Prairie Fires

Prairie fires, swooping furiously across the plains, were a constant threat to early settlers. From late summer through the autumn months, endless miles of tall prairie grass became vast tinderboxes, dry and brown from scorching summer heat.

Photo of Eloise Lane

Eloise Lane

It took only a quick spark from an untended campfire, a passing train engine or a stroke of lightning to set the countryside ablaze. Little tongues of flame wrapped around dry grass, and sud- den flames shot up when a tall dry bunch was reached. Within minutes, great clouds of heavy black smoke filled the air and skies reddened from brilliant infer- nos below. In those days, there were no modern fire trucks to call when prairie grass caught fire; Everyone who was able soaked feed sacks and brooms: in water before trying to beat out advancing flames.

Those with water wagons filled their barrels with water to take to the fires. Some made fire guards by plowing two parallel furrows and burning grass of the strip between the furrows. Often the fire would “jump” the burned strip and set fire to the grass beyond. Sometimes the wind would pick up a burning cow chip, toss it 30-feet or more and start a new fire. Often men would kill a cow or steer, split its body open, tie ropes to its legs and drag it along the black line of fire with one many on the unburned grass and another man on the black smoking area. Between the men, the bleeding body of the animal was pulled wide open. The carcass would smother flames faster than sacks, brooms, or wagon sheets.

About 1901 or 1902, a “drag” was developed by the White Deer Land Co. The drag was a square sheet about 12 to 14 feet on a side, constructed out of row upon row of chain. ropes were attached to two of the corners. One of the ropes was attached to a wagon while the other was held by a mounted cowboy. The cowpoke and the wagon traveled a parallel course down one part of the roaring fire while several people followed behind with wet sacks and brooms to stamp out any part of the fire that remained. This was repeated over and over until the fire died out. Sometime in 1907, a prairie fire was started north of Pampa by someone burn- ing a haystack.

The fire burned all the way to Red Deer Creek and came within 600 yards of the pioneer cot- tage where Katie and Wiley Vincent lived. (At that time the Pioneer Cottage was in the 501 block of East Browning – present parking lot of Central Baptist Church.) Eloise Lane White Deer Land, Museum, Pampa After Wiley and the Vincent boys left to help fight the fire, Katie looked around the cottage and saw things she would really hate to lose – such as 100 pound sacks of flower and sugar. She dragged the sacks and anything else the family might need to store in the dugout.

She came back to the cot- tage and was looking around and checking to see if she had missed anything when she noticed Wiley’s new Stetson hat – his prized pos- session. She was going out the door with the hat when a strong wind blew the hat from her grasp, and it began to roll. Valiantly, she chased the hat and managed to rescue it from the wind and fire. Whenever Katie related this story in later years, she laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks as she remembered how she had chased the windblown hat. When news of the fire reached the schoolhouse (in the next block south of Pioneer Cottage), the boys were eager to go to help fight the fire. However, the teacher, Clara Deen, feared that the boys might be burned or injured in fire-fighting and locked the door to keep the boys in the building.

When Clara left the room, the boys broke a window and jumped out to join the firefighters. From the C.P, Sloan house (711 E. Browning), 3-year- old Ralph Sloan brought his little bucket of water to help. The schoolhouse was soon cleared of everyone except Clara and~ the “big girl” (oldest), Lottie Sills (later Mrs. Alex Schneider, Jr.). Clara and Lottie thought it was a shame for the precious school books to be burned, so each of them stacked as many as she could carry and ~ left the building. As they started through the turnstile gate, the gate swung around hitting one of them and knocking her into the other.

The books were scattered all around. Eight-year-old Laura Hobart (Mrs. Clyde Fatheree), who was always climbing things, had to be in on everything if possible. She climbed to the top of a chicken house and sta- tioned herself to give “bulletins” on the progress of the fire. Fortunately, she was able to report that the fire was extinguished and Pampa was spared.

Over 200 Articles, written by Eloise Lane, were published in the Pampa News. These articles may be accessed by clicking on each section below. A list of articles will be revealed that are linked to a page containing the text of the article.

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