Dakota Datebook

Fear of Fires in the Barn

Monday, January 6, 2014


A barn was always the biggest building on a farm one hundred years ago. For farm kids, the hayloft in the barn was a place of wonderment, full of hay and memories. In the hayloft, children worked hard, getting hay-bales or loose hay packed tightly into every space, and they played hard, swinging on ropes, shooting basketballs into a hoop, or making hay-forts, pretending to be Tarzan, a soldier or a sports star. But the hayloft could also be awe-inspiring for its hazards, especially those associated with fire.

Farm children, in the days before electric lights, were told strictly by their parents NOT to bring kerosene lanterns into the hayloft. Even without the presence of lanterns, farmers were afraid of spontaneous combustion – when insufficiently dried hay could heat up and ignite.

On this date in 1901, the Grand Forks Herald reported that a fire destroyed a barn at NDSU’s agricultural college, with losses estimated at $18,000. Thankfully, all the livestock were saved, and moved to a nearby barn.

It was reported that NDSU’s administration thought that the flames “originated from spontaneous combustion.” Scientifically, spontaneous combustion meant that if clover or alfalfa or timothy-grass hay had not been dried sufficiently, the moisture could cause fermentation leading to oxidation. The internal temperatures could rise to the ignition point and cruel flames would spread rapidly through the hay, creating a maelstrom of destruction.

The best preventative to spontaneous combustion was to cut the hay, and then cure and dry the hay, without rain interfering with the process. However, even though farmers strived to “make hay while the sun shines,” some rain was bound to fall, and even the morning dew could harm the harvesting.

While no animals were lost in the fire at NDSU that cold January day, others were not always so fortunate. At Wyndmere, farmer N.C. Jensen’s brand-new barn burned to the ground in February of 1908. Fourteen horses, eighty head of cattle and thirty tons of hay in the hayloft were lost in the fire, which started in the middle of the night.

At Galesburg, in 1908, John Gisvold suffered the loss of “ten head of horses and 18 head of cattle,” burned in a fire that destroyed his barn on a sad day in May.

Other barn-fires were caused by tramps, drifters, or vagabonds who sometimes sneaked into a hayloft for a night’s rest. Frank Viets, who had a large barn just a mile north of Grand Forks, was distraught that his barn filled with hay and containing “considerable farm machinery” was destroyed in an inferno believed to have been “fired by tramps.”

These fears – of hayloft fires, spontaneous combustion and irresponsible drifters – were universal among farmers in bygone days.

Today’s Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “A.C. Barn Burned,” Grand Forks Herald, January 6, 1901, p.1.

“Barn Burned,” Fargo Forum, January 4, 1901, p. 5.

“Many Things Saved,” Fargo Forum, January 5, 1901, p. 1.

“Spontaneous Combustion,” Bismarck Daily Tribune, July 23, 1909, p. 5.

“Spontaneous Combustion,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, September 1, 1899, p. 2.

“Cattle Burned To Death,” Grand Forks Herald, February 15, 1908, p. 2.

“Horses And Barn Burned,” Grand Forks Herald, May 8, 1908, p. 1.

“Spontaneous Combustion: The Cause of Burning Barns,” Grand Forks Herald, October 10, 1884, p. 3.

“Last Night’s Fire,” Grand Forks Herald, October 15, 1893, p. 5.

Steven R. Hoffbeck, The Haymakers: A Chronicle of Five Farm Families (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000), p. 93.


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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