Forest history association sees bright side of 1871 fires

Forest History Association of Wisconsin member John Grosman and Ed Forrester, association president, talk at the Marinette Historical Society Logging Museum Saturday.

EagleHerald Staff Writer

PESHTIGO—The lives lost in the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 were recalled through story after story at The Forest History Association of Wisconsin’s 46th Annual Fall Conference held in Peshtigo Oct. 7-9.

But attendees also came away with a new respect for the trees destroyed in the blazes and saw the bright side in how fire management emerged after 1871.

“You know about the fire, but just to hear the impact of it becomes much more real than a sentence in a book,” said Joe Hermolin of Antigo, who attended a tour of the Peshtigo Fire Museum Saturday as part of the conference. “I’m not a forester, but I’m interested.”

A fire set to clear land for a railway raged out of control and wiped out far more trees than most people could ever imagine in the Peshtigo Fire of 1871. The trees that returned and spread most efficiently weren’t always the same kind they replaced, and the recovery fueled the study of forestry and sustainable practices in Wisconsin.

Over time, with the forest’s recovery came new forestry policies and programs.

“Wisconsin is really a leader nationally and certainly regionally in sustainable forestry,” said John Grosman, a retired forester from Woodruff, Wis.

The fires of 1871 and the recovery period helped people understand the value of forestry. At the time of the fire, trees were largely taken for granted and forestry wasn’t fully respected.

“This was an era when trees were a problem. If you could get them out of the way and move on with agriculture because we were an agrarian society, life was going to be good,” Grosman said.

After the fire, the need for replenishment became more obvious. It took 30 years or more for the trees wiped out by the fire to regenerate. Some tree species returned more quickly than the hardwoods.

White pine returned because the seeds blew and scattered. Aspen also cropped up because it thrives in sunlight, which was more plentiful after the fire removed the shade.

“Aspen is a sunlight-loving tree, coming in after the fire,” said Ed Forrester, president of the Forest History Association of Wisconsin, during a stop Saturday at the Marinette County Historical Logging Museum. But it won’t live as long as maple and other hardwoods. “It lives between 40 and 60 years. It’s going to die on you.”

After the fire, in the late 1800s, forestry as a trade and field of study grew. “Some of the recovery occurred because forestry came into practice. A lot of the skills associated with forestry actually were imported from Europe,” he said. Forestry schools started to produce people in the 1890s and later. “There was a flow of people that began implementing things,” he said.

They formed policy and programs that led to Wisconsin’s state and county forest programs.

“Some of the real recovery didn’t begin probably until early in the 1900s,” Grosman said. The fire of 1871 “was a very, very impactful event.”

Sam Karam of St. Paul, Minn., returned to Peshtigo for the fire history conference after traveling through Wisconsin four years ago. “When I found out about this historic fire, I wanted to hear more,” he said.

Carol Wojticki, a retired teacher from St. Francis, Wis., near Milwaukee, learned of the conference online because her husband Dennis is writing a play about the Peshtigo fire. “He wanted to come up for the anniversary,” she said.

Carol said as a child she visited relatives in Menominee during the summer, but she didn’t learn about the fires. “Nobody ever mentioned the Peshtigo fire when I was around. It wasn’t until late in my life that we were introduced to it,” she said.

“We have a historical interest. They’re trying to get teachers interested in this,” Dennis said.

The Fire History Association gave conference scholarships to seven teachers in keeping with the association’s mission. “Our mission is to inform, educate, archive and publish forest history,” Grosman said. It recorded the seminars presented at the conference and will make them accessible online, he said. It also worked with the Learning, Experiences, and Activities in Forestry (LEAF) program to provide the scholarships to educators.

Bobbie Windus of Lena, who teaches high school agriculture to students in grades 7 to 12 at Lena High School, said she intends to bring back to her students the history of the Peshtigo fire and “how heartbreaking and devastating it was.”

Nicole Filizetti, LEAF program development specialist at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education, said she learned about the Peshtigo fire in a more personal way by attending the conference.

Among the myths that she said were debunked were, “The fire did not start here and jump the bay,” Filizetti said. Instead, separate fires at Peshtigo and in Door County spread on both sides of the Bay of Green Bay Oct. 8, 1871.

While the fire was extremely hot, it wasn’t hot enough to boil the water in the river and bay. “It was still cold, but once you popped your head out of the water, it might have burned,” she said.

This year’s annual conference focused largely on the fires of 1871, and one lesson discussed was “sense of place,” Grosman said. How do you connect with your parents and grandparents, and how does that affect who you are and how you are?

But the lessons learned after the Peshtigo fire weren’t enough to prevent another round of wildfires in the early 1900s. “There were still a lot of mistakes leading up to 1920. In 1910, there were huge fires all around the country, especially in the Northwest U.S.”

Congress enacted Weeks law providing funding for forest services to the states, Grosman said. “By 1911, there was enough angst and cry for ‘do something’ that federal Congress gave away money, he said. Wisconsin’s fire response organization was started with the federal funds.

As this year’s wildfires in California suggest, sustainable forestry and fire management is an ongoing field of study. “I think we’re still learning about some of these things,” Grosman said.