PESHTIGO — The three-bedroom, two-bath house on this city’s east side blends into the neighborhood.
The front door of 150 S. Beebe Ave. is adorned with a Green Bay Packers welcome sign. The walkway is framed by a pair of maple trees.
There has been remodeling and additions over the years, but the history, while not visible, remains.
For some reason, 150 years ago, what is now the home of Wade and Kathy Schenk was spared from the deadliest fire in U.S. history that destroyed not only Peshtigo but much of northeastern Wisconsin.
The wind-whipped fire, which happened on the same day as the Chicago Fire, consumed more than 1.2 million acres of land and killed somewhere between 1,200 and 2,400 people. The actual death toll is unknown, but about 800 of those who died lived in Peshtigo, where every single building in the community was turned to ash. The exception, on the night of Oct. 8, 1871, was a home under construction just a few blocks from the Peshtigo River.
“It shouldn’t even be here,” Wade Schenk, 62, said of his home. “When we first moved here, 20 some years ago, there used to be tour buses that stopped here like three times a day and I never figured out what they were doing.”
With a couple of inquiries, it didn’t take long, however, for Schenk to discover he owned a piece of history. The tales were affirmed in the years that followed when during renovation work, Schenk found charred lumber used to frame up the wall of his living room. A later roofing project revealed more blackened wood, some of which remains and is visible for those that venture into the home’s attic.
But most can get a glimpse of one of the home’s charred pieces of lumber by visiting the Peshtigo Fire Museum, operated by the Peshtigo Historical Society. The museum, as its title suggests, tells the story of the fire and holds artifacts, photographs and books related to the epic blaze. On Friday, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the fire, a new stone monument will be dedicated outside the museum. The monument is near the gate of an adjacent cemetery that includes a mass grave that holds the remains of an estimated 350 people who could not be identified.
The cemetery is also home to the first brown, wooden marker (erected in 1951) by the Wisconsin Historical Society, while other smaller markers are about some of the known victims who perished in the fire. And they are about a tragic as it can get.
One of the gravestones is for James Mellen, who survived the fire and died in 1884. Mellen, however, had tried to save his two younger siblings the night of the fire by taking them into the river. For four hours he tried to keep the children safe from the heat and flames by wetting their hair and dunking them under water. Mellen, who was 19 at the time, thought his efforts were successful.
“When the older brother brought the children to shore, it was found that both had died of hypothermia,” the plaque on the marker reads.
A mural inside the museum also tries to relay the horror of the night. It was painted in 1967 by Luanne Harff-Burchinal, a Sheboygan native who was the first female artist for the Fort Howard Paper Co. in Green Bay. Harff-Burchinal designed placemats and napkins for restaurants throughout the country, but her Peshtigo mural stands in stark contrast to her typical work.
The mural, on the back wall of the museum, shows buildings in the background engulfed in flames. The foreground depicts the scene in the river. Some cling to logs, others appear to be struggling to stay afloat and some are bleeding. Terror can be seen in the faces, while livestock and horses also try to escape the extreme heat created by the hurricane of fire that tore across Marinette County and beyond.
“It must have been just a horrible experience,” said Pauline King, a volunteer docent at the museum. “There was no warning for something like this coming.”
The Weather Channel didn’t exist because neither did television or radio. Telegraph stations across the country had been reporting conditions to the Smithsonian Institution since 1849, but the National Weather Service wasn’t created until 1870, a year before the blaze. And once the fire spread, telegraph lines were destroyed, according to historical reports.
Weather across the Upper Midwest during the summer and fall of 1871 produced conditions conducive to large, rapidly spreading fires, according to a study by the National Weather Service. At the same time there were scores of fires created by those clearing land for agricultural use and for the construction of a railroad between Green Bay and Escanaba, Michigan.
At the time, Fort Embarrass, approximately 60 miles southwest of Peshtigo, kept detailed weather records. Observers in several entries there indicated smaller fires prior to Oct. 8, dense smoke for several days and temperatures in the 70s.
“Although observations were scarce at the time, a surface weather map on the day of the deadly fire was reconstructed from the available data, indicating a strong low pressure system over the central plains which would have produced strong southwesterly winds across the region,” the weather service later concluded. “These winds, in combination with the warm temperatures and dry conditions, likely led to the rapid spread of preexisting fires and any new fires that ignited.”
To put the fire into historical context, there have been only a few in the U.S. that have swept over more land. None have killed more people.
The Great Chicago Fire, which happened on the same day as the Peshtigo Fire, burned 2,100 acres within the city, destroyed 17,500 buildings, killed about 300 people and left more than 100,000 people homeless.
In 2020, the largest wildfire in California history, according to state officials, tore through just over 1 million acres in six counties where it destroyed 935 structures and killed one person. This year’s Dixie Fire, which continues to burn, has consumed 963,276 acres, destroyed 1,329 structures and killed one person.
The largest fire in Wisconsin since the Peshtigo blaze was the Brockway fire near Black River Falls in 1977. It burned 17,590 acres and destroyed 14 homes, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The Peshtigo Fire Museum, open every day between Memorial Day and Oct. 8, is housed in the first church constructed in the city after the fire. Built in 1872 for the Congregational church on the east side of the river, the church was moved to its current site to replace St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which was rebuilt after the fire but destroyed by another blaze in 1927. The Catholics used the building until 1957 when they constructed a brick church and school three blocks to the south. The old church was deeded to the city and has been home to the museum since 1963.
One of its prized artifacts is the tabernacle pulled from the Catholic church by Father Peter Pernin, a French missionary priest, who later wrote extensively about the fire in an effort to raise funds to build a church in Marinette. Pernin, who had lost the key to the locked tabernacle, had intended to save just the host and the chalice but instead took the whole box and loaded it onto a cart. He then pushed the cart to the river where people had gathered to escape the fire. In the chaos, Pernin began helping people and lost track of the tabernacle. It was found days later floating along the bank of the river. The contents were unscathed, including the fabric curtain behind the tabernacle’s glass window.
“He looked at that as a miracle, of course, and that gave him hope to give the people hope,” King said. “He was a very meek man and in all of this he didn’t seem to panic. He seemed to know what to do. He must of had a strong faith.”
Photos: The 1871 Peshtigo Fire
Peshtigo marker, 1951
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"It must have been just a horrible experience. There was no warning for something like this coming."
Pauline King, a volunteer docent for the Peshtigo Fire Museum