PESHTIGO — A few blocks from the Peshtigo River that saved many people from the fires 150 years ago, two authors have offered to sign the books they wrote about the historic fire on Saturday for festival-goers.
Charles Mercier, a great-great-grand-nephew of Father Peter Pernin, who in 1874 wrote a memoir published in French in Montreal on the fire 150 years ago, provided a new translation of the memoir and new documents.
“He wrote the memoirs to support the rebuilding of his two churches. He wanted it to be a fundraiser, ”said Mercier. Pernin was a French Catholic missionary priest who arrived in Peshtigo with two nieces, including Mercier’s great-grandmother.
“He’s got this scary story of feeling bad about it and having to go to the river,” Mercier said. “This is where they went to the river. When they stood up too high, their hair caught fire.
Pernin was certain he was doomed, Mercier said. “In the book he said, ‘I know I don’t have long to live,’ but in fact he had 40 years to live. Pernin was a father figure to Mercier’s grandmother, born in Chicago in 1880, he said. “My father, who is still alive at 95, is very proud that I am here today,” said Mercier.
Mercier said the Wisconsin Historical Society published three editions of Pernin’s account, but “they omitted the Catholic parts,” he said. Its edition provides a complete translation. Pernin interpreted fire as a form of punishment for his sins, but Mercier said he opposed that interpretation. “Modern science tells us what causes forest fires,” he said. Drought conditions, a city made of wooden houses and recklessness can start a fire. “God does not punish us. We have to take care of ourselves, ”said Mercier, who said the Peshtigo fire was also about resilience.
Chicago author Paul Buchheit, who sat at a table next to Mercier on Saturday with a stack of the book, “1871: Rivers on Fire,” said he was interested in the Peshtigo fire in part because the blaze had started on the same day that the The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 scorched the city from winds.
As he did more research he realized how devastating the Peshtigo fire had been on October 7, 1871. “It was the deadliest fire in the history of the world,” but more and more people focused on the Chicago fire, said Buchheit, author of “1871: Rivers on Fire.” He was at the Historic Peshtigo Day at Badger Park in Peshtigo on Saturday to sign books.
Buchheit spent about four years working on the book. “It’s just an amazing story,” he said. About 300 lives were lost in the Great Chicago Fire, while northern Wisconsin lost 2,000 or more lives in the Peshtigo fire, he said. “A billion trees have been destroyed here.
The governor of Wisconsin was sending supplies to Illinois for survivors of the blazes because he didn’t know how deadly the Peshtigo blaze was. When his wife learned of the Wisconsin fire, she told the governor to return those supplies and send them north, Buchheit said.