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Man recounts 1918 fire in Kettle River

A car drives past Dead Man’s Corner south of Kettle River after the Oct. 12, 1918 fires. Many people lost their lives on the infamous corner, as their autos left the road in the thick smoke and they died from the accident or burning to death as the fire raged on. Contributed Photo1 / 2
After the fire swept through the tiny town of Kettle River on Oct. 12, 1918, only the brick bank building was left standing. Contributed Photo2 / 2

Editor's note: This is the George Milczark 1918 fires story, as related by Frank Milczark on Oct. 6, 1970. The story was first published in the Moose Lake Star Gazette on Oct. 11, 1973.

On the day of the 1918 fire, we were living on the home farm, further east of the present homesite. Early that morning, my father and I hitched up the team to take some wheat to the Tomczak mill in Sturgeon Lake.

I recall that Frank Gustafson and his father were also going there. We returned about 2 p.m. and about one hour later, the smoke was so thick that the sun was not visible.

Walter Johnson, Kettle River banker, and been transporting refugees to Moose Lake in his auto, but was unable to return to Kettle River on the highway and was taking the road past Milczarks. He stopped at the farm and urged the Milczark family to leave with him.

Father, mother and six children piled in the car with Walter. Because of fallen and burning trees, the car went into the ditch near the railroad tracks. Walter wanted to leave the car and flee; however, George urged him to make an attempt to get the car out. With Walter driving, George, with sheer brute strength, pushed the car out.

Proceeding west, past the village, we noticed that the entire town was already in flames, but we managed to get to the river and went downstream from the present bridge, where we found R.T. Hart and his brother, and Art Russell. We spent the night and managed to survive the tremendous heat and flames.

The next morning we found that the car had also somehow survived the flames, so all of us proceeded toward Moose Lake.

On the way, all culverts were burned, but we managed to cross them and counted 38 badly burned bodies on the roadside. We saw a group of people on the old Konu farm, with all their clothes burned off and desperately shouting for help. A man named Larson was sitting in his burned car, alive, but with his eyes and ears burned off.

We arrived at Glaspie Brook and found soldiers, doctors and nurses and told them about the badly burned people. ... The water was so filled with soot and dirt that it was absolutely useless.

Frank recalls that the Gustafsons never did make it back home from Sturgeon Lake. Their wagon was found on the road completely burned, their horses still hitched ... and members of the family were found later, burned to death on the road near the present Eino Illikainen home. Several members of the Gustafson family perished.