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Fires of 1918: Timber boomtown goes up in smoke

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Downtown Automba was a bustling busy place in these photos taken between 1914 and 1917, with stores, diners, a post office and bank, pool halls, hotels, even whiskey palaces. According to descendant and Automba historian Dan Reed, the town rebuilt after the 1918 fire, but a fire in the late 1920s again wiped out many of the buildings on Main Street and some didn’t rebuild. Historical photos contributed by Dan Reed 2 / 3
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Some might find it hard to believe that the tiny town of Automba was once a lumber boomtown with a railyard a half-mile long and quarter-mile deep, and three sawmills going constantly. In its heyday, Automba — located some 20 miles west of Barnum — boasted about 350 residents in the city limits, and close to 1,000 in the surrounding area.

Today, it would take an archaeologist to find evidence of that settlement. Today, there is only Automba Town Hall, a park and a couple of homes still standing in the city limits. On the other side of County Road 6, there is nothing but a large field bracketed by two deer stands. The Soo Line trail lies on the other side of the tree line, a short distance from the city center.

However, when one of the fires of 1918 reduced the city to ashes, it was a bustling place.

"Very few of the families, except people that had businesses, lived in town because it was 'boomtown,'" said the town historian, writer and playwright Dan Reed with a dramatic pause before the final word. "Women, whiskey and supplies. Cloquet was the same at one time — all of them were. But this was one of the last."

The fire shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone. Multiple fires had been burning along the Soo Line tracks between Moose Lake and Automba in the days leading up to Oct. 12, 1918.

Out of the 350 residents, 23 were killed attempting to escape the fire when it arrived.

William Maki, who owned two sawmills and a store in town with his partner, Charles Jokimaki, said people believed the flames could be controlled, and many didn't even start to flee until the lumberyards caught fire.

In their book, "The Fires of Autumn," authors Francis Carroll and Franklin Raiter quote Maki as he talks about how the intense heat and flying burning boards turned Automba into "an island of flames in a matter of minutes."

"When the fire hit the lumberyards, it seemed as if they exploded," Maki said.

Maki reckoned he and his wife, Olga, and Jokimaki were the last ones to get out of town alive in their Dodge car, recalling how a French family following behind them in a wagon pulled by horses was burned alive.

Dan Reed's grandfather walked into Automba in 1913 and never left. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.comMore people, and some families in their entirety, died in the countryside around Automba. Mr. and Mrs. Whiting and their five children died on the road, fleeing south from Automba, according to "The Fires of Autumn." Two and a half miles south of Automba, all the members of the John Homicz family were killed — some in a root cellar and others in a well. In contrast, Andrew and Frances Homicz and their 10 children survived the night by taking shelter in a plowed field, where there was nothing for the fire to burn.

In 1918, Dan Reed's grandfather, Matt Reed, lived with his wife, Edna, and two sons 2 miles east of Automba on the south side the tracks. Matt sent Edna and the boys north to stay with her uncle while he and his hired hand, John Luoma, tried to save the farm. But the fire came too quickly to do anything but run east down the road.

When they got their horses and several other people into an open field, Matt Reed said a miracle came next.

"The flames parted an went to either side of us," he said in "The Fires of Autumn."

The destruction caused by the 1918 fire wasn't the end of Automba though, according to Dan.

He takes on the voice of his grandfather for a reading he will do when the new picnic pavilion is dedicated June 16:

"The fire came and burned the town clean. It was difficult to start again. Not only had Edna and I lost our farm and belongings, I lost my job. I worked at the time of the fire for (John Arvid) Kerttu, store owner, postmaster and timber broker. Kerttu was dead along with 22 other people from the town. Running to the southeast to the mill yard with his valuables and paperwork, Kerttu was found the next day leaning against a sawdust pile. Fearful of burning to death, he shot himself with a revolver. He was found untouched by the flames, his cash box and papers next to him.

"Somehow, Edna, the boys and I survived the fire. My wife lost an aunt and eight cousins. That Saturday Edna and the boys were at a birthday party at her Uncle Art Jokimaki's home with the whole neighborhood attending. Many of those attending were dead by that evening.

"I suggested to Edna that we should move to the West Coast. She refused, saying this was our home and our family and we needed to stay.

"'We came here to live and not to die,'" she told me.

"Within a year, Automba was rebuilt and booming. Within a year I traded my farm on the Metso Road for the Rengo Brothers store."

They would stay in Automba for 58 years, raising a family of 12 children.

However, by the time Matt Reed died in 1971, he and Edna were the last two residents of Automba.

"He used to tell people that when he and Edna got into the car, the whole town was on the move," Dan said with a chuckle. He calculates there are four residents living in Automba city limits now.

Dan gestures around to what remains of the once busy logging town: the small white town hall building, a park (with toilets that are always open), the homes and a trailer that has seen better days. The new picnic pavilion and a playground. At the edge of the park sits a grader, one of four that the township bought to build roads in the area in 1914.

Matt Reed’s former store burned in 1918, 1924 and 1934. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com"That's the last of the heifers," says Reed. "That was modern technology."

They're trying to make the area a recreational spot, a destination where people will come to picnic and access the trail. On June 16 at 1 p.m., they will dedicate the new pavilion. Reed thinks this could be the last time many of the "old families" come home.

"When my grandma was still alive — she was into her 80s — we were driving around the neighborhood — the old ones. I drove them often; they would tell stories. We went by Metsos on the Metso Road where the old Mason logging camps were, where they had logging drives that she talked about; there was a park here. Before the fire, there were big pines, we would come to picnic here often,' she said. 'We called it Hobo Park.'

"I told her that was really something, to have a park here before the fire, and she looked at me: 'Well, we came here to live, not to die,' she told me," Reed said with a big belly laugh. "I guess she said that more than once."

Upcoming events

Red Cross program

Camela Swanstrom talks about the role of the Red Cross following the 1918 fires starting at 1 p.m. June 16 at the Carlton County Historical Society, 406 Cloquet Ave., Cloquet.

Automba Pavilion dedication

The Automba 1918 Fire Memorial Pavilion will be dedicated during a program at 1 p.m. June 16 in Automba.

Movie in Moose Lake

There will be a public screening of the WDSE-WRPT Public Television Fires of 1918 documentary at 7 p.m. June 16 at the Moose Lake Area Historical Society.