Dakota Datebook

Prairie Fires

Sunday, October 19, 2003

On Oct. 19th, 1932, a surprise ice storm in North Dakota broke down 12,360 poles of the Northwestern Bell Telephone Co. and caused $250,000 worth of damage to its lines.

October is one of the most unpredictable months in our state. While homesteaders feared grasshoppers, hail and blizzards that threatened harvesting, September and October also meant having to be on guard for prairie fires that could wipe out hundreds of miles of grass, grain and livestock before they were brought under control.

Halvor and Nicolai Berg, for whom the town of Newburgh is named, homesteaded in Steele County. Nicolai wrote, “A big prairie fire swept through our area late in October, 1874. It probably was started by sparks from a (Northern Pacific) engine fifty miles south of the Goose River. Fanned by a strong wind through at least two-years growth of tall grass, there was a great roar and dense smoke. Knute Paulson, a neighbor…, saw the fire coming and climbed to the roof of his log cabin. He screamed, ‘Fire! Fire!’ as loud as he could.”

Andrew Stavens and a 12 year-old boy, Nels Gronback, got entrapped and would have died if it hadn’t been for the cool-headedness of the older man. Stavens wrapped wet sacks around himself and the boy, which kept them from being consumed, but Stavens’ hands and face were badly burned, and his eyes were so badly burned that he couldn’t see for weeks.

Anders Elken, a Norwegian homesteader in Wells County, wrote, “The hardest work I ever had was to fight prairie fires. Every fall I had to make fire breaks around my home… and had to keep barrels and rags handy… When a fire was in sight… I would soak rags with water I had in barrels and use them to put out the sparks. The first thing I did, however, was to rush out and set a back fire.

“I lost many nights of sleep… fighting prairie fires. I sometimes went as far as ten miles with neighbors to try to prevent a prairie fire from getting into the community and burning the good buffalo grass that cattle fed on. The prairie fire menace prevailed until the whole area was broken into fields.”

Sophie Blumhagen recalled a fire that almost overtook their homesteads near Anamoose. They noticed smoke on the southwest horizon one day, and the next night they saw the cause.

She wrote, “There over the hills came a prairie fire, what a sight that was, one has to see it, it just can’t be told.” The Blumhagen and neighboring men were away on a threshing crew, so it was left to four women to save the children and their three homesteads.

By dawn the fire had closed the gap. Meanwhile, the women had gathered water and gunny sacks and had put on heavy, wet, homespun skirts. They told the children not to leave the yard while they went to protect the farm in most immediate danger.

Sophie recalled, “…the grass was thick and dry, so the flames shot high in places, and how it roared. It was terrible, and children were afraid, for now the mothers were on the other side of the fire – it had come between the Feigner and the Blumenhagen place about a mile south. There were some alkali spots where no grass grew, so the women… got across at one of those places and got home before the fire reached (us).”

The fire had to proceed partly against the wind to reach the second farmyard, but there was danger of losing haystacks and pasture grass for their livestock. So the women set a back fire.

Sophie remembered, “When the two fires met, it made a noise like shotgun fire; the flames shot high in the air, and the fire was out at that place.” But now it was headed for her parents’ place. The women continued beating the fire with their wet sacks, and before the day was finished, they had managed to save all three farms.

When Sophie wrote her memoirs in 1946, she said, “I never have – and never will – forget the thanksgiving prayer meeting those exhausted four women held in my mother’s home when they came home…”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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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