Whole Town of Nadeau Is Burning Up
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
“The fire is burning on both sides of the track as far as can be seen. Thick smoke covers everything and it is impossible to tell how bad the flames are. … On account of the fire on all sides and the dense smoke, it cannot be ascertained how far the fire has spread, except from reports of fugitives coming in. It is feared that many people cannot find their way out of the burning forest and clearings.”
— Detroit Free Press, 27 Aug 1888, p. 1, accessed through newspapers.com
Many newspaper accounts describe horrific scenes of the 1888 fires along the Chicago and Northwestern Railway in Upper Michigan. For nearly 100 miles, flames stretched into the sky. The smoke was so thick, the railroad halted trains for a day. Families, cattle and horses lost their lives. Whole towns were destroyed. Survivors fled to nearby towns that hadn’t been touched, such as Powers, Bagley, Daggett and Stephenson. On many scorched farms, all the buildings were lost and the people escaped with nothing but the clothing they were wearing.
Among the families who fled the 1888 fires was my first cousin three times removed: Oliver Perras, his wife, Victorine (Victoria), and their children. He recounted the fires in 1948, when the Escanaba Daily Press celebrated his “101st birthday.” (Blog readers may recall the uncertainty about Oliver’s true age in my last post. See the endnotes for the answer to this genealogical puzzle.) Cousin Oliver moved to Nadeau in 1880 and farmed until 1888, when he said was “burned out.” At first I thought he was speaking figuratively to the newspaper about farming fatigue, until my research revealed that the 1888 fires literally burned him out of his farm.
In recent years, horrific forest fires in California and other western states have driven people out of their homes and businesses. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Michigan also experienced annual forest fires both large and small. Some researchers estimate that more marketable Michigan lumber was lost to forest fires in the 1800s than was harvested as timber. Forest fires happen naturally, of course, particularly during droughts. However, human activities significantly increased the fire danger in those days. The timber industry left behind huge brush piles, leaves and dry wood when they cleared a forest. Train engines burning coal or wood traveled through these areas several times a day, spewing burning embers along the railroad’s path. Later, trains were required to install spark arresters to prevent fires. Local farmers cleared stumps and brush from their land with dynamite or by setting fire to them.
While the Great Peshtigo Fire that killed 600 people in 1871 is well-documented, we know much less about the fires that ravaged northern Menominee County in those days. Fires played a central role in the life of many early residents, including my cousin Oliver and his family.
1881 Nadeau Fire: Potatoes Roasted in the Hills
The first major fire to hit Nadeau came in 1881, just three months after the town organized and elected its first public officials. The Green Bay Advocate reported on August 11, 1881, of fire spreading in the woods along the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, with the worst damage in the farms surrounding Nadeau and in the village itself. The fire destroyed 3,500 railroad ties, 5,000 posts, 1,000 telegraph poles and 30 cords of tan bark in the Nadeau Brothers’ lumber yard.
“Many of the homesteaders and settlers on railroad lands have given up their farms and improvements and left, not daring to remain. Their crops were destroyed, even potatoes being roasted in the hills.”
Bruno “Barney" Nadeau and his sons worked feverishly to prevent the loss of property, but couldn’t stop all the damage. A box car was burned and another caught fire. Several times, the men had to extinguish flames on the platform of the coal kilns. Next, the fire began to spread to 2,000 cords of wood.
“There was no prospect of saving it and the Messrs. Nadeau had just determined to run to the house and save the women and children, when they were astonished by an unexpected flood of blessed rain. They did not even know there was a cloud, except one of smoke and ashes. The rain subdued the fire and since that a great abundance has fallen, thoroughly soaking everything.”
— Green Bay Advocate, 11 Aug 1881 - newspapers.com
Cousin Oliver doesn’t mention the 1881 fire in the 1948 newspaper account of his life, perhaps because he was living outside the village at the time. The 1888 fire, however, pushed him off his farm and into the village of Nadeau, where he found work as a hotel operator. Two years later, he moved four miles south to Bagley, where he said he operated a hotel and saloon for seven years.
While in Bagley, Cousin Oliver missed a notorious fire on April 17, 1895, when the Nadeau Brothers’ sawmill burned to the ground. Three Nadeau men — William Tallier, Anton Tallier and Louis Pichette (or Pischet) — were jailed with starting the fire, which caused a loss of $15,000 to $20,000 ($460,000 to $920,000 in today's dollars). Their trial happened quickly in Menominee Circuit Court three weeks later. About 50 witnesses testified. The jury received the case at 3 p.m. on May 5 and, at midnight, found Pichette guilty, while acquitting at least one Tallier of the charges. (Green Bay Press-Gazette, Green Bay, WI, 6 May 1895, p. 1)
By now an experienced hotel operator, Cousin Oliver returned to Nadeau in 1897 and built his own hotel and livery stable next to the town social club. The early 1900s must have been a fine time to live in Nadeau. The postcard below shows scenes from Nadeau in 1910, according to a description posted on eBay. The church, Nadeau Bros. store and train depot are all images from historic Nadeau. However, I can't imagine Nadeau ever had an electric interurban train, shown at bottom right. Perhaps that scene is from Menominee, a much larger city on the way to Nadeau? If anyone knows differently, please let me know.
A Bustling Lumber Town
The sleepy, unincorporated village of Nadeau today bears little resemblance to the bustling lumber town it was back then. In 1910, census records show that Nadeau had three hotels, at least three saloons, a butcher shop, a cheese factory, a jeweler, a barber, two hardware stores, a blacksmith, primary school, charcoal kilns, a railroad station
and several lumber mills and associated logging camps. Most of the Nadeau business owners were of French descent, though at least three merchants had Russian or German ancestry. The town even had its own beloved physician, Dr. Joseph E. Piche, who was no doubt kept busy delivering babies and tending to sick and injured residents. The buildings shown at right in an 1893 photo don't exist today.
I’ve created an interactive Google map to show where some of the Historic Nadeau businesses were located, as well as the homes of some residents. My research is still preliminary. You can see the map below and also access it here.
The Perras Hotel and livery stood adjacent to the railroad tracks near the crossing of 34 Mile Road. Boarders at the hotel in 1900 included 23-year-old Hubert Perras, my great-grandfather, and his 30-year-old brother, Theophile, both farm laborers. In 1910, boarders included Jack Gess, the livery barn boss; and Lambert Allard, a teamster. What's a "livery?" Imagine a combined parking garage and car rental company. When you drove into town with your horse-and-carriage, the livery would board your horse while you visited. You could also hop off the train and rent or hire or horse or horse-drawn transportation for your stay.
Lumber was king of the Nadeau economy, though farms were quickly taking over the cleared lands in the countryside. During the winter months, many men worked in the logging camps to cut trees and drag them out by horse-drawn sleds on ice-covered roads. When the weather warmed up and it was too difficult to get the trees out of the woods, the lumberjacks might find work in the sawmills in town. Dairy farmers could make extra money harvesting wood in the winter and selling it to the mill. (We’ll have more on farm life in a later blog post, featuring my Swedish grandfather Andrew Benson and his Norwegian wife, Hanna Christensen.)
With all the winter’s logs piled near the sawmills, it didn’t take more than a spark to start an inferno.
In May 1912, fire again hit the Nadeau Brothers’ mill, just as the sawing season was getting underway. The fire grew quickly. Villagers called for help from fire departments in Menominee, Gladstone and Stephenson. Special trains rushed in and firefighters fought desperately to put out the flames. The mill and village were saved, but the entire season’s log supply was lost. The Nadeau Bros. had insured the mill, but not the logs.
“A member of the Nadeau Bros.’ firm, which owns the mill, said by telephone that there is about a week’s work and that the mill will then have to remain closed for the balance of the season because the company had no timber to cut. The logs were decked, and once the fire had gained a little headway it could not be checked. About 1,500,000 feet of timber was consumed.”
— Green Bay Press-Gazette, Green Bay, WI, 13 May 1912, p. 12. newspapers.com
With no lumber to cut at its largest mill, the town of Nadeau must have started to empty out. Cousin Oliver still had his hotel, but how many boarders were still there? How many village businesses had to close when mill workers went elsewhere for work? The fire must have been a disaster for the Nadeau economy in 1912.
Nadeau's worst fire, however, was yet to come.
Nadeau on Fire
In May 1914, forest fires were reported burning throughout the Upper Peninsula. The region needed rain desperately. On May 20, the Escanaba Morning Press reported lumber camps and summer cottages destroyed in the Copper Country.
“Unless rain comes soon this district will experience the most disastrous forest fires in the history,” said Deputy Fire Warden Herman Leisner. After spending two days in the fire-swept district, Leisner had instructed every township supervisor to urge “every possible precaution to protect the property of settlers and homesteaders.” Scattered fires were reported throughout the area. (Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, MI), 20 May, 1914, p.1 Via Escanaba Public Library)
At 4:00 a.m., the newspaper printed an EXTRA edition with the blaring headline: WHOLE TOWN OF NADEAU IS BURNING UP.
“Through a fire that started from a small shack late last night the town of Nadeau in Menominee County is being destroyed by flames and with the already strong hold that the gloms have on the village it is thought that it will be impossible to save the town.”
Responding to a call for help, the Marinette Fire Department put a fire engine on a special train loaded with firefighters and sent it north to help save the town.
“Nadeau Brothers big store was still standing at 3:30 o’clock this morning, but hopes of saving the building and in fact any portion of the town had been given up. The entire population of the town is fighting the flames.”
—Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, MI), 20 May, 1914, p.1, via Escanaba Public Library
The fire was stopped by noon on the 20th. When the Marinette fire department arrived, they found most of the business district in ashes. Damage would have been even greater without their help. Appraisers estimated the loss of the Nadeau fire between $25,000 and $50,000, partially covered by insurance. (That's $650,000 to $1.3 million in today's dollars.)
“The buildings destroyed were the G.T. Werline residence, from which nothing but Mr. Werline’s library and valuable papers were saved; two saloons, all contents burned, the station agent’s house, the Exchange hotel, contents destroyed; two vacant houses, two vacant store buildings and an ice house filled with a summer’s supply of ice.”
—Escanaba Morning Press (Escanaba, MI), 21 May, 1914, p.1, via Escanaba Public Library
Heroic stories emerged from the ashes of the Nadeau fire in the May 24 edition of the Escanaba Morning Press.
“Out of a flaming building an unknown negro actor emerged a hero. Spectators were horror-stricken when a small boy appeared in the window of a burning home. A member of a negro minstrel company, playing in the town the night before, rushed into the fire-ridden structure and carried the child to safety.”
Who was that brave actor? How many descendants of the boy he rescued are alive today because of his willingness to rush into the flames? While others watched, that fearless stranger saved the boy’s life. Perhaps Nadeau should erect a plaque commemorating the fire, and honor this man and others who tried to save the town.
At least one Nadeau resident joined in the heroic efforts. An “old Frenchman,” who had been a firefighter in a Canadian city, jumped in to battle the flames alongside the Marinette fire department and other volunteers.
“He worked with the enthusiasm and aim of the days when such work was his means of livelihood. He saved a great deal of property for other people, but while he was doing it, the fire attacked his own home and it burned to the ground with all its contents. Some one told him that his own house was afire and he rushed to the scene, arriving in time to save one undershirt and a pair of trousers.”
— Escanaba Morning Press, Escanaba, MI, 24 May 1914, p. 5, via Escanaba Public Library
Rain began to fall in Michigan that week, stopping the spread of forest fires that were burning in every county of the Upper Peninsula and in several counties in northern Lower Peninsula. The State Game and Fire Warden in Marquette vowed to investigate the fires and possibly prosecute, “particularly those which are thought to have been started by careless fishermen, campers, settlers and by sparks from locomotives not properly equipped with spark arresters.”
The 1914 fire hit my Cousin Oliver hard. His entire hotel, already electrically wired, burned to the ground. Oliver, then 67, was able to save seven horses from his livery. He and Victorine left the town behind and moved to his 80-acre farm nearby. He eventually built a house in town on the site of the former hotel, where he later lived with his son-in-law and daughter, Mr. and Mrs. George LeMieux.
Though the Nadeau Brothers rebuilt their mill and lumbering continued for a few years, Nadeau was never the same again.
Perras Family Ancestral Connections and Notes
My great-grandfather, Hubert Perras, and his older brother, Theophile, lived at the Perras Hotel when they arrived in Nadeau in 1899. The two immigrant brothers worked as farm laborers, likely for Nadeau Brothers’ farm. Most of their immediate family eventually moved to Nadeau and secured cleared lands for farming east of town. Among them were my great-great-grandparents Oliver Perras and his wife Rosalie Breault Perras; their son Napoleon; and their daughters, Zuleima Rose and Rose-Anne. Zuleima married Pierre (Peter) Poupart in Canada in 1890. Roseanne married a DuPont. Their descendants still live in Nadeau Township today.
Theophile returned to the Montreal area, where he became a prominent labor leader and ran unsuccessfully in 1933 for mayor of Ville LaSalle, a Montreal suburb. Napoleon also farmed east of Nadeau, but at some point returned to St. Michel, south of Montreal, where he died in 1966. (Since they share the same name, I’ll refer to my GGF Oliver as “Grandfather Oliver” and his nephew, the Nadeau pioneer, as “Cousin Oliver.” The Perras family tree during those days is confusing because there are multiple Olivers, Josephs and Huberts among the branches.)
The Mystery of Cousin Oliver’s Age
In my last post, I noted that census records from both Canada and the United States indicated that Cousin Oliver was born in 1850, but the Escanaba newspaper in 1948 said he was celebrating his 101st birthday. Since then, I think I’ve solved the mystery. The answer was in the excellent Drouin Collection of French Canadian baptisms and deaths.
I learned that Cousin Oliver’s parents, Joseph Perras and Louise Boulrice, brought a newborn son to St. Édouard Parish in Napierville on December 15, 1847, baptizing him with the name Olivier. Sadly, little Olivier Perras had a short life. He was buried at the same church less than a year later, on November 28, 1848. Eleven months passed, and Louise gave birth to another son. They baptized him at St. Édouard on October 26, 1850, with the same name as his deceased brother. (Perhaps both boys were named in honor of Joseph's brother, Olivier, my great-great-grandfather.) At some point, Cousin Oliver must have sent to the church for his baptismal records. Perhaps the church sent the wrong record, leading Cousin Oliver to believe that he was three years older than he actually was. He was 99 years old when he died in January 1950. "Hard work is the only way to live long and well," he said.
Resources and Further Reading:
Escanaba Public Library: The library provides a wonderful, searchable index of historic newspapers on its website, dating from 1869 to 1926. I wish the Menominee County library did the same for Menominee County newspapers of the historic era. http://www.archiveol.com/escanaba/home
Fire prevention history: https://www.olivettemo.com/169/History-of-Fire-Prevention
Michigan fire history, early 1900s (a wonderful compilation, though mostly from lower Michigan): http://www.algermichigan.com/docs/history/MAJOR%20POST-LOGGING%20FIRES%20IN%20MICHIGAN%20in%20the%201900%27s.pdf
Peshtigo Fire Museum: http://www.peshtigofiremuseum.com
Railroad spark arresters: https://www.bnd.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/answer-man/article34036968.html