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Flash From The Past - 1971

Oconto County Reporter
November 11, 1971
Contributed by Dave Cisler from the scrapbook of Miriam C. Barribeau CISLER
Transcribed by Cathe Ziereis

 

Couillardville settlers lived in fear of 
the Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871. The day the gates of hell were opened and holocaust of fire belched forth that within hours had wiped out a town and over 800 of its inhabitants. Sad Sunday, the day of the Peshtigo fire.

Nothing will ever be able to take from Peshtigo the unwanted distinction of having history's greatest fire tragedy associated with its name. But it is precisely because of the immensity of destruction concentrated on that community that it is sometimes forgotten how far and wide the fire spread on both sides of the Green bay waters.

In Oconto County (of which Peshtigo was then a part) the nightmare of fear ran from border to border.
 

Relics of Peshtigo Fire – Edward Delano, Couillardville farmer, is shown with the heavy oxen yoke worn by the beasts that carried his father and grandparents to safety on the Oconto river the night of October 8, 1871. The family, who lost everything in the fire, was given supplies by the Red Cross, including the white chair at left. Mr. Delano is holding the metal shoes from the oxen.

It was decided to backfire an area along the Oconto river at the site of the Couillardville bridge where they could go for safety should the need arise.

One of the planners was Edgar DeLano, a Frenchman who had come to this area in 1858 when he was about 14 years old.

After serving in the Civil War he had returned to Couillardville and started to farm on a section along county trunk J, about three miles south of the bridge. By 1871, like his neighbors, he was quite well established, with cleared land circled by split rail fences, and a sizable herd of livestock. He and his wile also had three small sons, Clarence, Bert and Harry, just two.

On Sunday, October 8, there was a brisk wind in the after-noon, but toward evening it seemed to die down to an un-natural stillness. Then, all of a sudden, the wind rose with a terrifying gust, picking up the scattered brush fires and filling the air with flames. The huge pine stands burned with a kind of desperation, and their flaming tops literally tumbled through the air.

As quickly as he could, Mr. DeLano hitched up his team of oxen and with his family, and the few things they had time to load onto the wagon, set out for the river as fast as the beasts could travel.

With the flames literally licking at their heels they made it to the river bank where they camped out for three days be-fore the fire had run its course and they were able to return home.

Among the families with them at the makeshift camp were the Bibbys  (grandparents of  Ruth Kussow); the Gay Nichols, who carne  from the south  side of  Brookside,- and possibly the Dodge, Bovell and Atkins families.

Mrs., Alvin Mittag, retired school teacher who lives with her husband on county trunk J, has collected stories of that disastrous event. One of the accounts passed along to her concerns a family living in the Couillardville area that never made it to the river.

According to the story, the fire moved toward their farm-land so quickly there was no time to do anything but try to outrun it. A grandmother, living with them, realizing she would be unable to keep up, told them to go on without her. Left behind, she pumped a tub full of water and sat by it throughout the night, protecting herself from the flames with wet blankets. The legends the grandmother survived, but the rest of the family perished in the fire.

Another story told by Mrs. Mittag is of the McDonald family (parents of the late Lovetta Clausen), who also had a farm on J, and who had a crippled sister of Mrs. Mc-Donald's living with them. Afraid that the forest fires might get out at control, the McDonalds had loaded a wagon with furniture and clothing and driven to Leighton. They stayed there for two weeks, return-ing home shortly before October 8, thinking their fears were unfounded, and carried all their belongings back into the house except one rocking chair which was left on the lawn.

When they volcano of fire swept down on them that terrifying Sunday evening, there was no time to hitch up the horses and load up again. With Mr. McDonald carrying the crippled girl and his wife carrying a chair for her to rest on periodically, they began running across the field. So close was the fire that they sometimes had to kick down burning rail fences to get across.

Somehow they made it to the river and stayed there until the flames had passed. When they returned home their house and livestock were gone and all that remained was the rock-ing chair, sitting in a circle of unburned grass.

Another family living in the area escaped by standing on a ladder put down a 
well, while their home and all around them burned to  cinders.

One of the heaviest losers in the Leighton area was the founder of that settlement, John Leigh.  Mr. Leigh’s house, which still stands by the Little River Bridge, had just been completed in 1871 and was considered one of the finest homes, in the county.  Besides being owner of a grist mill in that community and a 215-acre farm, Leigh also had 3,500 acres of standing 
timber.
 

Leigh House Escapes Fire – The Leigh home at the Little River bridge, built just before the Peshtigo Fire, escaped the tornado of flames, though 3,000 acres of standing pine owned by the Leigh’s were destroyed.

On the Friday before sad Sunday, the sky was a muddy yellow with smoke drifting about and sparks falling. Leaving instructions with his wife and children to "watch the house', John took off with a crew of men in an attempt to save his timberland.

On Sunday, as night came on, a dull glare began to light the sky, glowing brighter to the north in the vicinity of Peshtigo. As the wind came up, bits of burning branches blew about and the older children were stationed on the roofs of the house, barn, mill, store and boarding house. As soon as a burning twig fell, they doused it with pails of water kept handy. The heroine of the day was one of the younger girls whose post was at a large haystack. When a fire started there she is reported to have fallen on it and suffocated the flames with her body.

The new house and all the buildings were saved, but 3,000 acres of the timber holdings fell to the flames. But in its way, the loss to the other farmers was equally as great. They returned from their camp on the river to find their log buildings, their livestock, crops and fences lying in ashes. It was a heart-breaking time for a people who had started from nothing and worked to build a homestead and were now faced with the task of starting all over again.

A Red Cross headquarters was set up in the Weaver farm home on a hill (now the home of the Don and Lloyd Glynns) and workers distributed clothing and furniture to the burned out settlers.

Red Cross headquarters were set up on the Weaver farm to aid victims of the fire in Couillardville area. The farm house is now the home of Donald and Lloyd Glynn families.

Edgar DeLano was one of those who rebuilt his holdings and in time the family had a large frame house to replace the log cabin lost in the fire. DeLano also operated a machine shop and did custom reaping with one of the first reapers in the territory.

In time the farm went to Edgar's son, Harry, and from him it passed on to his son, Edward, who still lives there with his wife, the former June Leigh, a great-granddaughter of Effie Couillard Leigh, first white child born on the Oconto
river. Harry DeLano's other child is Mrs. Arthur (Jewel) Matravers of Couillardville.

Edward still has the oxen yoke used on the beasts the night they carried his ancestors to safety, as well as the oxen shoes and a chair given his grandfather by the Red Cross.

Some time ago Edward took the heavy yoke to a community meeting and told the story of that terrible night as it had been handed down to him. It was the first time many of the younger couples now living in the area had heard that the Peshtigo Eire had also engulfed their community.
 

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