Author: juliem

Letter: Martha Newberry Coon

George Coon married Martha Newberry and Grace Coon married Martha’s brother Charles Newberry (Martha and Charles were brother and sister; they were children of Henry Sr). George, Martha, their son, and Grace all survived the Peshtigo Fire. Charles Newberry and his and Grace’s two sons died.

Grace survived by taking refuge in a small pond (along with William Newberry and his family, who survived) and constantly dipping her shawl in the water and covering herself with it.

After the fire, George and his family stayed in the Peshtigo area for a few years and then moved to Hancock, Michigan. Grace moved back to Fort Ann, New York, where her father lived. It is noted in the family history that she was blind for two years from the effects of the fire and shock. Later she remarried and moved to Vermont where she had two children with her second husband.

The following letter is from Martha Newberry Coon to Mary Coon Powell (George and Grace’s sister).

Menominee, Michigan

October 10, 1871

Dear Sister:

I have bad news to tell. Charlie and his two little boys are gone. Oh! What a horrible death. There was a tornado of fire swept over the farming district and on the Peshtigo village; it came on us very suddenly. Charlie and his family started to flee. They got about a half mile from home when they went into a little pool of water, Charlie had the two children and some things he was trying to save. He passed through the water thinking to get farther away from the fire. Grace turned back into the water and was saved. In the water were brother William and his family; his wife and baby and his wife’s sister; they were all that remained to tell the tale. Oh Mary, it was truly a night of horror. It rained fire; the air was on fire; some thought the last day had come. Mary—my father, four brothers, two sisters-in-law and five of their children, two of Grace’s, and three of brother Walter’s, ah dear Mary, we are almost crazy; one can hardly keep one’s senses together to write you anything.

George went over to see if he could find their bodies. He found Charlie and the children about five rods from where Grace was. Charlie and Jessie were lying on their faces, and Frankie was sitting down by a stump with his hands up to his face, poor, poor little ones. Mother was saved; she was in Menominee on a visit, but poor old father, he was burned and most all of my brothers.

Grace counted 89 dead bodies within the space of a half mile. There were probably 300 dead. O Mary, Grace has no clothes, I either; our eyes were all burned, but we are better now. Grace has poultices on her eyes, and they are getting better. George, Eddie and I were saved by fleeing to the river.

Grace wants to go to her father as soon as she gets the means to do so. We will have to make some clothes for her. George and I did not save any clothes. Eddie was in bed; I got him up and dressed him, without his stockings. He is without a stocking to his name. It seems that I did not want anything more. George wants you to go see her father and have him send her some money to get home with. Poor Grace is sadly afflicted, and my poor Mother. George found the bodies of all our folks except three, father, one brother and his wife. He is going tomorrow with some men, and some boards to bury them. One brother was all burned except for his face. Oh it is too horrible to write about or to believe. Oh if they have only gone to heaven, they had time, they must have prayed. Grace said Jessie and Frankie prayed. Eddie said, “Pray Mama to God” and Oh how we did pray. Those who never prayed before prayed that night. I can’t write any more, all I can think of is those dead bodies lying there in the woods. Write to Grace as soon as you can.


Charles Lamp/Lemke

Charles “Karl” Lamp (or Lemke) was a German immigrant farmer in the Lower Sugar Bush with his wife, Fredricke, and five daughters. His very pregnant wife began having birth pains during supper on October 8, 1871.

Karl hitched the horses to a wagon and loaded his family—Fredricke holding the reins—when the frightened horses fled to Peshtigo ahead of the wall of flame. Karl ran after them, ignoring a burning in his side, and throwing off his burning shirt without slowing. A falling, burning tree or part of a rail fence hit one of the horses. Karl finally caught up and ran past the wagon to catch the frightened horse who had shucked its harness and was running away. His wife screamed. He turned to see his family and other horse engulfed in flames. They were dead before he could reach the wagon. Karl ran to a shallow brook nearby and threw himself into it.

After the fire, Karl stumbled upon a group of survivors who had also found refuge in the creek. He was blind and had a gaping hole in his side. Later in the day, two men in a wagon drove by, looking for survivors. Karl was taken to the hospital but was so traumatized by the death of his family that he could not speak. A doctor told him the hole in his side would never heal and showed him how to dress and wrap it. Karl followed orders, but as far as he was concerned, his soul had died with his family. Eventually, his eyesight returned, the burned skin on his back was replaced by new, pink skin, and his hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows began to grow back—though his once black hair was now pure white.

Karl was released from the hospital, but he had no desire to see his farm. He lived at a boarding house in Marinette. A friend, who owned land adjoining Karl’s, invited him to stay at his new farmhouse with another couple, the Dahls. Farming was challenging, but in 1873 there was evidence the land was healing. It was time to face his loss and his fears, and he visited his farm with a friend of the Dahl’s, Louisa Behnke. There were no buildings—only burned, fallen trees—but he was ready to begin again.

Karl and Louisa built their farm into one of the most prosperous in the Sugar Bush. They had seven children. Karl died in 1904; Louisa thirty years later. They are buried in the May’s Corner cemetery. The farm is still in the family, and many Lemkes live in the area.

A marker for Karl’s wife and daughters can be seen in the Fire Cemetery.

Survivor! Mrs. Carrie (Jackson) Hoppe

Hoppe was four months old at the time of the fire. She lived with her parents and 18-month-old brother on a farm six miles from Peshtigo. Her father, Ezra Jackson, was bedridden with scarlet fever, and her uncle was on the farm at the time, assisting the family.

“When the fire came, my father was sick, and he stayed in bed until the house caught fire and he had to run,” said Hoppe. “My uncle took my brother and hurried out of the house. My mother wrapped me in a baby blanket and told my dad to come with us.”

Her father told the family to hurry into the plowed field and hope the fire would not reach them.

“My uncle carried my brother with him, somewhere we didn’t know. But my mother took my father’s advice and hurried into the field,” she said. “Mother and I were saved, although mother told me that my blanket caught on fire about 45 times and that she beat it out with her hands.”

When the farmhouse caught on fire, Hoppe’s father left his bed and hurried to the field to join his family.

“We were saved, but my uncle and brother were lost,” she said. “My father found one of my brother’s shoes and some ashes. Most of the ashes had been blown away, but we know they were dead.”

Though their house and cattle were destroyed, her father rebuilt on the same site. She lived there until she and her husband moved to Green Bay.

Story courtesy Peshtigo Times

Survivor! Anna (Korstad) Iverson

Anna was only nine days old on the day of the fire. She was born in Peshtigo on Sept. 29, 1871, and was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lars Korstad.

Her father came from Norway in 1864 and worked for the next three years to save enough money for his wife’s passage to the States. When she joined him in 1867, they moved to Peshtigo.

Anna, the couple’s first child, was born at night while Lars was at work. Their home was a one-room shanty with a sawdust floor. Sawdust was also the foundation for any bedding in the Korstad house. Her father was a millwright for the Ogden and Gardner lumber camps and mills.

The family was fortunate enough to reach the river when the fire struck.

“We sat on a raft covered with a feather bed, my mother holding me and my father spilling water over the three of us as fast as he could so our clothing would not catch fire—but mother’s clothing burned nearly off her back,” said Iverson.

“Help came from the south and even from Europe. Each family was given $50 and free passage to any point in the U.S. Father thought of going to California, but he chose LaCrosse,” she recalled.

Story courtesy Peshtigo Times

Survivor: Wesley Duket

“When balls of fire started coming down from the sky, my mother and father took us to the spring and wrapped us in wet quilts,” said Wesley Duket, who lived in Sugar Bush, five miles from Harmony Corners. “My sister saved the sewing machine by wrapping it up, too.”

“We had a team of oxen. One of them stayed at the spring with us, and the other strayed away and burned,” Duket said. “We had a shed of colts, and you could hear them thrashing as they burned. My brother wanted to open the shed door, but my sister was afraid he would burn to death too.”

Duket said he would never forget the events that took place the next morning.

“My mother and father were (temporarily) blind. I went to see Mrs. Reinhart, our neighbor, and I found her dead,” he recalled. “I liked her a lot and that really hurt me. Her shawl had not completely burned, and I took the corner that was left and kept it with me for many years.”

Story courtesy the Peshtigo Times

Survivor! Amelia Desrochers

“Wake up! The end of the world is coming!” Mrs. Amelia “Stoney” Desrochers recalled her mother shouting when she was only five years old. The blaze reached their home at about 9 p.m.

“There had been fires all along. The men had been fighting them,” Desrocher said. “One night a terrible wind storm came, and the sky got very red.”

“A lot of people perished because they thought it was the end of the world. They got tired of fighting the fire and gave up,” she said.

But her family would not give up the fight. Her mother woke up the children, and Desrochers remembered putting on her shoes, forgetting her stockings.

“When we went out, the wind was blowing the sand so hard that it punched my limbs,” she said. “People told us to go to the river. A man at the bridge ordered us to get aboard a flat-bottomed barge on the river.”

But as the boat traveled down the river, it caught fire, and many jumped out and drowned. Desrochers remembered telling her mother as she looked out the boat’s window, “Look, it’s snowing fire three miles out in the bay.”

“On our way back after the fire died down, we passed a place where there were many dead people laid out on blankets by the river bank,” said Desrochers. “Besides them was a little baby crying—I’ll never forget that.”

Desrochers lived her entire life in the Peshtigo area. She and another survivor, Wesley Duket, spent their last years at the Eklund Convalescent Home and occasionally met to reminisce.

Story courtesy Peshtigo Times. Can be found in the special edition “Remembering the Peshtigo Fire,” available for purchase at the Fire Museum.

Prejudice and humility

Abram Place, originally from Vermont, was the second largest landowner in the area. He also worked at the Peshtigo Company. Yet people looked down him because he had married a Native American woman. He regularly welcomed Native Americans to his home—they warned him that fire was coming.

To prepare, Abram and his sons created a firebreak around their large, two-story house, as well as the barns. They removed dried leaves and branches around the buildings, then dug trenches three feet deep, down to the moist soil devoid of fuel for a potential fire. Most people dismissed his actions as those of a crazy man who had married a Native American.

When the fire approached, Mrs. Place’s relatives came to help save the house. They spent hours wetting and re-wetting blankets and putting them on the roof.

It was probably a combination of preparedness and luck that saved the Place home; it was one of the few buildings still standing in the three settlements in the Sugar Bush. Plowed fields and wet blankets were not universally effective in the firestorm.

After the fire, the Place home became a field hospital. Over 50 victims walked, staggered, or were carried to the homestead. After the fire, the prejudiced neighbors didn’t let their qualms about Mrs. Place keep them from seeking help at her home.

Good Samaritan rewarded

The family of J. E. Beebe—he, his wife, and four children—were running for the river. Both parents and three of the children were struck down by the flames, but the four-year-old daughter was unhurt. She was seen and snatched up by a cobbler, Fred Guse, who carried her to the river. She clung to his shoulders while he found some protection in the deep water. His face and neck were burned, but the child was unharmed.

This child’s mother was the daughter of Governor Henry P. Baldwin of Michigan. When he came to Peshtigo to claim his granddaughter, he heard the story of her rescue. In gratitude, he gave Guse $500—enough money in those days that he was able to establish a business in Chicago.

Governor Baldwin also saw areas of his state burn on the same day as the Peshtigo Fire. On both sides of the state, 23 townships had burned, and another 18 townships were partially destroyed. Holland, Manistee, and Port Huron were especially hard hit. Fourteen thousand square miles were blackened and it is unknown how many people died (estimates range from 50 to over 1,000). Thousands were left destitute.

Can you save my children?

Many people thought plowed fields would provide protection from the fire, and they often do in a regular forest fire. This, however, was not a normal fire, and most who sought refuge in a clearing perished. An exception is the Bakeman family.

Henry Bakeman lived with his wife and six children in the Lower Sugar Bush. There was no stream nearby, so when the fire approached, he gathered his family in the middle of his clearing. They were joined by the neighbor’s eight children as well—Henry Bartells believed the larger clearing at the Bakeman farm would provide better protection for his children. Bakeman told everyone to lie down, and with his hands, he covered his wife and all fourteen children with soil except for their faces. Then he hit the ground and covered himself as much as possible. His resourcefulness saved the lives of his family and all of the neighbor’s children.

After the fire, Bakeman and Bartels began a rescue mission in the Sugar Bush area. Somehow they obtained a wagon and were able to take survivors to the tent field hospital on the only surviving farm in the area (Abram Place) or to the makeshift hospital at Dunlap House in Marinette. These were the gentlemen to pick up Karl Lamp (see his story).

Separation and reunion

Some survivors suffered for hours or even days, agonizing over the unknown fate of their loved ones.

Charles Albrecht lived with his wife and three children in a house on Emery Street, west of the Peshtigo River. He worked as a carpenter and at the time of the fire was employed on a project near the Peshtigo Harbor. His oldest, nine-year-old Louise, was keeping Mrs. Friedrich Aust company at the Aust farm in the Lower Sugar Bush. Mr. Aust was also away, cutting hay near the harbor. With all the talk of fires, she did not want to be alone.

When the fire approached the house, Mrs. Aust and Louise ran to nearby Trout Creek. Though the creek bed was almost dry, the two found a pool of water and immersed themselves.

Meanwhile, back in town, Mrs. Albrecht, though worried about her husband and elder daughter, focused on saving four-year-old Mary and baby Louis. They also found refuge in the same Trout Creek near its junction with the Peshtigo River,  several miles from where her daughter was huddled (now near the location of the middle/high school).

The harbor was east of the path the fire took, so Charles Albrecht survived. Mr. Aust, however—though also working in the harbor area—is thought to have succumbed to the gases that accompanied the fire. He is buried in a small cemetery on Bundy Creek.

It is impossible to comprehend the agony and horror Mr. Albrecht suffered as he walked back to town, looking for his family in the bodies he came upon. And to imagine the joy when the whole family was reunited.