Settler's best friend and worst enemy - fire

Sandy Vasko

        When we think about the first settlers in our area, we imagine them living on the prairie with beauty all around them. The tall grass dotted with flowers waved all around them as they went about their chores.
    This very beauty however could turn into a wild monster in a blink of the eye. I speak of the monster known as the prairie fire. Today we look at fire.
        Just like many natural phenomenon, prairie fires had a season. In the autumn when the grasses started to die back, the rains became fewer but the thunderstorms increased in intensity that was the season for fire.
    In the book “Legends and Tales of Homeland on The Kankakee” published in 1928 by the Kankakee Historical Society, author Bert E. Burroughs describes the scene this way:
    “Day after day and night after night the heavens were lighted by leaping tongues of flame from fires that raged far out on the broad expanse of Grand Prairie, traveling oft-times with the speed of an express train.
    “Viewed at night, the sight was most spectacular, great curling, leaping mountains of flame giving to the universe something of the appearance of a seething volcano or inferno.
    “Persons caught in the pathway of the advancing flames saved themselves by back-firing. Attempts to break through the wall of fire were sometimes attended with fatal results.”
    In Eliza Farnhams book published in 1847 she tells of a family who lived near Peoria on the prairie. The father had taken the harvest to the mill to be ground and would be gone four or five days
     On the second day, the dog woke the family in the middle of the night to warn them of the approach of a raging prairie fire. He kept pulling at them and barking until the mother with her two little children followed him to a patch of land that had been cleared for planting just a week earlier.
    Here they watched the red menace move around their little bare island of ground, eventually devouring their little cabin.
    Unfortunately, the weather turned cold, and all their food had been burned.  The family took what shelter they could and waited for the return of the father, who was delayed by the same fire. By the time he arrived home his wife who was pregnant with their third child had died of exposure and another child died quite soon after.
    Tales like this were commonplace in the early 1830's and 1840's in this area and were taken in stride. It was the price you had to pay for living on the sea of grass. But even as late as 1867 we read of a prairie fire burning out of control near Stewart's Grove, in the township of Reed.
    Citizens turned out en masse to try to save fences, buildings and homes but it was no use. One of the hardest hit was the brothers Trainer who lost between 80 and 90 tons of hay, their barns and their homes.
    As the prairie was tamed, the monster prairie fires were not as common. The fire that threatened pioneer lives usually came from inside the cabin or house itself. It must be remembered that all light and heat came from flame, usually open flame.
    There were two kinds of light sources previous to the 1870's, candles and lamps. Candles were not made of paraffin as today's are, as paraffin is a product of refining crude oil. Instead they were made of beeswax or tallow, which is animal fat.
    Beeswax was quite expensive and used only by the rich or in churches. Thus the candles used by most people were made from animal tallow, which is soft and dripped hot fat constantly.
    Tables, floors and cabinets were usually soaked with the stuff. And moving from room to room with a burning candle could be a dangerous adventure, especially for the children.  
    Lamps, similar to the decorative oil lamps we have today, were a more permanent source of light and were usually mounted on wall brackets or left in a permanent position on a table.
    They were filled with whale oil. Of course in this area, whale oil was incredibly expensive.
    In the 1860's “burning fluid” became available. We now call it kerosene. The process of refining it from crude oil was just being developed and was not perfected. It was highly volatile as we read in the Oct. 31, 1861 Wilmington Independent.
    Mrs. Cooley, wife of a canal boat captain, was walking with a fluid lamp in her hand, in the cabin of the boat that was navigating the Feeder Canal. The lamp she was carrying exploded, setting fire to her clothing and burning her face, breast and arms so badly that her life was despaired of.
    They sent for Dr. Abbott of Wilmington who met them at the junction of the Des Plaines River and he was able to dress her burns, allowing her to survive.  
    The editor remarked, “Our legislature should pass a law prohibiting the manufacture, sale or use of this most dangerous and destructive liquid.”  
    Even as late as 1874 the editor of the Wilmington Advocate remarked, “Flesh For Fuel should be the headline on the many stories about kerosene fires these days.”  
    Even a bump of the table with a burning candle or lit lamp was enough to cause a fire. Thus a bucket of water stood in every public place, and in the corner of almost every room of cabin or house.
    The term spontaneous combustion did not exist in the 19th century, but the combustion itself did. Wet hay has long been known to catch fire on its own, so the storage of hay was strictly limited.
    In fact fires of all types were highly regulated. In 1868 the City Council of Wilmington passed an ordinance which stated: "No person shall, in any of the streets, lanes, avenues or alleys of said city, or upon any square or public lands therein, make or kindle any fires, without first having obtained permission. So offending shall, on conviction thereof, pay a sum of ten dollars.”
    Quite a sum when the average man might bring home less than a dollar a day.
    By the time Braidwood sprang into being the regulations about fire were in place. After all, Braidwood was built on what could be turned into the largest fire in the world.