Featured Museum: The Forgotten Fire

You’re probably aware of the Great Chicago Fire and the legend that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was to blame. But how many of you know about another fire that took place just 250 miles north of Chicago in Peshtigo, Wisconsin on exactly the same day, October 8, 1871? Although the Chicago fire was devastating, the Peshtigo fire (referred to by locals and historians as “The Forgotten Fire”) actually caused wider property destruction and greater loss of life.

Mural in Peshtigo Fire Museum depicting scenes from the fire of 1871

Mural in Peshtigo Fire Museum

The Devastation

The Peshtigo fire raged through a 2,400 square mile area and killed about 1,200 people. Compare that to the Chicago fire which covered an area of three and a third square miles and took the lives of about 300 people. A common denominator in both events was a prolonged, severe drought in the Midwestern United States. But in northeastern Wisconsin, the drought combined with strong winds to create an inferno from fires burned in the normal course of life and industry at the time. Campfires, stump-burning, “slash and burn” land-clearing practices all contributed.

The Memorial

Pestigo Fire Museum exterior

Peshtigo Fire Museum in Peshtigo, Wisconsin

Since 1963, the Peshtigo Historical Society has operated the Peshtigo Fire Museum as a memorial to the victims and survivors of the fire. It’s located in a former Congregational church that was moved from another location in 1927. At the time of the Peshtigo fire, a Catholic Church stood on the site.

Mass Grave in Peshtigo

Mass Grave of Fire Victims in Peshtigo

Adjacent to the museum is the Fire Cemetery where victims and survivors of the fire are buried. A mass grave holds the remains of about 350 victims who could not be identified.

There aren’t many artifacts in the museum from the fire itself. After all, nearly everything was destroyed at the time. However, the tabernacle from the Catholic church in the photo below was saved from the fire by the parish priest, Father Pernin.

tabernacle saved from fire

These shards of glass, a charred bible, and a woman’s melted watch are among the few remnants that have been found. The bible was found in 1995 during the course of some work being done near the town drugstore.

Debris from Peshtigo Fire

Recovered Remnants

Burned watch

Woman’s Watch

Life and Times

Several exhibits illustrate what life was like during the time of the fire and into the early 20th century with authentic items donated by local residents, including clothing, furniture, glassware, dolls and books. The mannequins might seem a little odd, but on what is surely a low budget, I think the historical society has done a good job in portraying a past way of life.

School Room at Peshtigo Fire Museum

Late 19th Century Classroom

General Store Display

General Store

Footwear of the Times

Footwear of the Times

This and That From Other Times

What the museum doesn’t have in salvaged artifacts from the fire, it makes up for with a large, eclectic collection of donated items from various eras. Storage areas behind the museum and in the basement are packed with antiques that represent the post-fire history of Peshtigo and its people. I’m sure I didn’t see everything, but I did take notice of telephone switchboards, a boat made in 1914, old dentist office equipment, animal traps, tools, musical instruments, World War I military uniforms, looms, typewriters, my personal favorite — a vintage Helene Curtis hair dryer, and much more.

Bicycle Built for Two

Bicycle Built for Two at Peshtigo Fire Museum

Antique Telephone Switchboards

Antique Telephone Switchboards

Now you know about “The Forgotten Fire”. I think it’s quite commendable that the historical society has managed to keep the museum in operation for 49 years solely with donations and the aide of volunteers. Pay them a visit if you’re ever in the area.

The museum is open from May to October. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

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48 thoughts on “Featured Museum: The Forgotten Fire

    1. Cathy Post author

      It really was a huge fire that destroyed a wide area in that part of Wisconsin — one of the worst forest fires in U.S. history.

  1. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    You find the most interesting museums, Cathy! I liked how they incorporated exhibits of how life was like during the days. Those switchboards look so complicated. It’s a wonderful tribute to the fire and tragedy. That mural is very sad and gave me goosebumps. I’m sure its impact was more powerful when seen in person.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Mary. I had known about this museum for quite a while (my father, a former Chicago fireman had been there) but had not had a chance to visit. So glad that I did.

  2. Laurel

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never even heard of the Forgotten Fire until reading this post. Very interesting read and it’s amazing what a local group of volunteers can do to keep history alive.

  3. Jackie Smith

    I have to admit I am beginning to live for Thursdays – and posts like this are the reasons why. This is so interesting and something I’d likely never have known had you not written about it. Thanks Cathy for another great post and photos.

  4. Leigh

    My feet hurt just thinking of squeezing into that footwear!
    If a fire like that happened now it would hit social media in a very big way and would never be The Forgotten Fire, I LOVE your photo of the mural.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Leigh. You are so right about social media — thew word would be out right away, even about small town like Peshtigo.

  5. Andi at The Particular Traveler

    Thank you for sharing this museum and information, Cathy. I hadn’t heard of the Forgotten Fire before reading this…what a sad story and beautiful tribute.

    On another note, I did get a kick out of remembering the old song “Late last night, when I was home in bed, Miss O’Leary took a lantern to the shed…” 🙂

  6. jade

    What a cool musuem. There is one like this in Nashville that displays scene and sets them all up. It’s really cool. I didn’t know about this fire, and really didn’t know that much about the great fire in Chicago. I need a history brush up!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Growing up in the Chicago area, we spent quite a bit of time learning about Chicago history. School children in Peshtigo learn about the great fire there, but the word hasn’t really gotten out anywhere else — except on Traveling with Sweeney, of course. 🙂

  7. Nancie

    I never knew about this fire! Thanks for sharing the info. and your wonderful photos. (I like your photo with Prague in the background…or at least I think that’s Prague!)

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Nancie! My profile photo was actually taken in Heidelberg, Germany, but I can how it could be mistaken for Prague. Both places are favorites of mine.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I was shocked to find out how much area was destroyed and how many lives were lost. It was also chilling to stand by that mass grave where the remains of 350 are buried.

  8. Jeff Titelius

    Truly fascinating my friend. I had no idea that another fire occurred on the same day and caused greater devastation. Thanks for shedding light on this tragic but forgotten story. Thanks to you, it’s no longer forgotten!

  9. Michael Figueiredo

    How interesting! I’d never heard of the “Forgotten Fire” before. (I suppose that’s why they call it “forgotten.”) What a sad loss of life, but at least this museum is keeping the memory alive.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Isn’t it wonderful that there are people who care enough about their community’s history to work so hard to keep the memory alive?

  10. Steve

    You know why it’s the forgotten fire don’t you? Marketing. The Chicago fire has a catchy backstory with Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Peshtigo needs something like that to blame the fire on and build up a legend around. Either that or they can try and piggyback on the Chicago fire and just claim it was a really fast cow.
    Truthfully though, I never knew about this fire. Thanks for bringing it to light.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You actually hit the nail on the head – marketing was a big thing even back then. Of course the cow story got a lot of attention! Also, communications were a big problem. The sole telegraph line up in Peshtigo was down. Hard for word to get out.

  11. insideJourneys

    Wow, a devastating fire that almost got eclipsed by a smaller one. It’s not just now that the media focus on one story to the exclusion of another, bigger one. Glad the town decided to do something.

    1. Cathy Post author

      You’re right, Marcia. As Steve was commenting above — Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was a good (if questionable) story. And of course, Chicago was a big city… Nobody thought very much about a small Wisconsin town and rural area.

    1. Cathy Post author

      LOL about the mannequins. I liked the exhibits, but the mannequins made me think of old department store displays.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Courtney. My pleasure to share new information. Glad to give the historic event & the Peshtigo community a little press.

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  15. Duane L. Goff

    Were the two switchboards, shown, operated in the village of Peshtigo, WI?? If so, do you have a picture of the building in which they were operated?? Thank You for any assistance you may give me!!! Duane L. Goff

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Hi Duane – thanks for the comment. I emailed the City of Peshtigo to see if they could help. The museum is currently closed until Memorial Day. I’ll let you know if I hear back. You might want to try contacting them, too. Here’s the phone: (715) 582-3041 email: cityhall@cityofpeshtigo.us — Let us know if you find out.

  16. Duane L. Goff

    Were the two switchboards, shown, operated in the village of Peshtigo, WI?? If so, do you have a picture of the building in which they were operated?? Thank You for any assistance you may give me!!! Duane L. Goff

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