Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

The survivors speak


October 11, 2018

Lillian Baakari Sebring

Kettle River, age 6 months

Her mother, Lillian Elizabeth Baakari, was just six months old at the time of the 1918 fire, said Judy Madsen of Kettle River. Her grandparents, August and Maria Baakari, lived on a farm north of Kettle River. Judy and her husband, Lyle Madsen, still live on that place at the end of Baakari Road.

Lillian was the 10th child of August and Maria.

The men were off fighting the fire that afternoon of Oct. 12. Maria told the children to grab wool blankets, a pail of water and a wire basket of eggs before they fled to the newly-plowed potato field, Judy said.

"Three of the kids went into a root cellar," said Judy. "Aunt Fanny was one of them."

In her story, Judy's cousin, Bebe Obraske Svenhal, told of her mother, Fanny, and her experiences.

"My mother, Fanny Elvira Baakari, was only a girl of 11 or 12 in the fall of 1918," said Bebe. "My mom and their entire family survived the fire. She spoke of the rising wind, the heavy smoke, the terrible red and yellow glow in the western sky, and her father arriving home in a panic, but with purpose. He turned the animals loose to fend for themselves. They were precious, costly animals that meant their livelihood.

"My mother went to hide in the root cellar. It nearly became her tomb. But she heard someone telling her to leave. Was it an angel or was it a God-built-in survival instinct? She remembered terrible smoke and heat after she left the root cellar. She felt her way along the fence behind the house until she found the rest of the family in the potato field."

Judy said sparks started the door on fire, and the three kids had the presence of mind to leave.

Little Lillian was wrapped in a wool shawl or blanket. A burning ember caught in the blanket beside her face.

"When they picked her up after the fire had passed, they pulled the blanket away and found her right ear lying in the blanket," said Judy. "The right side of her face was burned. She was blind in that eye the rest of her life.

"Someone had the idea to put linseed oil on her burns to help her. They got on the train, and then they poured buttermilk on her burns in the hospital."

Bebe told of her mother's memories.

"When morning dawned, she spoke of the bone-chilling cold, the hard-boiled blackened eggs in the bucket, the utter desolation of the land as far as they could see and, above all, the overpowering smell of burnt grass, charred trees, houses, animals and, yes, even people. Those sights by the side of the road as they left were imprinted forever."

Bebe remembered her mother talking about their first taste of canned foods in the relief lines. That canned food was so different from her mother's home canned products.

"I can still hear my mother saying, 'It tasted terrible to us, even as hungry as we were,'" she said.

After the family returned to the homestead, the Red Cross provided the lumber, furnishings and supplies for a shelter. In the fall, the flu epidemic of 1918 claimed the life of a sister, Ina.

Judy said that her grandparents, August and Maria, had one more child after the fire. They rebuilt on the homestead.

Lillian grew up, attended the school in Kalevala, and married Chester Everett Sebring on Sept. 7, 1940, and the couple raised a family of 10 children of their own. She bore the scars of the fire for the rest of her life. She wore her hair down to cover the side of her head with the missing ear, said Judy.

"Mom was a homemaker and was noted for her cinnamon rolls," Judy recalled. "She baked eight loaves of bread twice a week. She would slice off a hunk of bread for each of us when it was hot out of the oven. That was our treat.

"Mom and Dad had the honor of being named Ma and Pa Kettle in 1997, just a year before he died."

The Red Cross shelter remained on the farm and served as a toolshed and storage building until the 1971, when it was removed by Lyle.

"Mom lived to be almost 83," said Judy. "She saw great-grandchildren. She died in 2010 and is buried at the West Branch Cemetery."

Miranda Sundquist

Moose Lake, age 25 years

Editor's note: This letter was sent from Miranda Sundquist, Moose Lake, who was about 25, to her friend, Inez Anderson, who lived in Shenandoah, Iowa. Miranda and her family later lived in St. Paul.

We still are too stunned to realize what really has happened. It just too awful for words. That night will be one that we never will forget. Had we had any warning it might have been different. But to see fire come like it did... Oh, girl. There had been fires at Kettle River all day, and they had called for help. Most all of the men from town were out there.

About 6:30, a car or two full of people came and said they left because the fires were so bad. Still, it never occurred to anyone that Moose Lake was in danger. I was still downtown then and Esther and I were going to bring these people down to the pavilion.

On the way down, I stopped in the house and took my bonds, my diamond and my watch. I said, "Mama, it looks foolish but you put these in our box."

Then, when we got to the pavilion, they sent us up to town to get something to eat. On the way I stopped in to tell the folks where I was. Just then Amy called and said for me to meet her downtown and go with her to the pavilion.

When I got as far as the meat market, there was a bunch there spreading sandwiches for us to bring to the pavilion. I went in and spread one. I happened to glance up and saw a sheet of fire across the sky just for a moment and then it disappeared. It gave me a shock but I didn't say a word, only run home. Then I said, "Folks, get a few blankets and what you want and we will go to the cottage. I had no idea that the fire was so near.

I went upstairs and took my bag. When you have three or four minutes to take all, what are you going to do?

I got my jewelry box and the mirror you gave me, my fur and my suit. Now, Inez, this is what I'll never understand. We were not at all excited or panicky. It could not have been more than four or five minutes before we were in the car. Tillie Odberg was with us.

Editor's note: In "Firebeast," Tillie Odberg said that a family friend was Rev. Sundquist, a Lutheran minister that lived in Moose Lake. She spoke about being in the Sundquist car.

Miranda went on with her letter.

Small sparks were already flying. The fire, or rather, Kettle River is in the direction of the Soo tracks where we were picking flowers, you remember. That is why we started for the cottage. Imagine our surprise when we got along the lake shore. Nothing but smoke and fire. You couldn't see an inch ahead, I don't believe. And cars were going every way. There was a feeling one couldn't express. Nothing but fire, smoke and cars.

All went well until we were about one half of the way between Freeman's and the bridge. Then the car in front of us stopped and we ran right into them. That broke our car. Mama hit the windshield and hurt her leg.

Then we got out. It was impossible to do anything but run on the road, for there was fire on both sides.

When we got to the bridge, there were quite a few there. It was a fire place. There was one dry spot but had to wade up to our knees to get there. However, most everyone was in the water up to their necks at other places along the lake. I forgot we left our car but it didn't burn. Dr. Walters' (car) was only 10 feet behind and burned. Also, did Mr. Swanson's car only a few feet behind the doctor's. I tell you, each and every one had a different experience.

You'd be surprised to see the people. Of all of the hundreds, I don't think I've seen a half dozen cry. They simply seemed dazed.

The town is under martial law. There are about 200 soldiers here. The school house is turned into a regular place. The basement is used to cook and feed the refugees (myself included). Then they have the clothing rooms and a hospital. The different towns have donated quite a lot of clothes. It's been awfully poor stuff but people have to have something. You can't realize how destitute we are. I said I don't have as much as I had when I was born. Not clothes, I know.

About midnight, we went to Mrs. Peterson's. Strangely, her place did not burn although the one only a few feet away did. You'll hardly believe that inside of a half hour the fire crossed the river, burned Kettle River and came seven miles to Moose Lake. Now that is traveling!

So, you see, we had no warning. It's no wonder the people in the country were burned by the hundreds. As for awfulness, the papers do not exaggerate. Someone said anyone who lived through Saturday night need never to be afraid of H___. Those who had lakes to go to were saved. Some went to plowed fields, and that was good. But what can people do with no warning?

The wind was terrific. It simply blew the cars. But one thing, whoever you see is just as unfortunate. The road to the cottage was pretty well cleaned up. Only a couple of houses remaining.

This was a freak fire in a way for, in many places, it took the barn and left the house, and vice versa. The folks hardly knew what to do. At all events, Dad will stay. They may go out to Denham but nothing is certain yet.

As for me, I have my job but I'll not stay here. What's the use? I have nothing. It just makes me sick to think of it.

Mama has been working in the kitchen at the school house ever since the fire. It keeps her from thinking.

Well, Inez, it is nice to have friends anytime, but there is nothing like them when you haven't anything else. And we surely do appreciate everyone and everything they do for us.

It is hard to write for time is scarce and it is so hard to collect one's thoughts.

If I could remember those you met I'd try and tell you something of them. From town here there were only four who perished and they were out towards Kettle River. I can't understand how they all got out. Most everyone went just as they were. There were only two or three from town who even stopped long enough to pick up a thing. So you can understand our hurry. Oh, did you meet Mrs. Odberg from Kettle River?

About one-half hour before the fire hit town they brought their daughter (Tillie) in to our place. They then started for Kettle River to bring back some more people. They got about two miles out and run their car in the ditch so had to get out and run. A car run over her and broke both her legs. He tried to carry her but they both caught on fire and he couldn't manage it. She told him to leave her and save himself for the girls so he had to. Either it was that or both of them would perish.

There were stories and stories just like that.

Oh, that trench funeral. Awful!

Love, Miranda

For more fire stories, call the Star-Gazette office at (218) 485-4406 to obtain your copy of our special edition, published October 11, 2018.


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