Participating in the events to commemorate the Fires of 1918, just after I had done my own research and wrote the article in the last edition of the Star Gazette, brought my thoughts back to the people that suffered through that terrible tragedy.
I have interviewed many of the survivors over the years during my activities with the Moose Lake Area Historical Society and as a reporter and later editor of the Arrowhead Leader. And those memories came back again as I studied the history books and the stories about how the fire affected the many people that were involved.
I live west of Moose Lake a few miles, one of the areas hit hard by the fire. Not far away is the root cellar where all but one of the Soderberg family took refuge from the horrendous flames.
I have been in that root cellar several times and have marveled at how well built it is. The arched ceiling made with stones is still intact.
I have visualized the people huddled there, on top of the pile of potatoes, waiting for that horrible fire to pass. Little did they know that their neighbors, who had laid on the potato field as the fire passed over them, would survive, while they, seemingly protected from the flames, would suffocate.
The play, "Fire Among the Stones," written by Dan Reed, who is a 1918 fire historian, was a good start to the weekend of commemorative activities. As the actors portrayed the scenes that he had taken from his own memories, the story was laid out in one act. The stories of the survivors were touched upon, and we could get a feel for how terrible it was, both during and after the fire.
Going on the bus tour the next morning and visualizing the flames racing over the countryside and destroying Kettle River and Moose Lake gave one a different perspective. Dan and Steve Blondo narrated the tour as we traveled throughout the fire district from Moose Lake west out to Automba.
It was really brought home to me how many miles of land the fire had covered.
Dan listed the names of the families that we have heard of so often in the fire stories. It made their stories more real to actually see where they tried to survive or lost their lives.
Through his extensive studies, Dan also provided more information about the changes that the fire had brought about in the land.
He said that the water was so crystal clear in the streams and rivers before the fire that one could see the fish swimming and see the bottom. The forest had acted as a filter.
The boom town of Automba, once a major lumber producer, itself was a victim of the fire. It never was rebuilt after the flames swept the homes and businesses away. The timber for the sawmills was gone, destroyed in the fire.
One survivor said that trees could be heard falling in the woods all winter after the 1918 fire.
Dan described the characteristics of the fire — where it was hot and where it was just a ground fire. Fuel was provided by slash lying on the forest floors, where the timber had been taken.The dry conditions, drop in humidity, and high winds all created the perfect storm that contributed to the fast-moving fire. The fire made its own wind.
Sparks from the coal-burning steam trains had set many of the fires that had been burning for weeks.
We saw an area where Dan explained that there was a small sawmill along the road in a neighborhood. When the flames reached the farm, the sawmill, pile of sawdust and the piles of lumber started to burn. The high winds lifted the flaming boards and sent them flying throughout the neighborhood, spreading the fire to nearby homes. Many people were severely burned or lost their lives in that small community.
The forests have recovered, and cows, horses or hay bales dot the fields where there were once potato fields, hayfields and pastures back before the 1918 Fire.
People lived off the land in those days. For those that survived, losing everything just before a long, cold winter was a bleak prospect. Hay and oats had been stored to feed the cattle, horses, pigs and chickens during the winter, and basements and cellars had been filled with potatoes, carrots and cabbage and other produce to feed the family.
The animals provided milk, eggs and meat, and the horses provided the power to work the fields and travel to neighbors' or to town to buy additional supplies.
All of that was wiped out in one afternoon and evening on that Saturday, October 12. Lives were changed forever. Livelihoods had been taken away, along with so many lives.
The memories lived on in the survivors, and they told their stories over and over again. A nurse that worked at the nursing home told me some years ago about the quiet panic that she could see in the eyes of the patients that had survived the fire when October 12 came around each year, especially when there were dry conditions.
They had lived through it, and they were afraid that it would happen again.
It has been said that the Fires of 1918 were the worst tragedy in Minnesota history, and that is still true today. No other event has produced so much loss of life.
We must remember. This is our history. And we can all learn from it.