Remembering the Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871–Fire rampaged through northeastern Wisconsin, wiping out the city of Peshtigo and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,400 people. Though the fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, with greater loss of life, very little is known about it outside of Wisconsin.

That conundrum (How can something so devastating be so forgotten?) led me down many paths over the course of my career. My imagination first got caught up with the fire in fourth grade, when I wrote about it in an illustrated manuscript that took a prize at the Wisconsin State Fair. But later on, when I became a reporter in that same region, covering the city government for the city and towns of Peshtigo, I was able to dig deeply into that history and report about it in a series of stories that ran the week that began with Monday, Oct. 7, 1996, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the fire.

I started looking through the clips of the series recently, which I’ve kept as examples of enterprise reporting and as groundwork for more potential research. I wrote the story in five parts, one for each day that week, with Tuesday’s pieces focusing on the story of the fire itself and published on its anniversary. Those pieces were edited together and picked up by the Associated Press for national distribution, one of the few of my early works for which that happened.

The entire week also represents the first time I allowed myself to spread my wings as writer, using descriptive language to tell a story that few knew well, and fewer still know well today.

“Modern day Peshtigo bustles with life and industry. People in the city smile as others pass. A thriving industrial park attracts the cream of business and industry. Badger Park beckons the lunch-hour patron as well as the children of the nearby elementary school … It’s such a pretty town. With such a horrifying history.” (Lauters, EagleHerald, Oct. 7, 1996)

I went on to describe the town, the drought, and the lack of communication lines from the north to the south because of wild fires that were breaking out due to construction of railroad lines through the dry woods. I used original source material that included local residents’ recollections of survivor stories, survivor diaries, and my own newspaper’s archives. I finished that day with the line from an editorial by 1871 Eagle editor Luther Noyes: “Fires are still raging all over the country. The raw air of autumn is being well-cooked by fire.” (Eagle, Sept. 24, 1871)

Noyes’ words were prophetic. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1871, as the Rev. Peter Pernin writes in his diary, a muffled roaring sound came from the west. He knew instantly that he needed to head to the Peshtigo River. Mill workers on the east side of the river already were battling sparks and flames there, but by 9 p.m., most workers’ families were in bed.

Then flames rose from the rest along Oconto Avenue, and engulfed everything in their path. Bells rang all over town. As many as could do so headed for that same river, hoping that the water, shallow with the drought, could save their lives. Pernin writes about struggling on the bridge over the River, as people from both sides of it tried to get to the other, hoping for safety, and that he managed to push himself and his cart–containing the Tabernacle that housed the Sacrament–into the water itself, immersing them both.

“I came out of that river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been,” Pernin wrote.

Pernin wasn’t alone. Fire conditions were said to be so hot, many people simply blazed up when the flames hit them. A final death count would be impossible for this reason, and because no one knew just how many people were in the region at the time.  A census would show only homesteaders and citizens; the area, however, was filled with railway workers and others who’d just arrived from Chicago for the work promised in the region.

Nothing but ashes, and a single green-timber framed house, remained in the entire city.

I interviewed numerous descendants of fire survivors, and their stories ran the next day. I wrapped the series with what amounted to an annotated bibliography of sources for those who were interested in learning more.

The experience fired my imagination. Resources were sent from Wisconsin to Chicago, to aid residence there, before the state government even knew about their own devastation. The governor’s wife, in residence in Madison while her husband headed to Chicago, commandeered an aid train and sent it north when word reached her.

The papers covered Chicago.

The history illustrated numerous things for me, but one thing was made manifestly clear: Coverage of events can only occur if someone knows the event is happening, and if that event is judged to be significant enough to an audience.

Chicago as a large city, wiped out, remained the story of the day. The small town wiped out in northern Wisconsin hardly rated, in comparison, despite the loss of life. Already in 1871, regional differences in urban and rural markets for coverage became apparent.

But it’s important to remember the tragedy at Peshtigo for numerous reasons. The city today, is small, but it thrives. The region prospers. Out of the ashes, hope survived.

Just Two Weeks to LauraPalooza

So I’m pretty late in getting my registration in, but I’m excited to be heading to LauraPalooza in two weeks. While I won’t be able to go for the entire three-day conference, I’m really looking forward to the day that I’ll be there.

The program shows a set of research presentations that focus on Rose Wilder Lane and on On the Way Home, and a bus trip to Pepin with special programming. I look forward to seeing some of my Laura friends, too.

That entire week will include not only LauraPalooza, but a road trip to Walnut Grove over the weekend to attend the Little House television show cast reunion. Guests will include two of my favorite people, Alison Arngrim and Dean Butler, as well as several original cast members. One, Radames Pera, also played the young Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, and my husband (a martial artist) is excited to get his autograph.

I know several other Laura friends who plan to make the whole week one long Laura trip. And as Alison recently said on Twitter, it will be “amazeballs!”

Keep an eye on this space to hear more about it when it happens.

The Impulse to Preserve

I was talking with a friend this morning about my research into American farm women’s history, research that became a dissertation that became a book.

As part of that work, I interviewed and corresponded with several hundred women who lived on or worked on farms between 1910 and 1960.

One of the findings that emerged didn’t actually make it into the final book, because it was interesting, but not part of the original research questions. And that is the impulse to preserve their own histories that permeated so much of the information shared with me.

Numerous memoirs, hand-typed, or self-published, came to my desk. Whole boxes of family journals and memoirs (which I have kept, unable to part with memories) came to me with the line, “I hope you can use this. We have no use for it but are glad someone might.” Some elderly women in care centers talked to me with tears in their eyes, voices soft as they related stories from their childhoods, and talked to me of “Mother.”

One of the connections I made in my talk this morning made me think about this work within the context of my Laura Ingalls Wilder research.

Wilder’s personal story, when told, often starts with the idea that as a “retired” farm woman, she decided to write out the memories of her childhood so that they wouldn’t be lost. While this is ostensibly true, it’s also a carefully crafted myth spun by her publishers and daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, to lend mystique and pathos to the elderly woman sharing her stories.

Wilder, in fact, wrote for publication for years before her “retirement,” and Lane acted as guide and mentor in many ways to her mother, shepherding her career. The work of her writing is disguised by the myth that developed around her.

However, the myth itself seemed to inspire something fascinating: the impulse to preserve the memories before they’re lost.

Numerous volumes of memoir rest in my office. Some I drew on as I wrote the first book. But upon reflection, I think there’s another work here, something that ties into the reflection of memory, nostalgia, and a search for a past that seemed somehow better.

And yet, too, many of the women I spoke to were clear about the hazards of being a woman on the farm, as well as the joys. Lack of adequate medical care, schooling, and public transportation topped that list, along with the sheer volume of work ascribed to women only.

I’m not clear on where this work will go, yet, and I’ll need to go and re-read my own works to find the right direction. But I want to encourage those who have written their own histories and families’ histories down. An historian is always looking for your work. Everyday history needs to be preserved, and it’s often challenging to find those original resources.

(And yes, that includes preserving letters.)

Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store worth the stop

One of my favorite places to stop on 169 between Mankato and the Twin Cities features an enormous selection of candy, gourmet soda, and fun. Run by Jim’s Apple Farm, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store offers more than candy; it offers an experience.

My husband and I have been stopping at Jim’s Apple Farm, known locally as the big yellow barn, for at least a decade, and it’s changed a lot. Originally, it offered fresh apples and other produce in season, fresh baked apple pies and strudel, fudge, and a selection of locally sourced food products. The owners also offered what appeared to be a good variety of vintage and other candy.

Today, the elderly strudel maker has passed away, but the family still offers fresh baked pies, strudels, and apple cookies using the old recipes. They still offer the apples and pumpkins in season, and the locally sourced goods. But they’ve expanded significantly, and what was once a fun and modest selection of vintage candy is now a barn full of candy and snacks from around the world.

Additionally, with the expansion, the owners have incorporated life-sized friends from the Marvel, DC Comic, and Pixar universes in the main candy room, and the round observatory recently added includes suspended models of the U.S. Enterprise, Millenium Falcon, X-Wings and Tie-Fighters, and the Borg cube. At center stage in the observatory is a model of the TARDIS.

Highway 169 has been under construction all summer, so Wednesday was the first time all summer that we visited. We brought our little girls with us (offer a candy store visit to a preschooler and see how fast they buckle up in the car), and I honestly had more fun watching them than I did picking out candy.

First, the new atmosphere expands a point of view so that it always pays to look up. The little girls spotted a life-sized Wonder Woman statue first, and their squeals of “Wonder Woman!” followed by “Superman!” made me giggle. We spotted Iron Man, Thor, Cat Girl, Batman, The Joker, The Hulk, Harley Quinn, Flash, Captain America, the Silver Surfer, and the Iron Man Hulk Smasher all in that first room, looking as if they were ready to do battle over our heads.

As we passed through to the other side of the room, we found Sully and Mike from Monsters, Inc., a minion in a gas mask, and entire animatronic band made up of candy and raisin characters, all life-sized. We watched the band’s show twice–they perform every five minutes–and the girls and I danced along to Motown favorites. My husband was busy taking pictures.

We passed by a Zoltar Speaks machine on our way into the big round observatory room, to find the Borg Cube and the Enterprise suspended on opposite sides of the room, with the Star Wars space ships during it out in the middle, high above our heads in the round dome. The TARDIS took center stage in the room, and we had to pop in and out of it. Unfortunately, it was not bigger on the inside.

But in the observatory room we found a wide and varied selection of candies and snacks from around the world. While the British selection was still back in the main barn, near its red British telephone box, the observatory selection featured candy from Japan, Spain, Korea, and other places in its original packaging.

The girls were allowed to pick out candy for themselves, and that took some time. I picked out a Lion Bar from Britain, something I’ve missed after my stay there many years ago. A picked out a lollipop pop-up toy featuring her favorite character from the movie Frozen and a selection of suckers, while C picked out a box of Smarties. We also got a Chocolate Frog, apple cookies, gourmet soda, and handmade, locally sourced egg noodles (destined for from-scratch chicken and noodle soup).

The bathrooms had an upgrade a few years ago, and now, instead of two, single stalls, we found port-a-potty doors that opened up into spacious restrooms with several stalls and room for a nursing mother to take care of her baby.

We had a fantastic time, and it was well worth the trip.

One note: Jim’s Apple Farm and the Minnesota Largest Candy Store do not accept credit or debit cards, so be sure to bring your checkbook and/or plenty of cash. There are at least three ATMS on-site if you forget, but I’ll warn you: we rarely leave without spending at least $40.

The big yellow barn is located on the west side of Hwy 169 between Belle Plaine and Jordan, Minn. It’s hard to miss, open March through November, and closes for the season this year Nov. 25. I’ll be going back up to get my Thanksgiving pies.

It’s all about the pumpkins.

My family and I enjoyed a quick trip to a pumpkin patch on Saturday. It’s our fall family tradition to find a good place to get pumpkins that we’ll later carve for our Halloween fun.

This year, we tried out Pumpkin Junction at Blue Skye Farm in Good Thunder, Minn. It’s open for visitors most weekends in October, and it’s one of the few sites we’ve found locally that have not just the pumpkins, but children’s activities and fun things to do, too.

GPS helped us find the farm, off old Hwy 66, and we were one of the first families to arrive. We were greeted by a host who explained the “system” to us. We got a form that listed everything they had for sale, and as we picked out what we wanted, we marked the sheet, paying for everything at the end. She also emphasized that children under 18 got to pick out a free pumpkin, so my girls were pretty excited.

Our first stop was the pumpkin patch. I picked up the clippers, but promptly handed them to husband Matt to wield because I am a notorious clutz. (See the story about the broken leg last winter, if you need further evidence.) We had lovely sunshine, but the wind whipped coldly across the patch as we trudged out in our boots to look at the ripe pumpkins on the vine.

G.G. was along with us, too, and she helped A find a good pumpkin first. By the time we filled our farm-provided green cart, we’d loaded five of our favorite, round, ripe, orange pumpkins. Our next stop was the activity tent, where games and a food booth were set up, as well as tables containing other fall vegetables–varied squash and gourds as well as dried corn.

Our girls picked out sweet treats at the food both (cookies and cupcakes from a local bakery) before we heard the call that the hay rides were starting. We picked up our treats and headed over to the wagon filled with hay bales, drawn behind a tractor. (We like horse-drawn rides best, and cheerfully call ourselves “horse groupies” during the holiday season for our tendency to find where all the horse-drawn rides are, but the tractor worked well, too.)

The tractor made a large loop around the farm, allowing us to see the squash, gourds and pumpkins still in the fields. The girls excitedly squealed each time they saw a new kind of gourd in the field, and C particularly liked the white pumpkins on the ground.

When the long ride was over, we headed to the corrals to see the horses and the calf that were out for petting. Our girls love animals, and visiting the animals, wherever we are, always makes them happy.

The farm also included a hay maze that topped out about five feet in height, which was perfect for small children and their taller parents, but by the time we considered it, we were too cold to stay outside. That whippy wind got the best of us.

Blue Skye Farm is open one more weekend this year.

Meanwhile, what do we do with the pumpkins?

We’ll carve them this week, and I’ll make roasted pumpkin seeds for snacking on.

Looking ahead to LauraPalooza 2019: Pepin-bound

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association this week announced the location of its 2019 conference, and it’s in Onalaska, Wis., just south of Wilder’s birthplace of Pepin, Wis.

The full announcement also reminds those interested about the big Little House on the Prairie cast reunion in Walnut Grove the week following LauraPalooza in July.

I was involved in the founding of the organization and in the running of the first two conferences, which we held in Mankato in 2010 and 2012. Personal circumstances kept me away from the 2015 conference in South Dakota and the 2017 conference in Missouri, but I’ve been excited to see the line-up of speakers and workshops as they appeared.

The conference was deliberately conceived as a site for Wilder fans, scholars, and independent researchers to meet and share across the usual divides that occur between such different groups. What’s fun about LauraPalooza is that everyone can enjoy interesting, well-researched presentations right alongside fun activities taken from the books, such as ice cream socials, cooking demonstrations, and handwork.

With the next site being close to Pepin, it’s in easy travel distance for me. Pepin is actually the first Little House site I ever visited, the week after I turned 18 in 1990. My friend, Maria, and I tossed a tent and sleeping bags into the back of my 1980 Ford Granada and headed west from Chippewa Falls, Wis., to seek out Little House sites just because we were legal adults and we could.

We took back roads into Pepin and got lost.

Eventually, we found our way, and I still remember the excitement in my belly when we drove up to the little replica cabin on Laura’s birth site. I think I probably squealed. (Maria and I are still in touch; I wonder if she remembers?)

After that first stop, we found our way into Pepin proper to visit the little museum there, then camped in Stockholm, Wis., our first night. The next day, we headed west toward Walnut Grove.

We locked our keys in the car in Faribault, Minn. Fortunately, there was an Auto Zone nearby and we’d left a window open slightly, so that was a free, less-than-fifteen minute fix with a wire coat hanger.

We eventually made it to Walnut Grove, squealing over the museum there (which at that time extended across the road in a series of trailer-type things. It’s been enlarged, renovated, and refurbished since, and is one of my favorite places to stop). We didn’t manage to find Plum Creek on that trip. In fact, my brakes started grinding as we pulled out of Walnut Grove and headed back east.

We camped at Fort Ridgely State Park that night, and wandered our way up to St. Croix Falls, Wis. the following night, before heading back to Chippewa Falls and new brakes.

At LauraPalooza 2010, twenty years later, I waded in Plum Creek for the first time. It’s another one of my favorite memories. I think there’s a picture of me, along with several other Laura enthusiasts, wading in the creek that summer.

I’m excited for 2019. My last published work in the area of Wilder research appeared in the South Dakota Historical Society Press’s work, Pioneer Girl Perspectives, in 2017. My contribution was a chapter about Rose Wilder Lane and her career as a working writer, touching on her FBI file and her work for Woman’s Day magazine.

I haven’t really dug into anything new lately, but I have been thinking about what viewing the Little House books through a cultural lens over time might look like. Why do the books remain popular? I have some ideas about that that I might propose to share in 2019.

Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the Pepin cabin again. Maybe I can talk Maria into joining me for the almost-thirty year flashback photo.

Nostalgia for the County Fair

I spent Saturday with my youngest two girls, their paternal biological grandmother, and my husband at the Blue Earth County Fair.

The girls’ bio-grandma, whom we call GG, grew up in the community of Garden City, Minn., where the BE County Fair has been held for more than a hundred years. As we walked the grounds, GG told us about the fair of her childhood, which was always packed with people and amazing food. She had a neighbor who spent the entire three days of the fair making the “world’s best” onion rings, and the general noise and crowds forced her father to put a wire fence around his property, just to keep the fair patrons from parking on his lawn.

This year’s fair seems diminished in comparison, but it was no less fun for our little group. The fair board no longer contracts for carnival rides, but there were bounce houses, renaissance-style fighting tournaments, a fun maze, and a small “train” ride of linked cars behind a mini-tractor. Food, animals, and exhibits also were plentiful, though GG often told stories of days when the buildings were packed to overflowing, something that wasn’t the case this year.

Our first stop at the animal barns made the little girls giggle at the crowing of roosters in breeding pens, coo over freshly shorn sheep, wave at the massive “piggies,” and look on with big eyes at the bulls and cows. They got to pet rabbits and play in a field corn pit with shovels and strainers.

After playing on the bouncy rides for a bit, we made our way through the center of the fair to the food booths to snag a couple of bags of mini-donuts to share, since the smell of the freshly fried treats called us. We ate them while watching the the little train go around the fair. While the girls didn’t want to go on the train at first, they later chose to try it, and enjoyed their rides.

We also tried Okojobi soda, which was handcrafted and tasty, before entering the exhibit halls. We wandered through the vendors, then through the 4-H exhibits. While in the 4-H building, the girls tried to drive the tractor simulators–which were bigger than they were–and I got some cute pictures.

When it was time for lunch, we chose to support the 4-H and headed for their hall, where we settled down with beef commercials (roast beef in gravy, on white bread, with from-scratch mashed potatoes) and refills of our Okojobi pops. The 4-H stand also offered a wide variety of meal options, and home-made pie, but we were pretty full after our “commercial treat”.

Afterwards, we wandered over to watch the horses in the arena, then looked through the competition booths, voted in the peoples’ choice competition for best of show in several categories (sewing, gardening, “trash-to-treasure” crafting, woodworking), and played in a special kids’ area. We continued on to visit with the Blue Earth County Historical Society workers in their big building, taking old-timely pictures and viewing a live demonstration of a lace-maker.

We wrapped up with a trip through the one-room schoolhouse, which was decommissioned in 1965 and moved to the fairgrounds in 1968, and a local family’s log cabin that had been moved to the grounds and restored. We were worn out, but we had to stop at the girls’ great-grandma’s house before we headed home.

When we talk about the rural experience, I think that we sometimes forget these foundational places of gathering, talking, exhibiting, and visiting. To see the fair diminished hurts a little. As we went from exhibit to exhibit, we heard how things “used to be.” I don’t think we ought to dwell on what used to be, but appreciate what we have. Young people in 4-H still thrive, educate, exhibit. And friends and neighbors still gather around pie, fried food, and too much sugar.

The weather was perfect, and so was the day.