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Survivor Stories of the Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871

This page is dedicated to the people who lived to tell of their survival and stories of the Peshtigo Fire. All submissions are from the family members and are welcome for posting.


My Great Grandfather R. Tyler Phillips and the Peshtigo Fire

As told by Leora Nash Phillips in 1977 at age 94


Transcribed and contributed by descendant:  Linda Phillips Loser

"I would like to say a little bit about Grandpa Phillips, Tyle Phillips. Grandpa Tyle Phillips was born in 1842. I'll have to say a little about the Peshtigo Fire. At the time of the fire in 1871, he was about 30 years old. He had a livery stable in Peshtigo, he and A. B. Phillips, Al Phillips. So when the fire broke out he was living there and he said he was watching the fire as it came into the city of Peshtigo. It looked like big balls of fire. The trees had burned and the tops were still burning and the wind was so terrific it carried the burning treetops into the town. So, Old Man Ellis was mayor at the time and he told him, he says, "Well you better take your family and get into the buckboard and get out and leave the livery stable to burn." There was nothing else he could do. People were standing in the river holding wet blankets on their heads trying to keep from catching afire. 

The cows were burnt so badly that their tits dropped off. Cabbages were burned and roasted in the cabbage patches, all such things as that. So he got into the buckboard and Grandma Phillips had just got ready to do washing so she had on the worst old dress she had and the two boys by his second wife, Frank and John, were took into the buckboard and away they went. They didn't have any of their own just yet. So they went to Marinette and on the way to Marinette, on the way getting ready to go, they got into the buckboard but a big fat woman got in before them and she wouldn't get out so they had to take her along and they had a hard time getting into the buckboard. 

They had to get out of the buckboard several times and move burning trees out of the path but he made it to Marinette finally and to the hotel that was on the square, what hotel was that, afterwards Hotel Marinette was built there. Anyway he stayed there all night and they wanted him to go upstairs in the hotel to sleep and he said no he wasn't going to do that. He left the horse tied in front of the hotel and he watched to see how close the fire would come. If it came any closer he was going over into Michigan. The fire didn't reach Michigan (upper peninsula). It didn't reach Marinette either. It ended right on the shoreline into what was East Marinette later. There was no way to Harmony Corners, what's called Harmony Corners now. There was no 64, there was a monstrous lake in there where we called it The Big Marsh so there was no way to get out to that part of Peshtigo.

So his mother was out on a farm at what we called Harmony Corners, it was the A. B. Phillips farm and Al was there himself. So this old lady, Grandma Bosworth we called her, and she was the one that went to Peshtigo from Massachusetts and took some of her children with her, others she left there and some went to North Dakota. But she took some of them with her to Peshtigo. She was on the farm at this time with Al. So she was scared to death of the wind, it was such a terrific wind. They wanted her to go into the house, which never burned, but they couldn't get her in. She wouldn't go. So she said "You just chain me out here to this big tree where the wind can't blow me away and I'll stay right here." So she stayed there, she thought she was chained to the tree but the chain was just laid on the ground around the tree. She sat on the inside of it. So she burned to death under that tree and the house was never touched. And that's the way that turned out.

Well when A. B., Al Phillips was a kid, not A.B. but Tyle, when Tyle Phillips was a kid his mother married again, married Bosworth . She was married to a Phillips but then she married Bosworth."


My Grandfather Frank Phillips and the Peshtigo Fire

In 1871 Tyler Phillips, Frank’s father, operated a livery stable in the small northern Wisconsin village of Peshtigo. The town was on the lumbering frontier. Nearly everyone who lived in the area was affected by this way of life. In the late summer there had been a drought. This plus the undisciplined destruction of the forest set the stage for a real tragedy of epic proportions. The odor of turpentine and pine was enhanced as many small fires further filled the air with the constant smell of wood smoke. On the night of Sunday October 8, 1871 trees, trimmings and buildings exploded and a fire storm was born that burned over thousands of acres of  and and left some twelve hundred people dead.

As the alarm was sounded Tyler frantically put his wife Jane and their three children, Frank, John and Cornelia, as well as a neighbor woman and her child, in a carriage and raced across the Peshtigo River bridge. Tradition says that the bridge collapsed just after they reached the other side. They then traveled along the river until they came to a place that had already been burned over. There they spent the night. They protected themselves from the fire by dipping a woolen bedspread in the river and then huddling beneath it. In the morning a dazed cow, hair singed, wandered into their camp. They had milk and baked potatoes for breakfast. The baked potatoes were found in a nearby root cellar. After they had eaten the distraught group started for Marinette. So many fallen trees were in their way that it took them two days to travel the ten miles. After reaching their destination they then lived across the river from Marinette in Menominee, Michigan.

On October 9th the fire had burned itself out. Only three houses were left standing in Peshtigo. One of them belonged to Frank’s Uncle, Alvah Phillips. Grandma Olive Bosworth, then 69 years old, lived with Alvah, his wife Mary and their children George, Harriet and John. They thought the world was coming to an end. Grandma Bosworth tied herself and two of her daughter Sylvia’s daughters to a stump where they burned to death. Uncle Alvah and his family survived the disaster by hiding in a well.

Frank’s uncle, John Jackson, was burned to death but his remains were never found. Uncle Bill Duket survived because his uncle, John King, buried him in a furrow at Uncle Alvah’s farm. Bill was a step-uncle of Frank Phillips.

Frank Elijah Phillips was born on May 14, 1865 in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. His father, Tyler Phillips, had married Molly Doyle. She died from diphtheria before any children were born. Tyler’s second wife, Cornelia Jackson, gave birth to Frank in 1865. The couple had a second son, John, who was born in 1867. Cornelia died from tuberculosis on July 3, 1868. He next married Jane King in November 1868. To this union was born nine children. Only three of them lived to maturity, Frankand John’s half-brothers and sister were:Alice, Florie and Fred Phillips.

[this story was told to Dickey Merritt
by his Grandmother Mary Jane (Nash) Phillips-Cassetty,
Frank’s widow, in the 1950’s
and edited by Granddaughter  Linda Phillips Loser in 2006]


Other close family members who died in the fire and are not mentioned in the above account: Frank’s aunt, Ada Phillips Utter and her two children, John and Eliza, his uncle, John Taylor ( Sylvia’s husband) and his cousin, Harry Jackson, son of Ezra Jackson (see below), Cornelia’s brother. Frank’s half-sister, Cornelia, died from effects of the fire.

The following is from an article from the :
Peshtigo Times of October 6, 1971, Survivors P. 5.

Mrs. Carrie Hoppe

She was four months old at the time of the fire. She lived with her parents and 18 month old brother on a farm six miles from Peshtigo. Her father, Ezra Jackson, was bedridden with scarlet fever and her uncle (John) was on the farm to help out.

“When the fire came my father was too sick to run for it and he stayed in bed until the house caught on fire and he had to run.” she recalled.

“My uncle took my brother and hurried out of the house. My mother wrapped me in a baby blanket and told my dad to come with us. He said we should go out onto the plowed field and hope that the fire would not reach us.”

“My uncle carried my brother with him, somewhere we didn’t know. But my mother took my father’s advice and hurried into the field.”

“Mother and I were saved although mother told me that my blanket caught on fire about 45 times and that she beat it out with her hands.”

“After the farm house caught on fire my father left his bed and hurried to the field to join us.”

“We were saved but my uncle and brother were lost. My father found one of my brother’s shoes and some ashes. Most of the ashes had been blown away, but we knew they were dead.” she said.

Though their farmhouse and cattle were destroyed her father rebuilt at the same sight. She lived there until she was married and moved to Green Bay.

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