Almost 500 people dead, 52,000 displaced and over $100 million (in today's dollars) in damages: Imagine the headlines the devastation wrought by the Fires of 1918 would garner today.
"That day was probably the most definitive event for the entire county that has ever occurred," noted Lisbeth Boutang, one of the leaders of the Carlton County Historical Society 1918 Fire Committee making plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the fires. "Everyone seems to know a story about the fire and how it affected their family."
There's no doubt the fires - yes, there were several that burned over days through 30-plus communities, including Cloquet, Moose Lake and Kettle River - were a vast and terrible thing. Worthy of remembering, but how?
For Boutang, committee chairperson, CCHS board member and retired Cloquet children's librarian, it's about remembering, showing respect and telling stories.
Boutang tells how she read an account of a 20-year-old schoolteacher who perished in the fire. The young woman was in a car that went off the road at what became "Dead Man's Curve" and was last seen running into the burning woods with a student.
Her body was found two years later by a trapper, and only identified thanks to her Ely class ring and an opal ring she was wearing.
"That poor family," Boutang said. "Her brother had died in August in World War I; she died in October in the fire. They must have been devastated."
Boutang's research inspired her to write creatively about the young teacher, which then inspired her to apply for a grant for the CCHS to publish a book she hopes will be filled with similar stories.
The book will consist of poetry and short prose depicting people and events surrounding the fires, a combination of creativity and historical inquiry "producing an original work based on research and personal response." Submissions will be limited to 50 lines for poetry or 300 words for prose. There will be a writers' workshop in September (not required but helpful) and final submissions are due Nov. 1, 2017.
It will be different from previous books that collected survivor stories, in part because the survivors are almost all gone or unable to tell their stories anymore.
In addition to the book proposed by Boutang, Martin is planning to develop a living history presentation portraying Anna Dickie Olesen, who advocated for 1918 fire victims' relief.
Area historical societies that are part of this committee are planning a range of programs in Moose Lake, Cloquet, Hermantown (Esko), Proctor, possibly Aitkin and more. Carlton County Historical Society Director Rachel Martin hopes the 10 different historical societies she contacted will present and/or share their programs with the other communities during the year. The CCHS is coordinating a county-wide effort, including adjacent counties affected by the fires, such as Pine, Aitkin and St. Louis counties in Minnesota and Douglas County in Wisconsin.
The Encore Performing Arts Center in Cloquet is already booked for an evening program on Oct. 12, 2018, which will include a dramatization of the stories in the CCHS book proposed by Boutang, among other things, like a memorial event for the fire victims.
As well, the Moose Lake Historical Society will likely begin several days of events to remember the fire, starting Oct. 13.
"This is certainly not a celebration," Martin stressed. "The courage and resilience, as well as the sufferings that the people went through are to be acknowledged, respected and their lives honored."
The next committee meeting is set for 1 p.m. Thursday, April 13, at the Carlton County Historical Society, 406 Cloquet Ave., Cloquet. Call (218) 879-1938 for more information.
The Moose Lake Historical Society has its own Fires of 1918 committee. Call (218) 460-8390 to find out more.