Friday, October 12, 2018

Cloquet Fire: It Was a Day to Remember…

By Jim Heffernan
* Note: Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 fires. 
What follows is my column that was originally printed in the 
Duluth News Tribune and re-printed in my book, Cooler, Near the Lake.
Today marks the 70thanniversary* of the great Cloquet fire that burned much of Northeastern Minnesota and killed hundreds of people. The ranks of those who remember it first-hand are getting thin, although there are still plenty of people in their late 70s and older around to tell about it.

Mention of the Cloquet fire brings vivid memories to me. While I missed it by more than two decades, my mother, Ruth Carlson, was age 19 and not yet married on that Oct. 12, 1918, and talked of it often when I was growing up.

Everybody who was in this area then had a story to tell about that terrible day. Many have passed the stories down through their families. This is my mother’s Cloquet fire, as she told the story often, once, a couple of years before she died in 1983, into a tape recorder.

They say that to a foot soldier huddled in a foxhole in combat the war is only as big as that foxhole. So it is with witnesses of cataclysmic events. We only see a small part and only after they are over do we learn of their scope.

My mother’s Cloquet fire story started in downtown Duluth and ended in her home on Piedmont Avenue between Third and Fourth streets in the West End. Here, in her words, is the way it was–for her.

“It was a very lovely sunshiny day. It was a Saturday and I had baked several loaves of bread. My friend and I went downtown in the afternoon to look for a birthday gift for another friend. We left about 2:30 and went to Wahl’s store, which was George A. Gray Co. then.

“(After shopping) when we came out on Superior Street a terrific wind was blowing and it was very dark. We boarded a streetcar and coming up Piedmont Avenue we met trucks with people on them screaming. Balls of fire were rolling down the avenue, paper and other debris burning. We were frightened and hurried to our homes. (At that point) we hadn’t heard what had happened.

“The wind was so strong you could hardly breathe. I got home and my family was very excited. My mother had died in April so it was my father and five (younger) sisters wondering where to go. People were driving down Piedmont Avenue in trucks and cars, screaming. They had been picked up in Hermantown where everything was on fire.

“Soon a friend of ours called and told us to pack clothes and a little food and be ready to flee down to the bay because Duluth was surrounded by fire and (he said) the bridge crossing to Superior was burning. The Woodland area was also burning. A neighbor came over crying and wringing her hands because her three children were visiting in Lakewood with their grandmother. She didn’t know if they were alive.

“Then we heard they had ordered the people from Twelfth to Tenth streets and the area all around there to vacate. There was so much smoke we could hardly breathe. The rooms were filled with smoke. They called my dad and asked if he would take the grocery truck from where he worked to Hermantown to pick up people. He couldn’t leave us alone.

“(Later in the evening) my younger sisters were sleeping and my dad and I were up watching. About 2 o’clock in the morning the wind died down. We were saved–how thankful we were. My friend and I walked up to Hermantown the next day. What a sight we saw–people weeping standing in front of ash piles that had been their homes…so much sickness,too…the people were dying from the flu. (The fire occurred during the great Spanish flu epidemic.) It was not a pretty sight to see beautiful trees and vegetation all black, but the people were brave and went back to their small farms and started to build again.

“It was a day to remember.”

I have one other family account of that fire. My father (who had not yet met my mother) was in the Army (World War I was winding down), stationed in San Francisco. He knew nothing of the fire in his hometown until newspapers reported it with front page headlines proclaiming such things as “Duluth Leveled By Fire.”

It was some time before he could determine his own parents and siblings back in Duluth had survived, and most of Duluth itself had not burned.
Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Wednesday, October 12, 1988 
and reprinted in the book by Jim Heffernan, Cooler Near the Lake (2008).

*  To learn more about the 1918 fire... click HEREHERE and HERE.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Smart news: not all smart ...or news

By Jim Heffernan
I recently acquired a new “smart” phone, and I’ve got to admit it’s pretty smart. Until now I’ve been strictly a landlinelubber (hey, I just made up a new big word) but landlines don’t work away from home base, as everyone knows.

So I finally joined the multitudes of smart phone users. I’m always a decade or two behind the times, so no surprise there. The thing about my new smart phone that surprised me is that it isn’t just for calling or hearing from people you don’t necessarily want to talk to or hear from in the first place. It includes a feature they label “smart news.”

How smart? Well, we’ll see as we read on. For a neophyte like me, it’s quite surprising to see the screen filled with actual smart news and advertisements all mixed together, making it difficult to differentiate between them.

Get it? Well, for example, it’ll show a headline like:
Trump avers he’s
greatest bad
weather president

And then the next headline after it is something like:
Dr. Scholl gets
esteemed prize
in podiatry

See? That second item is actually an ad for shoe liners that make your feet feel good going upstairs, disguised as news. So, if you’re quickly scanning the smart news for news that you deem to be important, like:
Italians decry
naming storm
after Florence

You might click to the next one, clearly an ad:
More Quakers eat
Wheaties than
their own oats

Of course you can readily figure it out but it can be somewhat startling to think you’re reading actual fake news and then realize it’s simply an ad for something. Imagine this scenario. Real news first:
Kim Jong Un
changes last
name to Novak

Very serious news indeed. Then it’s followed by:
Research shows
Spearmint won’t
lose flavor on
bedpost overnight

Totally commercial headline disguised as breaking news.

Here are a few more examples of this growing phenomenon:
Duchy of Fenwick
declares war
on United States

Whew. Very bad development, indeed. Next?
Dentists wonder
where yellow went
after Pepsodent use

Hmmm. Here’s more. First actual news:
President Trump
lies in bed,
also elsewhere

And then:
Tasters declare
Pepsi Cola
hits the spot

Followed by startling news:
Jesus returns
for second
coming event

And then:
New discovery

I’ve never had a dandruff problem, but I am aware of its heartbreak. No, hold it, it’s the heartbreak of psoriasis, the embarrassment of dandruff.

I suppose on the day of reckoning, though, nobody will care much about the second coming if sufferers can get their hands on an effective dandruff cure.

We Americans really are exceptional. And smart. Ask us.