Grandma and the Prairie Fire

A steam-powered threshing machine at work on the prairie

My father’s sister, Alma, told this story, one her mother often repeated to her. Alma was third in a family of seven siblings. In the early 1900s, her parents, Thomas and Ethel Rawlins, migrated from Illinois to North Dakota. Traveling by train with their livestock and meager household goods to the broad, rolling grasslands near Williston, they staked a claim to a homestead.

Thomas purchased one of the new-fangled threshing machines on credit. The salesman had persuaded him that he could make good money by hiring out his machine and labor to neighboring homesteaders. But that meant he had to stay away from home during harvest time, leaving Ethel alone with two small children on the vast, empty prairie.

One day in late fall, Ethel spied smoke rising from beyond the horizon. It was a prairie fire, dreaded by all homesteaders! Their two-room tar-paper shack could never survive the flames. There was no place to go, no way to get help. As the column of smoke grew bigger and closer, her eyes fell on the square of bare dirt left when she and Thomas had moved the barn to a new location just weeks ago. It was her only hope. She hauled buckets of water from the well, filled containers, and with the help of four-year-old Freddie, lugged them to the square of dirt. She piled the quilts from the beds next to the water, thinking she would soak them and wrap herself and the children in them for protection from the flames. Then she snatched baby Amy from her cradle, ready to take her and Freddie to the only place of possible safety. Oh, and the cow! She had to try to save the cow, too.

As Ethel hurried outside with the children, she glanced again at the oncoming smoke. Was that a horse and rider, racing ahead of the fire? Yes. It was Thomas! Seeing the fire, he’d borrowed a horse and come to save his family.

Telling Freddie to stay with his baby sister, Ethel ran to help. Neighbors appeared. Everyone was so busy fighting the fire, no one noticed the sky until snow began to fall, heavy, wet flakes that filled the air. The flames sputtered and died down. In a matter of minutes the prairie fire flickered out. Ethel later told her daughter, my aunt Alma, that this was the only time in her life she’d loved a snow.

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