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Quest for milk brought Fire Victim to Peshtigo
Letter from Survivor of 1871 Disaster Tells Graphic Account of Night of Horror
from the Peshtigo Times, 18 October 1952
A new name has been added recently to the list of known living survivors of the Peshtigo Fire of 1871 – that of Mrs. Mary T. Kieth [sic] of Sturgeon Bay. In a letter to Mrs. Harold Jantzen, president of the Peshtigo Historical Cemetery Association, Mrs. Kieth writes:

I have been reading about the unveiling of the Peshtigo Fire marker at the Peshtigo Cemetery June 3rd, 1951 in which many of the 800 victims of the fire are buried. I am a survivor of that fire. I was born November 13, 1870 in Sturgeon Bay. My parents were Mr. & Mrs. John Tolerton Bagnall of Jacksonport, Door County, Wis. At that time Jacksonport was a wilderness, with only a trail through the woods to Sturgeon Bay where one could get Medical assistance. So, my parents walked to Sturgeon Bay, some 14 miles, a month after I was born. Shortly thereafter, they moved back to Jacksonport. There was just one other baby in the village besides me, but there weren’t any cows. This was a problem for my parents, for I was a child who had to have artificial feeding. But they were hardy pioneers and didn’t despair.

They were able to get milk from Egg Harbor (seven miles) and the teamsters brought it over from the Harbor while hauling the timber from the banking ground in Jacksonport where it was shipped by boat to Chicago. In the spring they got milk from Bailey’s Harbor (7 miles) and as there wasn’t any refrigeration they had to keep it down in a well. Later in the summer, they decided to move to Ellison Bay, thinking they could get milk nearer, but father found that he had to walk three miles and back every other day in order to do it. When summer was nearly gone, he decided to go where he could get it easier, so he went across the bay to Peshtigo and located on the outskirts of the city, in "Sugarbush." Peshtigo was a very nice city, they said, with plenty of milk to be had and lots of work – a real booming town. So everything went very nicely for a time. It had been a very dry season, and I recall my mother telling us several times of the fire that for about two weeks before the sun was obscured, the clothes on the line looked so gray, and a kind of foreboding feeling that something was going to happen hung over the city.

She said the fire came so suddenly that the only way she could describe it was that the heavens opened up and it rained fire. I think the fact that they were on the outskirts of the city was the only thing that saved them. I was nearly a year old when it happened.

My father helped pick up the dead and make rough boxes as there were not enough caskets. He put as many as five of a family in one caskets they were just bones. They found people who were not burned at all, just suffocated. Many saved themselves by going in the water with blankets wrapped around them, and some got down in wells and were saved that way. Chickens, sitting in their perches, were suffocated, not burned, and fish were on top of the water from the intense heat. Father said he found a young lady beside a log – she wasn’t burned at all and had such a nice head of curly hair that he couldn’t resist cutting a lock off. He always carried it in his purse and frequently showed it to us. My parents took a family of five who were burned and cared for them until they recovered.

Seems strange that my parents’ search for milk brought them to Peshtigo and they did what they could to help in one of the worst disasters the state has ever known. Father said he had seen so many terrible sights that he couldn’t bear to live there any longer, so they moved back to Jacksonport and lived there most of the rest of their lives. I have written what my parents told me of the fire of ’71 and I know that all the items are true.

Very sincerely,

Mary T. Kieth [sic]
Sturgeon Bay, Wis.
September 30, 1952

The above refers to the writer, Mary Tolerton Bagnall Keith
and her father, John Bagnall of Jacksonport, Wisconsin.
Transcribed from the original press clipping by Bill Reque, her grandson.

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Cite as: Deana C. Hipke. The Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871. <>
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