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1918 Fires: Reservation burns, but Ojibwe benefit from history with fire

Before and after: Holy Family Church congregation members and priests pose for a photo taken sometime before the church was destroyed by fire in 1918. The church was located on the high bluff overlooking the St. Louis River just upriver from Cloquet. Photos courtesy of Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum1 / 6
The remains of Holy Family Church after the fire. Photos courtesy of Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum2 / 6
Fond du Lac elder and former wildland firefighting boss Vern Northrup shows how the 1918 fire swept across the Indian reservation. Jana Peterson / jpeterson@pinejournal.com3 / 6
Vern Northrup is retired from wildland firefighting but has turned his vocation into art with a photographic exhibit of cell phone pictures taken during a prescribed burn in the Apostle Islands. 4 / 6
Vern Northrup is retired from wildland firefighting but has turned his vocation into art with a photographic exhibit of cell phone pictures taken during a prescribed burn in the Apostle Islands. Vern Northrup photo5 / 6
Vern Northrup is retired from wildland firefighting but has turned his vocation into art with a photographic exhibit of cell phone pictures taken during a prescribed burn in the Apostle Islands. Vern Northrup photo6 / 6

The story of the 1918 fires and Fond du Lac is remarkable for what didn't happen on the reservation as the fires raged across the largely rural area between Brookston and Cloquet.

No one died.

Even though the fire burned through much of the northern half of the reservation and destroyed the Indian Village and Holy Family Church, there was no recorded loss of life. Of course, it took a few days to figure that out.

The Fond du Lac agency superintendent, George W. Cross, telegraphed the United States Office of Indian Affairs for help the day after the fire.

"Fond du Lac Reservation devastated by forest fire," he wrote. "City of Cloquet and adjacent towns destroyed. Office records and furniture burned. Many Indians homeless. Loss of life not known. Wire five thousand dollars care First National Bank Duluth Immediate Relief."

According to "The Fires of Autumn," by Francis Carroll and Franklin Raiter, Cross later reporter that 57 Ojibwe homes and many more out-buildings were burned. Livestock died and crops were lost. Between 245-269 Native Americans suffered sufficient losses to file damage claims from the fire.

To escape the fire, they jumped on relief trains if they lived close enough, found shelter in one of the local lakes or crossed onto one of the islands on the St. Louis River that didn't burn.

But no one died.

Fond du Lac elder Vern Northrup reckons every Anishinaabe on the reservation — there were settlers there, too — likely witnessed a large fire, as Minnesota seemed to get hit by one every 15-17 years. Consider the Hinckley fire in 1894, which burned 480 square miles in four hours, while the 1918 fires burned a total of 1,500 square miles in just over a day.

Northrup also credits the Anishinaabe generational experience with fire for that remarkable statistic.

"For thousands of years, the Native Americans used fire as a tool," said Northrup, a retired wildland fire operations specialist. "They managed their environment with fire. They've recorded over 700 uses the Native Americans had for fire, for what they wanted to get done: hunting, berries, managing the trees themselves.

"You can look at the old pine stumps and count the intervals of fire," he said. "Even pre-contact."

Firefighting family

According to the 1910 Census, Vern's grandfather, Joe Northrup, was a fire warden on the Fond du Lac Reservation. His late grandson, Cody Bauer, was also a wildland firefighter. Two of his brothers were wildland firefighters, too.

Joe certainly walked the same forest land that Vern does now, and likely knew such a disaster was probable 100 years ago because part of his job was talking to farmers and loggers about how to keep the slash down. Slash is all the stumps, branches, bark and extra parts of the trees that weren't taken or usable by the lumber companies, he explained.

On Oct. 12, 1918, the day the fires burned through much of Carlton County, Joe Northrup and his unit were activated in Duluth and they fought the fires in Hermantown. Afterward, they came to Carlton County to help in the recovery efforts. Joe was later cited by his unit for bravery in the face of the fire.

"Firefighting runs in my blood," Vern said.

So does writing. Joe Northrup published a book, "Wawina," in serial form in the Carlton County Vidette newspaper in 1936-37; the book is listed in the Library of Congress. He wrote other stories, just like Vern's brother, the late Jim Northrup. The creative side of the family tree didn't skip Vern either; he recently had a photographic show in Duluth that literally focused on fire.

Vern Northrup blames the "greed" of the Weyerhauser family, who owned the largest lumber company in the area, for providing the fuel for the fire because they didn't require loggers or other workers to get rid of the slash, so it accumulated on the forest floor. It took too much time, so they just left it behind.

"We call it fuel loading," he said.

In addition, completely logging an area means the next forest will grow up at the same time. Unevenly aged forest can better resist fire, he said.

The weather sealed the deal. An extremely dry summer meant a "good" fire season, as in lots of fires burning. On top of that, he said, it was about 1910 that "all fire became bad," a significant shift in fire management philosophy that only recently reversed course.

Past and present

In his role as incident commander and fire boss for the Fond du Lac wildland firefighter unit, Northrup said he approached the tribal council in the early 1990s to ask if the reservation would allow them to use fire as a tool to manage the land and the risks of fire.

"One of the things the band members were talking about was the fact that there were less blueberries," Northrup said. "So we began burning for blueberries on a five-year rotation. We set up plots around the reservation, different sizes, and let people know where they were. Or, we'd burn out the understory in a pine stand so we could get more small pine seeding naturally."

Lane Johnson, a University of Minnesota Cloquet Forestry Center research forester, points to evidence that people (the Lake Superior Ojibwe) were likely setting similar fires historically for blueberries. By looking at fire scars embedded in tree rings, they can see when past fires occurred. It was happening on parts of the land now occupied by the Forestry Center every 8-10 years on average from at least the mid-1700s to the early 1900s, said Johnson, who will host fire history walking tours there on Oct. 6 at 9:30 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of Carlton County Conservation Education Days.

There is still some old-growth forest on the site, and people walking through the woods can find the triangular fire scars, or "cat faces," at the bases of some of the longest-lived red and white pine there, trees that were partially burned but didn't die. As a tree grows and heals over time, eventually, the scar closes up.

Although no one died, the fire changed many things on the reservation.

"The 1918 fire was absolutely a big deal for the reservation," Northrup said. "It removed most of the game. Then again, it changed the forest. We got new emergent stuff and species that liked it.

"We didn't look at fire as good or bad. It's just another spirit that we have to respect."

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>1918 fires events

Sept. 9, 1 p.m. — Author Connie Jacobson will present on the 1918 fires in Hermantown, where she is the Historical Society director.

Sept. 13, 6:30 p.m. — Carlton County Historical Society Director Rachael Martin will present her living history program about Anna Dickie Olesen at the Hermantown Historical Society.

Sept. 22, 7 p.m. — "Women of 1918," a play by Dan Reed, looks at two families whose lives changed forever Oct. 12, 1918. The play begins at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 in the Moose Lake Community School auditorium, 4812 County Road 10, Moose Lake. Tickets $10.

Sept. 29, 11 a.m. — Authors Francis Carroll and Marlene Wisuri will present on the 1918 fires at the Cloquet Public Library at 11 a.m. Other 1918 fire book author tables available starting at 10 a.m.

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