely exhausted, not having tasted food during the whole day.

“Next day, looking to the northwest, we saw very little except a vast desolation — how far no one seemed to know — of blackened prairie, dotted with many ashpiles which, as though they were tombstones, marked the graves of all the settlers’ material possessions except the land and a few cattle. It is a puzzle how they managed to keep these cattle with the prairie burned off, but they did.

“Not only that, but though sorely tried, yet not broken in will or spirit, they borrowed money, even at outrageous interest rates, rebuilt their temporary shelters and began the struggle once more from the bottom up.

“The last and most terrible of all the fires, as far as known, swept over that country only two years later, 1889. It was an early spring day that began very hazy with so much smoke in the atmosphere that one could not see beyond half a mile.

“There was a strong northwest wind, such as was common in spring in those days, and the prairie grass was thoroughly dried out and very abundant. On coming out after dinner I noticed that the haze or smoke seemed thicker toward the northwest and I saw whirls of smoke rolling up toward the sky.

“I immediately gave the alarm, and every one at the house, including mother, rushed out to meet the foe. We did not have to go far before we met him, and so swiftly did he come that in our hasty retreat toward the house Mother was very nearly overcome by the smoke and heat.

“Fortunately, there was a piece of plowed ground nearby where she was able to find safety and lie down until sufficiently recovered to go on to the house. Then we all took our stand, some hauling water, others fighting at the front. There was a strip of plowed ground, or fire break, around the place, but the terrific wind continually threatened to carry the fire across, now at one point, now at another.

“Moreover, some barn manure had been spread on this plow land, and this, taking fire and blowing everywhere in the terrific wind, made our situation quite desperate for a while. However, we at last won to the extent of saving the buildings. This fire, which raged next day, when the wind was still more terrific, did enormous damage, burning out, in part or whole, even some of the older settlers.

Volin, S.D. “The town of Volin [SD] was almost completely destroyed. Some who had suffered loss in the previous fire were again burned out in part or whole, and the grass, as was the case after such a fire, was damaged for years to come. Many are the stories of narrow escapes in saving their homes and even their lives told by the old timers in connection with these fires.

“Sometimes there would be a whole company of women and children out on the middle of a plowed field, having fled there as the only refuge.”

Disasters, both natural and man-made, have been occurring for eons and are likely to continue for more eons.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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