Forgotten History

My mother was born in Marinette, Wisconsin, a small northern town you’ve probably never heard of that sits on the border with Upper Michigan. Marinette is only a couple of miles northeast of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, another town you’ve probably never heard of. And that’s a shame.

I could try to recreate the town of Peshtigo for you from memory, but decades have passed since I last went through the place. I can’t believe too much about it has changed, though. It was (and probably still is) a close-knit lumber town surrounded by pine forests and smelled of the nearby paper mill.  Peshtigo is also divided in half by a river, not surprisingly called the Peshtigo River.

Because I grew up in nearby Marquette, Michigan and passed through Peshtigo at least a handful of times every year as a kid, I know its history. I know its story. I know why nobody else knows it, too. In fact, during my junior year of high school in suburban D.C., Peshtigo’s story was the one thing that helped me graduate from high school on time. My class attendance was awful, truancy-worthy, even, but my history teacher gave me a final shot at passing his class. His challenge:

Teach me something I don’t already know.

So I told him about Peshtigo. I told him about the lumber town, the river, and of one of the driest summers on record. I told him what happened on October 8, 1871, and he asked, “Isn’t that the same date as the Great Chicago Fire?” Why, yes. Yes, it is!

I passed my history class, became a senior, and spent some of my final year of high school helping to grade juniors’ papers with my former history teacher.

***

The reason most people have never heard of the town of Peshtigo is because of Chicago. More people were killed in the Peshtigo Fire, an estimated 2,500 compared to Chicago’s 200 to 300. They both occurred on the same date. Peshtigo’s fire was caused by drought and lightning, not by a legendary cow (I’m looking at you, Mrs. O’Leary!). The firestorm in Peshtigo was exactly that: a storm. It created its own weather patterns complete with cloud-to-ground lightning and tornadoes. But what’s all that worth when a cosmopolitan city on the lakeshore is nearly destroyed by a cow? Forgotten history, indeed.

(I had been struggling a bit to come up with a topic for my upcoming thesis for my bachelor’s degree. When I came across this page in Andrew Carroll’s Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, I took it as a sign. Also, if you have knowledge of any resources or people, historians or otherwise, that/who may be able to help me with my research, please let me know.):

Flying in planes

As my father paced back and forth in the airport, no doubt pissed that he got stuck flying overseas with us kids, I enthusiastically declared, “I hope our plane crashes so I don’t ever have to go to school again!”

He was not amused.

“Don’t you ever say a thing like that EVER again!” He actually yelled at me.  And then promptly instructed me to hand my carrying case full of Strawberry Shortcake dolls over to the nice security men fully armed with machine guns and no smiles. 

It was just your typical German airport in the mid-80s. No biggie.

I was only eight but it was my third time going through that airport and my fifth time being in an airplane.  My father was in the United States Air Force and flying in airplanes was kind of expected to happen, to all of us. 

My dad, brother, and I flew from Frankfurt,Germany to Philadelphia and then on to Charleston, South Carolina.  My mother had taken another flight out of Rome because she was traveling with our dog (and, surprise!, my yet-to-be-known-about little brother).  I was fine. I was totally fine. Actually, the only thing I remember about the flight was riding in a tram in Philly and then shopping for a vehicle in Charleston.  The rest of our travels were done by land.  Oh, precious, precious land.

I like land.  I like being on land a whole bunch.

The last time I flew was when I was fourteen…er, fifteen? Maybe sixteen.  My family decided to take a trip to Milwaukee to visit my mother’s side of the family (whom we’d spent a lot of time with when we lived in Upper Michigan). We were living at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland at the time and flew out of then­-National Airport.  This was my first experience with selective memory, otherwise known as HOLY SH*T SHE’S FREAKIN’ THE EFF OUT!!!

Seriously, I don’t remember a damn thing about that flight. I have a vague recollection of walking through the airport in Milwaukee and meeting my Uncle John who quickly loaded us into his van and drove us to his home in Brown Deer (also home to Bob Uecker!!).  I marveled at the fact that they had a swimming pool, not because I’d never seen one before but because it’s Wisconsin, for cryin’ out loud. It’s only ever warm for 2 weeks out of the year. Geez.

My week in Wisconsin is a blur. There is something about driving through Germantown with my cousin, walking into a cornfield to find a hidden stash of alcohol, and getting asked out on a date by my cousin’s best friend.  Oh, and the approach as we headed into National Airport and the guy next to me asking if I’d like to see the lights outside the window (it was at night).

Besides that, I remember nothing. My brain, all terrified and whatnot, just refers to erggrarglghara-duhur! when it tries to recall memories from our family’s summer vacation of 199…oh, hell, I don’t even know what year it was.  Erggrarglghara-duhur!!

Not too long after that, another Wisconsin cousin of mine was getting married and his mother, my aunt, was nice enough to invite me to fly out for the wedding.  I said yes! YES! I’d love to come to Wisconsin! I changed my work schedule and told all my friends and boy, oh boy! Was I ever excited! Eerggrarglghara-duhur!!  Oh, yes. That’s the sound of my brain when I finally realized that flying meant hahaha – you gotta get on an airplane!

Um, no likey.

Looking back, there is no specific time in my life that I can go back to and say, that’s the moment!  That’s the exact moment I went completely nuts and erggrarglghara-duhur!!!

Eff planes, man. I just don’t like them.

I love the sounds of airplanes.  My entire life has been spent near airplanes.  As a military child, I learned to eat, sleep, and live through the deafening roar of a fighter jet practicing maneuvers over my house.  Nowadays, I’m only a few miles from Jacksonville International Airport.  Southwest Airlines flies directly overhead a few days a week.  The rumbling bellow of an airplane is music to my ears.  

However, the afternoon of my flight, my paid-for-by-my-aunt-non-refundable-round-trip-flight, I fretted in my garage and nervously smoked through an entire pack of Marlboro Lights within a couple of hours. Pre-9/11, I had packed my bags and prepared to leave at 5:30 for a 6:30 flight out of National Airport. Back then, I didn’t even have the opportunity to be dumped off at the airport 2 hours before the flight to fret in public and catch the eyes of airport security who, no doubt, would have noticed my fragile state of mind and immediately pulled me aside for terrorist questioning and a complete body scan. No, no, no!  I got to panic and mumble incoherent statements about bombs and Lockerbie and there’s something on the wing in the complete safety of my own home.

And then I totally lost my shit and told my mom to go in my place. She did. And she had a fabulous time with her family!

But, really?  When did this happen? At what moment did my brain just decide to get all John Lithgow ala Twilight Zone: The Movie and erggrarglghara-duhur!! The sheer mention of having to get on a plane just sends me into a panic, an episode of selective amnesia, because I don’t even want to consider it. Yes, I’m one of those idiots who’d rather spend way too much time driving from one end of the country to the other.  It’s a good thing I like seeing the country that way, from sea level and all.  You can;t experience that kind of thing when you’re on an airplane.

Besides, those things sometimes just fall out of the sky, you know.  And you can’t just pull over at a truck stop to stretch your legs when you need a break from traveling. That’s super annoying.  And it’s all out of my control.

I like being in control. Obviously.

There are a few places that I’d like to visit, or re-visit, as it may be, but I cannot imagine how I’m going to pull off taking the time away from work to haul my happy ass from Florida to wherever without getting homesick somewhere in Kentucky and just turning around.  It’s frustrating sometimes.  A woman I know who suffers from severe bouts of seasickness once explained to me that, when traveling by sailboat (her husband lives for this stuff) to the Keys or Bermuda or the Bahamas, the destination is sometime worth the unpleasantness of the journey itself.

I hope that I can one day I can actually believe that. Even if it’s just a small hop to Atlanta, maybe I could actually step foot on a plane and get reacquainted with…

OH MY GOD THERE’S SOMETHING ON THE WING!!!

Other people's postcards – Part II

Henderson, KY (October 12, 1954)

Hi Shirl, Jerry, and Kenny,

We are in Kentucky and having a wonderful time. The weather is so nice we don’t even have to wear jackets! Hope the rain hasn’t flooded you.

Love, Annette and Brad

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Rice Lake, WI (July 29, 1957)

Hi folks,

I am spending a week in Chetek, Wisconsin with my sister Mae and her family. It is 375 miles from Chicago. We left home Friday and it took us 10 hours to get here. We were all dead tired. It was a long ride.

Chetek is a small town with a lot of small lakes. We went swimming in this lake although it doesn’t have a beach. It does have a sandy shore. Tomorrow we are going to Rice Lake where they have a patrolled beach. It is sure nice weather. Will write more when I get home. Hope you are all fine.

Love, Libbie

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Hollywood, CA (June 3, 1950)

Hi Shirley,

Here we are having a wonderful time. Stopped off to see everything on our way out. Saw the Grand Canyon. We also went skating. Today we visited all the studios and movie stars’ homes and boy is it beautiful out here! Be seeing you soon.

Love, Rose and Joe

Fire

My mother was born and raised in Northern Wisconsin, not too far from a town called Peshtigo.  Peshtigo is a small town just a few miles from the Upper Michigan border and is situated on the banks of the Peshtigo River which spills into nearby Lake Michigan. US Highway 41 cuts through a part of the town while leading you over the bridge that hovers above the river where so many people died one fateful night in 1871.

Most people have never heard of this catastrophe and that makes the events in Peshtigo doubly tragic.  Honestly, if it were not for the fact that my mother calls this part of the country home, I may have never heard of it myself.  But one afternoon when I was about 10 or 11 years old, my mother took me to my first ever local museum to teach me about the fiery and often forgotten incident that left thousands dead, including many children.

In the late 19th century, Peshtigo was a logging town, its buildings constructed of wood and its streets filled with sawdust.  The summer leading up to the greatest forest fire in our country’s history had been dry and dusty with no promise of a cooperating rain. Parched earth left the town vulnerable to disaster but there seems to be no greater enemy that night than the bustling and ever popular city of Chicago.

Chicago and Peshtigo both went up in flames on October 8, 1871. Crews rushed to save Chicago.  The residents of Peshtigo and the surrounding towns were on their own.  There were no fire crews left in the region since they’d all started to move south in an effort to save one of the country’s most populated cities.

The city of Chicago suffered tremendously.  Also constructed mainly of wood, the business district was devastated.  Approximately 300 people died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. 

Here are some other numbers:

  • What is known as The Peshtigo Fire covered 2,400 square miles of land in Northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
  • It is believed that between 1,200 and 2,400 people were killed in the Peshtigo Fire.  In the town of Peshtigo alone, nearly half the population perished.
  • There are reports that a cyclonic storm in the region generated a number of fire tornados which essentially enabled the wildfire to jump over large bodies of water, including Green Bay. 
  • Many of Peshtigo’s residents died from being burned or from drowning.  As most assumed the safest place to wait out the firestorm was the Peshtigo River, none anticipated that the river itself would catch fire.  No place was safe.

As I walked through the museum with my mom, I was drawn toward the children’s section full of toys, clothing, eyeglasses, and shoes.  Maybe because I was still such a young girl myself, I couldn’t take my eyes off of a little doll that had survived the disaster.  The handmade doll rested above a small crib made of dark wood with no padding or anything placed inside.

I am beyond a doubt convinced that this outing with my mother is what began my fascination with natural disasters and, more importantly, stories of human triumph.  It’s what made me realize that every person, every town, has its own story to tell. An alleged tale of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and the unfortunate incidents that followed in the drought-stricken city of Chicago contributed to the deaths of thousands in an unknown region of the wilderness of Northern Wisconsin.  And that if we look hard enough, we will see that we, either by relationships or circumstances, are all connected in some way.

Oh!

Accents have always fascinated me.  When my family moved back to the states and I discovered that I was not Italian (you mean I’ve been an American this whole time?), we found ourselves in the wilds of Upper Michigan, a place thick with snowmobiles, deer hunters, and the Yooper accent.  I mean, Da Yooper accent.  I’m not quite sure if I brought to America any kind of accent from Italy, but I can take credit for introducing lots of neighbors to the joy and wonder that is Nutella.  That’s really the coolest thing I ever accomplished by the age of eight. However, as a product of the millions-strong military family, I also brought with me a handy-dandy adaptability and a heavy desire to fit in with my peers. So, naturally, I began to sound like the rest of Upper Michigan.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear the narrator really expand on his oh sounds.  Maybe you won’t even need to listen all that closely.  It’s certainly there, this Yooper accent:

(On a totally unrelated note, only once in my five years as a student in Marquette County do I remember schools being closed for bad weather.  It wasn’t even because of the snow.  The wind chill was reaching close to -60 degrees – yes, negative 60 degrees – and the county just didn’t want any of the little kiddies freezing to death at the bus stop. Tough breed of people, dem der Yoopers.)

So I pay attention to the way people speak.  I’m sure it has everything to do with my geographic displacement in life and a constant exposure to my mother’s Northern Wisconsin accent.  You might be asking yourself right now, “A Yooper accent and a Northern Wisconsin accent are different?”  Yes, they certainly are.  For one, there is no eh at the end of a sentence in Northern Wisconsin.  And secondly, I also thought there was a certain Fargo-the movie quality to a Northern Wisconsin accent.  But that’s just me. Yoopers descend from a long history of Finnish immigrant miners.  Northern Wisconsinites are more of the German/Polish stock.

Some people like to point out that I talk…funny.  Well, it’s funny to you, North Florida.  I know when my mouth is forming the word bowl that I mean to say bowl, not bull.  To you, it sounds the same. To me, and almost every other Yooper/Northern Wisconsinite in the land, the two words couldn’t sound more different.  My best friend in Milwaukee pointed out that the word sausage is pronounced sassage…but I know what she’s saying and it has nothing to do with any diva-like qualities and no reference to my daughter’s pain-in-the-ass mood I like to call Sassysquatch.  It’s a sausage, by golly. 

My grandfather was born and raised in Northern Wisconsin.  He’s a Beaber…the Americanized spelling of the German/Polish Bieber.  Are we related to the squeal-worthy charmer known as Justin?  I’m sure in someone’s dark, deep www.ancestry.com file, there’s a connection.  But Grandpa carries a thick accent, so much so that I’ve had to translate once or twice for my friends.  I don’t think he speaks German or Polish, but if you heard him you might think English was his second language.  That’s only because of his Northern Wisconsin accent, though. 

(Note: I’ve suggested t-shirts for our next family reunion – they should read The Original Beaber Fever. And we can all wear skinny jeans and roll our leather jacket sleeves up to our elbows and flip our heads to seductively throw our bangs from our eyes.  But most of us are older than 16 and all that head-flipping could result in neck strains and muscle spasms.  It’s probably best we stick with the t-shirts and call it a day.)

Here in Florida, I don’t notice a southern accent.  At least, it’s not as rampant as those from other parts of the country might suspect.  Does Florida have an accent?  If so, has it been diluted by the millions of snowbirds who have wintered here since the beginning of time?  Maybe that’s why it isn’t so noticeable.  One thing is for sure: I can point out an accent from the Great Lakes region in no time.  Other people might be able to as well, but I bet they don’t get as excited as I do when I come across someone I consider to be of my own kind.

And when I meet one, well…move over, rest of the world.  I’ve got someone to talk shop with.  Subjects of discussion include: shoveling driveways for money as a kid, smelt fishing, at least one terrifying experience being buried in the snow, pasties (a like in apple), the Great Peshtigo Fire (the Great Chicago Fire stole our thunder), how Northern Michigan refers to the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula (because the Upper Peninsula is so far up north, it scares people), and the way the Yooper accent is mockingly compared to the Canadian accent.

For the record, I cannot ever recall a time in my life when I spoke aboot things, like going oot for the evening while wearing a bedazzled bloose.  That’s Canadian. (translation: aboot – about, oot – out, bloose – blouse).

Because that just sounds silly.

However, I have been in the South long enough to catch myself saying y’all. I do not say fixin’ and I hold steadfast in my desire to never allow that word to roll off my tongue and pass my lips, unless I am making fun of my brother who now says it himself. 

My contributions to the southern language?  You guys (the northern equivalent of y’all) and yah (yes). A coke means a soda, a bubbler is a water fountain, and nearly every word containing the oh sound gets special recognition from me. 

We Yoopers like our oh sounds.