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Survivor Stories of the Peshtigo Fire

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

Sources: Federal Census Renumeration; American Civil War Military records (National Archives Records Administration - NARA); 1890 Federal Military Veterans & Pensioners Census; Wisconsin Land Records; Bernardy, Rawn and Felch Family records; Wisconsin pre 1907 Vital Records Indexes; contemporary maps.

Christian John Felch had come to North America from Preussen (Prussia, now part of Germany and Poland) where he had faced the illness, wars and poor economy that left few employment opportunities for a man. As with hundreds of thousands of others, he was hoping to work toward a better life, despite not knowing the language or customs of this new land. He may even be able to own his own land someday. The lumber industry of the Upper Great Lakes drew him for work cutting trees in the dense, wild forests in Winter and mill work at other times of the year.

At the age of 30, and single, Christian Felch (also spelled Felcht, Filch) joined the Union Army during the United States Civil War. He enlisted in Preble, Brown County, Wisconsin August 20, 1864 and served as a private in the 3rd Regiment, Wisconsin Infantry (Film Number M559 roll 9), participating in battles until the war ended April 9, 1865, and in reconstruction patrols until he was mustered out of the military July 18, 1865.

Returning to Northeastern Wisconsin, he again took up life as a woodsman. Christian had attempted to homestead land in Oconto County on two occasions, but the first time, not being literate left him without a clear understanding of the requirements. The second attempt was more successful, but having limited income and the hard, long hours of work left him not enough time to finish the clearing, planting, well digging and building requirements to complete ownership. In 1867 Christian had sold his second attempt at homesteading in the area now called town of Porterfield (was in Oconto County until 1879, now Marinette County) to the Jacob Rawn Family. Members of the family living at the new homestead were
Jacob, wife Louisa Allen Rawn, children Seth, Henry, Lydia, Rachel, Mary Catherine, Charles Allen, Thomas, Emma Jane.

In 1869 Christian had used the money from the land sale and was establishing successfully on his own homestead.
Charles was also working at the Porterfield lumber camp and mill in 1870 to earn money for tools and supplies.  Living in the boarding house run by lumberman Isac Stephenson, Christian was one of 45 men bunking and working in the Porterfield mill that Summer. Nearly all the men had come from places other than Wisconsin; New Brunswick, Maine, Prussia,  Canada Canada, Bohemia, Norway, Holland, Luxemberg, New York, Ireland and Denmark to name a few. Differences in language and culture had to be overcome when people worked and lived so closely together and friendships grew.

Christian was now age 36 and a successful land owner.
He had met Josephine Meyer, who had two children, Frederick and Rosa Meyer.  Her husband Charles Meyer had recently died.  Josephina had been born in Bohemia in May of 1838 and had immigrated with her parents in 1850 at the age of 12 years.

Working on his homestead early in the mornings and late at night after spending hours at the local mill, Christian had built a log cabin and tool shed
from the trees on his land. He had also dug a root cellar where he stored much of the crops he had been able to grown on the cultivated land between the stumps that still needed to be "pulled".  Cabbage, squash, carrots, parsnip, onion, potatoes, beets and rutabaga were among the foods stored for winter.  The money he earned at work went into tools, seed and supplies. Unlike some others, Christian had no family and did the work primarily on his own, having immigrated with almost nothing but a will to work hard.

Christian John Felch and Josephina Meyer were married in April of 1871. He, his new wife and two step children began to make a home for themselves in his homestead cabin.
By late summer Josephina knew she was expecting a child, Christian's first. It was a difficult second year of drought with months smoldering fires and hot weather. Families were struggling with the nearly constant smoke and lack of rain. They looked forward to a winter cool-down and more revitalizing snow than the scant amounts that had fallen the previous year. By October, the smoke, drought and heat continued as if to never end. The evening time after dark afforded the best time for labor at the homestead and Josephina took the opportunity after the children were in bed to bake bread. Christian was out in the tool shed working as well.  The wind had begun to rise, but it had increased heat and was of no comfort in the choking air.

At about 9 pm the couple were startled by the sound of beating hooves and men's frantic shouts.  Two workers from the mill were riding up to the isolated cabin to warn the family of a tremendous forest fire coming fast in their direction. They were trying to find and rouse settlers on their own way to the perceived safety of the Menominee River and the city of Marinette in that dark, frightening, smoky night.

The children had been awakened
by the commotion and were screaming.  Josephina wanted to stay with Christian in the cabin, but he insisted that she and the children start out down the small footpath through the dense forest and choking, hot smoke toward the Bernardy homestead on the way to the river. Josephina was by now in her sixth month a pregnancy and unable to carry her youngest over the rough footing. She began to hear a low rumbling roar behind them as they stumbled along the two miles ahead. It was nearly impossible to see or breath.

Christian had said he would join them as soon as he had made some last minute preparation.  He had no draft animals to help with the exodus. Taking a few important items into the root cellar, land documents, tableware, his army weapon and precious tools, he closed the entrance to the earth covered cellar and frantically shoveled soil up against the door. The heat and smoke were now blinding as he placed rocks at the covered entrance. Burning ash showering down made him think to run to the cabin and gather blankets and quilts to use as meager protection for his family. A red glow in the distance was now a bright orange light accompanied by an every louder roar of the wind.
Josephina and the children had met up with the fleeing Hattenberg and Rawn families at the Bernardy homestead and the entire group, made up of three generations, quickly began down the main road toward the river one mile away. Christian caught up with them along the path and covered as many as he could with the blankets in hopes of reducing the burns, shaking them frequently so the smoldering ash did not light them ablaze. Mr. Bernary's mother had arthritis and, using a cane to walk, fell behind with Christian, Josephine and the others with young children. Breathing had become almost impossible.

Mr. Bernardy realized quickly that his mother, women and children would not make it to the river. As he turned back to his homestead to get the team of oxen and wagon.  The other men lead the group to an open field where the soil had been plowed over. Digging frantically with their hands in the loose dirt,  the adults made small trenches for the children to lay in. The women the laid themselves over and beside the partly underground children and the men threw blankets over them. Using their hands, the men, young and older, then proceeded to throw a layer soil on top the blankets in an effort to shield the group from the burning ash that rained down on them and provide an air space beneath to help with breathing. Once done, they were burrowing themselves under when Mr. Bernardy, his team and wagon showed up. He could not see them but was shouting loudly hoping to find them in the maelstrom. They heard him and moved as quickly to the wagon as possible, carrying their blankets. Mr. Bernardy had also thought to bring what he could hastily provide by way of coverings. By this time the tops of the trees were bursting into flame around them. The oxen could not see ahead but remained calm as they moved along at a relatively slow but continual pace toward the river.

Once at the river, the exhausted women and children were placed on logs just off the bank. The oxen were set free of their harnesses.  The men continually whetted the coverings and replaced them over the group.  Each man tried to stay underwater in between wetting for as long as they were able. The roar was deafening; the winds were tornadic and super heated; all around them spontaneously burst into flame; the group prayed for the hours that skys rain hell-fire on them. Sometime after 3 am.  the fire began to settle down and eventually the group left the water to walk on the hot ashes and burning soil.  Most could not see and hardly breath due to the hours spent in dense heat and smoke, but all had somehow survived. The Bernardy oxen had taken to the river as well and were found to survive.

They needed water to drink and to ease the pain of their burns. Mr Bernardy realized that the very top of his head had not been submerged and developed a painful deep burn there. Still, this was minor compared to the needs that were before the group.  Mr. Bernardy started for help in Marinette. Mr. Rawn, Hattenburg and Christian Felch went off to find their homesteads in hopes that some water, food and cover would be left to bring back to the others. Christian found the rocks he had placed over the covered opening to the root cellar, and he found the stove, twisted and melted, where the cabin once stood. All else was smoldering flatlands. Inside the stove were the blackened bread loaves Josephina had been baking.  Slitting them open, he find the centers unburned and carried these back to the river with the new of the total loss. Upon his return to the group on the river bank,
Christian promised Josephina that he would rebuild in time for them to have their first Christmas together there, as he gave the unburned bread to the group's children.  A short time later Mr. Rawn and Mr. Hattenburg returned to report total losses of their own homesteads.  Before returning they found stored potatoes and other root vegetables, partly roasted, and brought these back.  The wells had been filled with burning debris so river water would have to do until they could collect enough of the rain water that began several hours after the fire. First the burning heat's affects on their skin, eyes and lungs, then the chilling river water and rain left most so incapacitated they were unable to move any longer or create any shelter. They lapsed in and out of painful, restless sleep.

Relief came to them at last in the form of dry clean clothes, food, water and some medical care, organized by Mrs. Armour, a nurse of Marinette. Most of that city had been saved from total destruction and parties of people went into the countryside to help. Josephina and the children, along with the other women and children,  were taken into Marinette to say in homes that opened their doors to them.

Mr. Bernardy and other family men made arrangements to stay the winter in the hunting cabin of a Menominee while they began the cleanup and rebuilding of their homesteads.  Over the next weeks, Christian Felch went back to his homestead and lived in the root cellar while he felled trees, pealed and notched logs from damaged trees on his property. He had build a covered well before the fire, rather than a pit well, which was less work to clean for use. Christian patiently  cleared the debris of the old cabin and rebuild the foundation. With his store of tools in tact, he fashioned tamarack beams and shingles from any marsh trees still left.  By mid December he had almost completed the materials needed to rebuild the cabin. One man could not finish the job alone.

Christian was a kind and helpful man and had made many friends in his years of working in the woods and mill. His kindness to many was returned on one day just before Christmas when a group of men from the Porterfield Mill, where Christian had worked, brought two teams, ropes and gear to build the new log cabin. They had taken the day off from rebuilding the mill to help a friend.

In one winter day the "bee" completed the entire exterior of the cabin and most of the modest interior work. Donated furniture from relief agencies in Marinette was brought in. Josephina and the two children came "home" for the first family Christmas. Anne, the couples first child, was born in the cabin February. Later Christian added a stockade style lean-to room to the back of the house and in 1873 a son, Christian John Felch was added to the family. In 1876 Christian John Felch Sr. was naturalized in Oconto County as a citizen of the United States of America.

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