Prairie Fire Threatens Homestead

Girls flee isolated homestead as prairie fire races closer.

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The little homestead shack was by itself on the lonely prairie, and on this warm, sultry day, it seemed more isolated than usual among the acres of grass. Mama and Papa had gone the 14 miles to town, and we girls were home all alone. The two older girls were doing some baking and cleaning, and I was outside playing when all at once I noticed a huge black cloud in the west. My cry of "Prairie fire!" brought the girls on the run.

By this time the flames were visible, and the fire line appeared to be a mile or more long and headed straight for our home.

Quickly my sisters decided it was too late to try to throw up any protection. Anyway, the team was gone and only Old Maud was in the corral. My older sister caught Maud and with clumsy efforts managed to get the single harness on her. The three of us got the buggy shafts and tugs where they belonged. Into the buggy we piled along with a few valuables the girls had grabbed in the house.

By this time, the fire was less than a mile away and coming rapidly toward us. The girls decided to drive away from the flames. When we had driven a short way we came to a ditch, dug in the hope of future irrigation. There was no bridge, but Old Maud scrambled across – buggy, girls and all. Only then did we stop and take time to look back.

We could see movement in the smoke just in front of the flames. What was it? Presently we could see smoke-blackened firefighters, men from a nearby government camp and homestead menfolks. They had huge sleds with barrels of water and were beating out flames with wet sacks and setting backfires.

As the men gained on the fire and my big sisters saw they were going to save the homestead, we turned Old Maud around and went back through the ditch and drove home through the smell of pungent smoke.

The girls made coffee and sandwiches for the tired men after they had put out the last flame. Shortly after this, our parents came home over a road in the burned-out area. You can well imagine their relief and thankfulness when they found both home and children safe. My mother often said that while they were coming they could see the flames headed for the homestead and the road seemed 20 times as long. The team had been frightened by the smoke smell and Papa had a real battle to keep them from running away.

It impressed me that Mama wasn't angry that the girls had broken her precious glass butter dish while they were making sandwiches for the firefighters.

Hazel Ottjes
Mitchell, Nebraska

 Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER's WEEKLY asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.