Growing up in Cloquet before and after the fireSitting by the dining room window at Sunnyside Health Care Center, resting her chin on one hand, 99-year-old Helen Olson can see the Fire of 1918 in her mind’s eye better than she can see the chairs and tables around her.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Sitting by the dining room window at Sunnyside Health Care Center, resting her chin on one hand, 99-year-old Helen Olson can see the Fire of 1918 in her mind’s eye better than she can see the chairs and tables around her.
Born on Dunlap Island, Olson was 7 years old when the fires that destroyed much of Moose Lake and Cloquet swept through the region with a vengeance.
“We were living in the [Dunlap Island] house when the fire came,” Olson said. “My mother and I were standing by the sewing machine looking over [what is now USG] and three big hoops of fire came over the hill. They came quickly and looked just terrible. The first one fell on the ground, the second on the railroad tracks and the third one headed for the train. I was thinking ‘Oh dear God, don’t let them burn.’ Just as it got there, the fire turned and went up the hill by the old water tower.”
In terms of lives lost and property destroyed, the Oct. 12 fire has no equal in state history.
Actually several fires, the flames destroyed a total of 250,000 acres, killing 453 people outright and displacing 11,382 families.
“Awfullest Fire Horror in State’s History!” announced the Oct. 18 joint issue of the “Carlton County Vidette” and Cloquet “Pine Knot” newspapers.
“My dad came running right away and told mama he’d put us on the train while he would stay and fight the fire,” related Olson. “Mama told him, ‘I’m not going, either.’ We all went up to the sidewalk in front of the Northeastern. … We could hear horses screaming on the Cloquet side: there were two big horse barns over there. My dad took the barn that was on fire and got all the horses out, then he went back in to see if there were more. There was only a billy goat, the mascot. Eight times he threw that goat out, every time it went back inside. It burned in the end, but all the horses ran over the bridge and went up Sunnyside. I bet there were a lot of farmers the next morning that saw all those horses.”
Many Cloquet residents – approximately 8,000 – escaped the fire by train. Only a handful of people died in the city during the fire itself, according to “The Fires of Autumn” book by Francis M. Carroll and Franklin R. Raiter.
Like the horses, Helen and her two younger sisters, Lillian and Florence Mattson, headed across the bridge to Sunnyside, where strangers invited them to spend the rest of the day and the night on the front lawn of a big white house.
Today Helen and Florence (who has always gone by the nickname of Mushi) live down the hall from each other at Sunnyside Health Care Center, not far from the spot where they spent that terrible night.
The girls could see more flames than smoke all day as the massive fire burned through Cloquet. It was noisy, too, Helen said. The churches were all ringing their bells, and the whistles and the horns of Northwest Paper, Diamond Match and various trains were blowing throughout the day.
By the next morning, not much was standing. Somehow – she never learned how – their mother found them on that lawn and the four headed back to Dunlap Island.
“We went to find my father,” Helen said, adding that they didn’t know if John Mattson had survived the fire. “I remember, we came down to the island and turned down our street. We could see two figures there, but we couldn’t see who it was. When we got closer, it was my dad and our neighbor, Charlie Johnson. They were both black. My mother told Charlie to go lie down on the couch and she helped my dad clean up, then she put him to bed, too. She’d sent us to bed, but we got up then, because we could hear kids outside already.
“The only thing that burned on the island was the roundhouse.”
Mushi doesn’t remember anything from those long ago days, although Helen recalls her youngest sister “always hung on my mother while my other sister and I would hurry up and play with the other kids outside.”
Once her father rested, he walked from Cloquet to Scanlon to find a man he knew had a car. Together they drove to Moose Lake so John Mattson could find out whether his wife’s parents (Helena and Olaf Saim) and two brothers had survived the fire.
Hardly a tree remained standing in Moose Lake, her father told them later, and people were crying, searching for friends and family in the burned out town. In “The Fires of Autumn,” Hulta Koivisto recalled “dead bodies piled like cordwood” for survivors to identify at the Elm Tree Hotel in Moose Lake.
“My dad walked from there to the farm [13 miles away in Split Rock Township],” Helen said, adding that her dad could see from a distance that the farm buildings had survived the fire even though most of the trees had not. “When he got close, he could see my grandma and grandpa and their two sons lying on the ground. My dad thought they had died. He was crying so hard that Grandma woke up. She made coffee then and told him how she had carried water from the creek below with two pails on her shoulders until she couldn’t get through anymore because the burning trees were falling all around her.”
Others were not so fortunate. Helen recalled hearing a story of how a husband and wife near Knife River had fought the fire all night long, then went to get their three children out of the root cellar where they’d taken them to keep them safe from the flames. All three children were dead, smothered when the fire burned overhead and sucked out all the oxygen.
Within days, tragedy would strike her own family.
Helen’s mother caught influenza and died. She was buried in the same grave with her brother, Helen’s uncle, George Saim, a teenage boy who didn’t recover from the effects of fighting the fire despite being sent to the hospital set up in Cloquet’s Garfield School.
“My dad came back and told my mother her parents were OK, then I remember she was in the bathroom. The water tank for the toilet was up high; it burst and mother was drenched. She got sick, got pneumonia and that dreadful flu that came from Europe,” Helen recalled. “[The night she died,] I was in bed and I could hear my mother crying. I looked out through the blankets and my dad and grandma were holding her and she was crying for her kids. I went back to sleep and she died.”
It was the day before Helen’s eighth birthday. Not only did she and her sisters lose their mother, they also lost the baby boy she was carrying.
“I never cried for my mother,” Helen said. “I was too afraid my dad was going to send us to Duluth, to an orphanage.”
Her fears weren’t groundless. Although Helen was now 8 years old, Lillian was 6 and Florence was only 3. With their father working full-time on the railroad, there was no one to care for them. The county was actually proposing to send the girls to an orphanage in Duluth, explained Helen’s daughter, Cloquet’s Bev Potswald.
In the end, however, it was decided the girls would go live with their maternal grandparents and their one surviving child on the farm outside of Moose Lake. Helen recalls taking the train with her grandmother to Moose Lake with their meager belongings and being met by her grandfather who had three new dresses for the girls, given by a kind lady who wanted to help.
“I don’t remember her name, but I still remember that dress,” said Helen. “It was pink and all kinds of colors. I always wished the lady who made that dress had put her name on it.”
Those were happy years. The three little girls lived on the farm, doing chores and keeping Grandma busy, and walked to school at Split Rock.
“It was the nicest little school house,” mused Helen. “It had a library full of books. I would hurry up and get my work done and then act up, so she [the teacher] would send me in there.”
Four years later the entire family moved to Cloquet because Grandma Saim was sick. While the girls were thrilled to see their Dunlap Island playmates again – they were great friends with the Turcott and Ahlgren kids (current Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren’s father and three aunts) – things were tougher in Cloquet, especially for the oldest daughter, now 12. Helen worked for Mrs. Ahlgren at the nearby boarding house; in return, Ahlgren would feed the family their evening meal.
Helen talks fondly of life on Dunlap Island. She learned Finnish at the boarding house, enjoyed ice cream from the Northeastern and ate pickles out of a barrel at the co-op store. Today the Northeastern is a bar and grille, but then it was a hotel. The lady who cooked there always sneaked cookies to the kids behind the back of her “crabby husband.”
“There was another lady who lived on the island who always had her door open, with chickens in her back yard,” Helen said, chuckling. “The chickens would come in the kitchen, walk through the house to the sidewalk out front, look around a little bit and walk back through.”
All three girls attended Jefferson School. Mushi insists she hated school and didn’t go often.
Still, Mushi remembers staying after school one day with her best friend Ellen Ahlgren to teach Mrs. Bainey how to dance the Charleston. Helen remembers how Mushi and Ellen would run across the logs on the river from Dunlap Island to Cloquet.
“If they’d ever slipped, they never would have found them,” Helen said, still the big sister.
The teacher Helen remembers most clearly was actually her first-grade teacher, Pearl Bisson.
“We had to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me’ every morning,” she said. “And I remember my cousin was crazy for gum but Mrs. Bisson wouldn’t let anyone chew gum so he would take it and put it behind his ear.”
Lillian was the only one to graduate from high school. Helen went to work at the match mill (then Berst-Forster-Dixfield Company) when she was 16. She married Ole Olson and moved to Scanlon, embarking the next phase of her long and storied life.
Read next week’s Pine Journal to find out what life was like in Scanlon in the early days for newly married Helen Olson.