Christian Felch was finally successful at homesteading when
he settled down on a 20-acre plot west of the Jacob Bernardy family homestead near
the Menominee River. This was his third attempt at homesteading since his previous two efforts failed because his inability to fluently speak
or read English prevented him from satisfying government requirements. Acres of this hard-earned land were then cleared and occupied by a
log cabin, root-house, covered well and a tool and work shed. The work
day began at 3:30 a.m. and did not end until after 9 p.m. How else could
a German immigrant - handicapped by a language barrier - make it in this unforgiving wilderness?
There were plenty of rewards for his hard work. The soil was rich, and
the first crops were grown around stumps and boulders. Onions, potatoes, pumpkins and other vegetables were all planted in this manner.
The farm was far from any civilization. A brushed-out trail led to a
path along the river's edge which was the only way to get to Marinette.
Indian trails led the way south toward the Peshtigo River and northwest to
Lake Noquebay. Enormous white pines towered over the land. The summer of 1871 had been unusually warm and dry. Brush fires were numerous, and the air was heavy with smoke. The night of Oct. 8 was no different than many nights that had come
and gone before it. Because of this, the smokey air was not alarming or
But as the night advanced, an almost haunting atmosphere encompassed
the homestead. The sky was rosy with an orange tint. The roaming wind blended into a howl. The air was dense with smoke. With the strangeness in
the night came the inducement to work later than usual. By 9 p.m., the children were tucked in bed, but Chris and his wife, Josephine, were still stirring around. He was in the wood shed, while
she was baking bread in the kitchen. Josephine, the widow of Charles Meyer,
had married Chris in April, and they were expecting their first child in February. Suddenly the voices of two men interrupted their work. As Chris stood
in the open door, he could hear horses racing towards them. The riders'
shouts echoed surprise in finding a cabin so far into the forest. They were
riding at top speed to save their lives but paused long enough to warn the
Felch family that a forest fire was coming their way - and coming fast! Chris urged Sophie to run ahead with the children, and he promised
to catch up with them after burying the family valuables. So the children and
the mother, in her late months of pregnancy, ran off into the night. Chris hastily gathered his valuables, paper records, silverware, clock, army musket, shaving strap and tools. Into the root house they went.
He quickly shoveled dirt over them, making a covering about 1 foot deep.
Then, marking the place with two large stones, he ran to catch his family.
It was two miles to the Bernardy farm, where he found the group with
the Rawn and Hattenberg families. The Bernardy family had already left
for the river. The atmosphere was almost unbearable. The exhausted group was coughing and choking. The men decided it was now impossible for the
women and children to run any further. They could never make it to the river. So the small Catholic group lay with their heads to the ground to help
ease their breathing and lessen the coughing. They repeated the rosary over
and over throughout the night. At 3:30 a.m., the flames finally faded -
and the group was still alive.
Rawn and Hattenberg left the group in search of food and drinking water. Chris hunted for his hard-earned homestead. He located the land, but everything except the root house was destroyed. The stove still stood but was twisted and melted. The oven door was
molded shut. Chris pried it open and found Sophie's bread burned black with
only the center edible. He carried it back to the group. It was the only
food they had, and it was given only to the children. The first help for the family came from the Red Cross. Rose David Armour, nurse for the organization, invited Sophie and her children to live
with her until their home was built.
Chris had promised Sophie a new home by Christmas. Through the next
two months, he labored hard to obtain the needed materials. By late December
he was ready to begin building.
On December 24, the Porterfield Lumber Camp crew surprised him. They
came as a building bee and set up the two-story cottage in one day. The furniture was moved in the following day, and the family was able to celebrate Christmas in their new home.
Peshtigo Fire Continued
©1998 Peshtigo Times. All Rights Reserved.
This article can be read in its entirety along with various other stories
about the Peshtigo Fire and the city's history in Remembering the Peshtigo Fire.