Fire and Water in Early Grundy County, 1855
Grundy county, Iowa
The territory that became Grundy County, like much of Iowa, the land between the great rivers—Missouri, west and Mississippi, east—was and is endowed with many creeks. “The channels of all the streams in the County are crooked and shallow, and during very heavy showers, or in the Spring and Summer freshets, they frequently overflow their banks and submerge the bottom land.” So wrote a nineteenth-century historian. The descriptive word “freshet” is not so often used any more. But the flood of a river or creek from heavy rain or melting snow to which the word refers remains familiar. It is probably an old French word, “freschete,” a diminutive of “freis,” fresh, a word that suggests more the renewal that occurs rather than any damage done by flooding.
It is intriguing to remember this word and the prevalence of spring and summer freshets in Grundy County when reading about the prevalence as well of prairie fires. The Autumn of 1855 was beautiful as Iowa Autumns could so often be, when an early frost killed much of the prairie grass. Farmers had just secured much of the hay that would see them and their animals through the winter when in a high wind prairie fire arose. It burned through nearly all the hay collected. Some farmers still collecting hay did not see the fire until it was upon them. “Two young men, [assisting a farmer] ran to the stream nearby and threw themselves headlong into it, and although they kept their heads under water as long as they could hold their breath, the hair on the backs of their heads was burned so much that it came off in great handfuls.” A woman was in a farmhouse with her daughter, surrounded by hay and beneath hay on the roof. When the fire approached, mother and daughter ran for the well with two kittens in tow. They barely reached the well when the fire swept past them. Though the fire leapt on their clothes, they were more fortunate than some. Neither was severely burned. Another farm family further down the creek lost all the hay they had collected as the fire raced through the grove and leapt the creek as if it were not there. When the fire subsided, the whole county was dark. “The landscape looked like one black ocean, relieved by nothing.”
Early historians report that farmers were at first grateful for the appearance of snow that winter. But the severity of the winter and the shortage of fuel and provisions soon challenged the depths of that gratitude.
Sources: SHSI: E.H. Beckman, History of Grundy County up to 1876; on-line: image: American Geophysical Union 2019, Famartin via Wikamedia Commons.