The Peshtigo Fire Museum, unlike anything we've seen

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July 13, 2007

On October 8, 1871, the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in Marinette County, burned to the ground, the result of a terrible forest fire. Some 800 people died. The town was destroyed.

At the time, Peshtigo was a boom town from the logging industry, railways were extending tracks through the area, and the population had grown to about 1,750.

As bad fortune would have it, there was another bad fire in Chicago October 8 - 10, 1871, destroying about four square miles of the city and killing from 200-300. It came to be known as the "Great Chicago Fire of 1871."

Old hands argue that "The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871" was obscured by the Chicago fire, around which legends grew. These old hands call the Peshtigo blaze, "America's Forgotten Fire."

The forest fire that destroyed the town was, at the time, the worst recorded forest fire in North America. It was burning through northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. When it was over, anywhere between 1,200 to 2,400 people had died.

There is now a great deal written about the fire, and much of it is available on the internet.

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We want to highlight the fire museum in town. We visited in mid-June 2007 on our way back to Wausau from a night's stay in Marinette. This editor normally is not fond of museums. The Peshtigo Fire Museum is different.

The building was the first built after the fire. It housed the former Congregational church of Peshtigo. The Peshtigo Historical Society bought the church and it has been home to the museum since 1963. There is a cemetery on the property that was once used by the Congregational church, and then used as a mass grave for some 400 charred bodies which were beyond recognition. It is staffed entirely by volunteers. Its contents contain a few items that survived the fire, and many other contributions and donations that reflect the style of the day in a magnificent and very real setting. This is the museum's allure. We've seen it described as a "comfortable place." That is most certainly true.

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Outside the front door stands a sculpture of wood, representing the enormous firestorm of flames.

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When you step inside, after being warmly greeted by volunteers anxious to walk you around, or leave you be, you enter a large room decorated with relics of the era. These are arranged as though they were rooms in a house. At the far end are some murals.

Let's walk through the first floor.

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As we indicated earlier, there was not much left from the fire to save. This box contains debris found in 1995 by the local drug store and donated by Robert Couvillion. It is not much to look at, but it does speak volumes about the ferocity of the fire that these things are about all that was left. They include a few broken dishes, what appears to be burned and melted glass, and, incredibly, a bible. The bible is something to behold.

The dark item is the bible. It was found in 1995. It is petrified. It was found opened to Psalms 106 and 107

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This is a closeup of the bible. The volunteers have told us that if they tilt the light above it just right, you can read it. In the gee whiz department, most of us think of petrification as a process taking millions of years It turns out petrification can occur very rapidly, in this case, about 100-plus years. Basically, all that has to happen is for something to be buried quickly so minerals can replace the tissue slowly as it decays. The minerals, such as calcite, pyrite, marcasite and silica, seep through whatever is covering the object. In this case, they seep through perhaps mounds of ash and debris and replace the organic material in the paper, which is essentially a wood product. Chemical processes then occur where the minerals move from the water into the cell walls of the paper. In any event, fascinating stuff.

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We'll focus here on the white box, which is a tabernacle. Father Peter Pernin, the parish priest for Peshtigo and Marinette at the time, took it to the nearby Peshtigo River. It was found three days after the fire, and, we are told, was blackened by the fire, though Father Pernin seems to contradict that, which we will discuss in a moment.

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Father Pernin survived the fire, and wrote a book about it entitled, The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account, which is available on-line courtesy of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, 1971, and Wisconsin Electronic Reader.

He tells of the tabernacle in his account which is available as described above. Work was about to commence to plaster his church in Peshtigo, so he decided not to hold mass on Sunday, October 8, but instead go to Cedar River and tend to his flock there. He took the tabernacle with him.

He apparently got to the Menominee boat dock after the steamboat had already passed. The sky was filled with the smoke of the approaching forest fire, so he returned to Peshtigo and decided to hold mass in his quarters. He prepared a temporary altar and intended to use the tabernacle he had with him.

Much of Sunday, October 8 was otherwise uneventful. But by evening, the smell of smoke was intensifying as were the sounds of the roar of the flames in the forest. Father Pernin, like many, many other residents, decided to head toward the river seeking safety. He placed the tabernacle on his wagon. The fire was now sweeping into the town, with a very vigorous wind, and a lot of noise. Pernin, against great odds, and amidst a great deal of terror and chaos, reached the river. The bridge across was already on fire. Father Pernin decided to wade cross on his own.

It soon became clear to Father Pernin that he was in grave danger from the bellowing fire, so he pushed the wagon with the tabernacle as far into the water as he could and then began helping others, pulling and pushing them into the water. He remained in the water until about 3 am the next morning. You will have to read his descriptions of the ghastly things he saw when he emerged. That afternoon, he left for Marinette by transportation brought by that town's residents coming to help. He remained there until Tuesday, and grabbed a car ride back to Peshtigo. Again, his descriptions of the town when he returned are horrifying.

Miraculously, however a resident saw the tabernacle floating on a log on the river. Father Pernin wrote:

"I hurried with him to that part of the river into which I had pushed as far as possible my wagon containing the tabernacle. This wagon had been blown over on its side by the storm; whilst the tabernacle itself had been caught up by the wind and cast on one of the logs floating on the water. Everything in the immediate vicinity of this spot had been blackened or charred by the flames; logs, trunks, boxes, nothing had escaped, yet, strange to say, there rose the tabernacle, intact in its snowy whiteness, presenting a wonderful contrast to the grimy blackness of the surrounding objects."

These few remnants from the fire can be found just as you enter the museum. While they will attract your attention, so will the large murals straight ahead, at the very back of the museum.

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These are marvelous, and beg for a closer look.

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Before the Fire, a wonderful life.

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During the Fire

Let's break this one into two halves.

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And then, shortly after the fire...

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These are heart-rendering murals. You must see them in person.

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This painting, signed by "Graf," provides a close view of the fire raging out of the forest fanned by high winds and the families scrambling to get away.

There is plenty more we want to show you of this museum.

Let’s walk through the rest of the museum and look at the flavors of the past era.

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Here we are passing between rooms. To the immediate right is a bedroom, which you will see more completely in the next photo. Just on the other side is a school room, which you will also see more closely in a moment. This is how the museum is laid out, making it lots of fun to pass from one area to the other, with a free feeling of openness rather than being cloistered in individual rooms.

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Mom turning in. Her closet is filled with furs, a wonderful chest at the foot of the bed, an oil lamp and a coal burning heater.

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The school room. Love the desks. They actually have books and paper on the them! Abe Lincoln and George Washington on the walls. A globe on teacher's desk.

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Well, where's the groom! This re-creation of a church altar is magnificent, a reflection of the importance people placed on religion, in this case, Christianity.

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Soup's on! The kitchen. The stove-oven is wood burning. It's hard to see, but there is a container for the wood in the right corner.

Let's head downstairs.

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This is a Thompson boat, built in 1914 by Peshtigo's Thompson Brothers Boat Manufacturing Co. Their wooden boats are classics. The company also made canoes, and you can see one on the floor. The company resisted moving away from wood to plastics, which began happening in the 1950s. Thompson would eventually cave to movement to plastics and fiberglass though.\

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This is a "Better Built" Thompson boat of 1929.

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These are Indian dugout canoes. One of them was found in the Peshtigo River.

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The telephone exchange. Can't you see Lillie Tomlin sitting there, listening in, snorting and all!

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Antique weaving loom, part of which appears to have been made by the Lindsay Brothers of Hocking Valley, Ohio, though we have not been able to confirm that.

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This flag was donated by Chester Gryzwa of Peshtigo. The design is the same as the "conjectural" Francis Hopkinson design for the Stars and Stripes done in 1777. Hopkinson was a lawyer and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. He was the only person who claimed credit at the time for designing an American flag, and he billed the Congress. It is said by many to be our first national flag. His design is "conjectural," because there is no original example of it left, and no one knows with exact certainty how it appeared. Some say, for example, that the stars were not five-pointed, but instead six-pointed, like the Star of David.

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And finally, the cemetery outside.