PRESERVING THE PAST: Prairie Fires of 1856 and Beyond


The latest Preserving The Past documents the great prairie fires that struck Calhoun County. In one instance, wild animals sought shelter alongside residents in one of the great blazes. [File photo]
By: 
Lynne Gentry
Special to The Graphic-Advocate

My younger son serves as a volunteer firefighter with the Rockwell City Fire Department.

He told me that, so far this harvest season, the Rockwell City department in mutual aid with other country departments has been called out to 10 field fires.  One of the fires burned such a large area that it can be seen on a satellite photo of the area.

Such large fires are nothing new to the county. Stonebraker’s history has the following account of prairie fires between 1856 and 1884 in a chapter titled “Miscellaneous History.” 

As you read, keep in mind that this was written before 1915.

“First among these miscellaneous happenings were the prairie fires that in the early days wrought considerable damage to crop, buildings and fences and caused consternation among the scattered population of the frontier. 

How these fires started was many times a mystery, but once started they baffled all human skill to extinguish them, and swept across the prairie until all vegetation growing upon hundreds and even thousands of acres was reduced to a dead and blackened mass.

The first disastrous fire after the settlement of Calhoun County began was in the fall of 1856. It came from the northwest and those who witnessed the spectacle say that it had the appearance of a wall of flame.

A stiff breeze was blowing, which caught up burning wisps of grass and carried them in advance, constantly staring new fires. 

In this way, the Coon River and other streams were crossed. The tall slough grass was dry enough to burn like tinder and the people soon came to realize that all efforts to fight the fire would prove futile. Therefore, they fled from their homes to save their lives, leaving practically everything to the flames.

Wild animals in great numbers also fled before the fire, but the domestic animals were not endowed with sufficient instinct to save themselves, and many perished. A few families were rendered homeless and all the settlers suffered by the destruction of their crops.

Another great fire occurred in 1863, doing great damage to growing crops and other property. But, by heroic efforts, the people saved their homes.

As on former occasions, the wild game fled before the flames, and in some instances, the wild beasts sought safety about the houses of the settler, forgetting in their terror that man was their natural enemy.

In October 1868, a fire started late one evening on the prairie near Lake City and moved rapidly northward through what are now Elm Grove and Garfield townships. Fortunately that part of the county was then thinly settled and little damage resulted. The light of this fire could be seen for miles.

The theory of some writers that Indians started the prairie fires for the purpose of driving out the game might apply to fires farther back in the past. However, such a theory is hardly tenable in connection with those in Calhoun County, for the reason that they occurred after (the Indians) had left the county. It is far more probably that the fires of later days were caused by carelessness. 

Some pioneer might have tried the experiment of burning off the grass, in order that the ground might be more easily plowed, and the fire got beyond his control. The dropping of a burning match, the emptying of a tobacco pipe, or the casting away of the stump of a cigar by some traveler might start a fire that would destroy thousands of dollars worth of property. 

As raw prairies were brought under cultivation, prairie fires became less frequent. But, as late as 1884, the entire population of Rockwell City was called out to combat a fire that started on the prairie north of town. It was only by the concerted action of the citizens that the village was saved from destruction.”

I love Stonebraker’s language. The prairie fires “caused consternation,” but citizen’s “heroic efforts” and “concerted actions” saved property from destruction.

My fireman son said that, just as 150 years ago, field fires are sometimes the result of carelessness: a burn pile set in too much wind, a toss of a cigarette from a car. Many are the product of bearings in farm equipment overheating.

And as in the distant past, neighbors help. They bring their tractors and discs to turn ground to keep the fire from spreading.  

If you know firemen in any of Calhoun County’s departments, thank them for their efforts during this harvest season.      

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