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Iowa Farm Letters - John and Sarah Kenyon

On Monday, October 23, 1859, John Kenyon wrote:

... and now for the prairie fire we had a week ago yesterday. I went to the window and looked out. A prairie fire was about one and a half miles off. I could see nothing but smoke and it looked awful dark.

Log cabin

I grabbed the hoe and scythe and started for our south road about twenty rods from the house. When I got there the fire had just reached the road. It came in the shape of a V and the flames rolled higher than the waves on the ocean. It looked awful to me.

I was so frightened that I shook like a dog. It had crossed the road. I ran for my life and put it out and followed it up the road ten rods or so until it was past our land. I hurried back but it had crossed the road in another place and was within ten feet of the fence.

Woman using pitchfork

Father Ellis and Mother and Ann were fighting it like mad (as the English say) with foot mats, rugs, old pieces of carpet, coats and petticoats, etc. We fought it to the cornfield then it had to side burn about 20 rods then it had a clean sweep for the hay. The stables, chicken coops, hog sties are all made of hay and poles, all but the house.

Father and I stayed and fought it and the women folks cut it for the stacks and raked up all the old stalks they could. Mary came just as the fire was coming around the fields. She grabbed bed clothes off the bed, carpeting, anything she could lay her hands on. She had all of them wet and ready for action.

Man cutting a furrow as a firebreak

On came the fire and how they kept it off the stock the Lord only knows. I was so frightened that I dare not look that way. If it had not been for the female department everything would burn. They fought like heroes.

The Beaches and Joneses fought so hard they would come out of the fire and smoke and throw themselves on the ground. They thought they were going up. I did not fight as hard as that but I fought hard enough to burn off my whiskers and hair so I had to have them cut. I looked rather red around the jaws.

Originally published in the Iowa Journal of History, Vol. 58, No. 1 (January 1960).
Copyright 1960, State Historical Society of Iowa.
Excerpt reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Photos used by permission from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City.

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