Water, Wind, and Fire
Palo Alto County
A half century after soldiers moving between Fort Dodge in Iowa and Fort Ridgley in Minnesota named the new county through which they passed Palo Alto after the 1846 U.S. victory in its war with Mexico, the county that was once largely a wetland was instead in a severe drought and on fire.
In the 1890s when severe drought struck, Rush Lake and Pickerel Lake both dried up. Livestock could not get water from the lakes and augered wells, lacking the previous high water table in sloughs, provided insufficient water for people and their domestic animals. Livestock also struggled because, by this time, previously unfenced land was now fenced at property lines. Animals could not wander in search of water. In addition, farming that was once the source of a family’s food alone, a practice requiring modest amounts of water, was being replaced by commercial farming, raising of crops as commodities on a larger scale. Larger scale farming required more water.
The water Palo Alto County had to offer these residents and their livestock in the 1890s was under 250 feet of glacial till in “ferruginous Dakota Sandstone.” A.C. Haman calls it “fossil water.” Deep wells had to be drilled and even so artesian processes could only bring water to within 90 feet of the surface. The water had to be lifted the rest of the way, and the wind provided the energy that made this possible. Holding tanks provided water when the wind didn’t blow, but mostly it did. The windmills, first built from wood, then from steel, were such a popular solution to the water problem that the newspapers, says A.C. Haman, were full of ads for them.
But this drilling for water did not prevent the bottoms of dried up sloughs from catching on fire. Drought and drainage had left a thick layer of combustible organic material at the bottoms of sloughs. Peat. When humans or lightning ignited a prairie fire, the peat would become part of the fuel. Peat fires could burn for months. There was little to be done to stop them. The deep history of the sloughs indicates that the peat had burned in the past because layers of ash remain between the layers of peat deposited when floods and wetlands returned. Starting in the drought of the 1890s and for some three decades, in the Lake Rush area, the peat ignited and reignited.
Sources: SHSI: J.L. Martin, History of Palo Alto County, Iowa, 1877; A.C. Haman, The History of the Rush Lake Area, Part 1, 2000; on-line: photo: Ryan Schnurr, “The Iconic Windmills that Made the American West,” Atlas Obscura, January 15, 2018.