October 8, 1871 must have been a very dry and windy day in the upper Midwest. On that date, catastrophic fires decimated cities, wildernesses and lives in Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The most notorious blaze, occurring that day, was the Great Chicago Fire, which spread 33 square miles and killed 300 people. Yet, a more devastating fire, covering over 1,875 square miles, destroying 12 communities and killing at least 1,200 people, raged in Northeast Wisconsin. It was known as the Peshtigo Fire and still remains the deadliest fire in the history of the United States.
Of course, with a catastrophe of historical significance taking so many lives, there should be some monument commemorating those that suffered and perished. There is such a place. The Peshtigo Fire Museum, located in Peshtigo, is set inside an old Roman Catholic church and pays homage to that dreadful day.
As I approach a modest church, reflecting the blistering sun in a hue of green, I’m wondering what I’ll find inside. I’m hoping, as the temps are in the 90’s along with intolerable humidity, that the church is fitted with air conditioning.
As I struggle with the door and finally open it, I realize that I’m out of luck. The small entrance’s temp is not as oppressive as the weather outside, but I’m not relieved to step indoors either. A lady addresses me, and encourages me to take a map and a flyer. I learn that the museum does not charge admission, although they do collect donations. She also tells me that the basement is the coolest portion of the museum. I shrug and ask “How many artifacts survived the fire?” as I survey a mass of exhibits crammed under the roof of this church.
The elderly lady points to the first glass case on my right. “Those are the only bits to have survived the fire,” she politely states. “The rest is from the time period of the fire, and would depict what life would have been like in those days.” I thank her for the info and am on my way.
I inspect the case first, after all, that is why I came here. Among some rather rudimentary artifacts is this ledger which is well preserved. It belonged to a businessman who owned most of Peshtigo at the time. The ledger was recovered from his vault after the fire. I inquire if the man survived the disaster, to which I received the most Ironic of answers. “He was in Chicago at the time.” I chuckle. I’m assuming he survived that fire also.
After surveying those artifacts I check out more. The museum is sectioned off with portions made to look like scenes of the past, from a general store to a bedroom and everything in between. I like this area, because it contains everyday household knickknacks that one just doesn’t find in the average museum.
However, the lady claimed that the goal was to mimic the time period of the fire. Considering what I find here, that doesn’t quite ring true. There’s a radio and phonograph, not to mention other Items that seem to come from a later time, mixed in with the cluster of exhibits.
I really don’t care, its cool to see this stuff. I just wish there were informative placards to educate a person like myself. I can see these items and speculate, but a clear description is still desirable.
Among these relics, there are news clippings and pictures of the fire. Not to mention, pictures of some of the survivors of the inferno. I learn that the blaze didn’t start in Peshtigo, but from those trying to clear land. They would use a controlled fire to burn a clear section of land. Unfortunately the winds kicked up the flames and spread them uncontrollably. The result were firestorms and, basically, hell on earth. According to the articles, in Peshtigo, many people jumped in the Peshtigo river for safety. Some drowned and others died from hypothermia.
I leave the section sickened by the thought. As I’m about to make my way out of this part of the church, I discover another telling bit about the disaster. Where the altar of the church once stood, a mural depicting a ‘before, during and after the fire’ scene decorates the wall. My heart sinks thinking of a town booming from the influx of people turned to ash.
There is more, even if the church contains the Fire’s exhibits, there’s still a ton more to see. I find a curious shed with kind of a hodge podge of exhibits. There are wood wheel chairs, a dentists chair, boats and agricultural equipment. This is awesome stuff but, once again, I find no placards.
I’m relieved as I step into the last section; the basement. It’s cool in here and there are some really amazing things to view. I discover old hand tools, World War I uniforms and baseball uniforms, not to mention a bunch more. Even old projectors and video cameras make the cut and sit on a ledge.
I return upstairs and make my gratitude known. I grew up in an area affected by the fire. I’ve heard about this disaster my entire life and now I know more. It’s obvious people dedicated a good portion of their lives to make this possible.
While there isn’t a whole lot of artifacts from the fire, I received a bit of an education on the event. Besides, the blaze practically claimed everything, I really didn’t expect to see much anyways. But what surprised me was the amount of quality exhibits this place has. It’s cool to see all this stuff under one roof. I have to say, with the significance of the moment they are commemorating and the amount of exhibit donations they have received, this little church was transformed into quite a unique and interesting Museum!