Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Fall of Fires: The 150th Anniversary of the Peshtigo and Great Michigan Fires

by Gillian Macdonald

Headline from East Shore News,
October 13, 1871
October 8 marks the 150th Anniversary of world’s deadliest forest fire. In our evermore climate-conscious community, a look back at this devastating event shows the sheer power of the environment.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo Fire leveled a broad swath of Wisconsin and Michigan. Cast in the shadow of the Great Fire of Chicago at that same time, the fires at Peshtigo, Holland, Manistee, Port Huron, and beyond swept through the Midwest devastating and eliminating towns in Wisconsin and in the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. The Peshtigo Fire has largely been forgotten as a result of the notoriety of the Chicago Fire, despite being more deadly. The unnaturally dry conditions in the fall of 1871 created conditions ripe for fires. Historians and meteorologists have pointed to the wind cyclones that formed over the eastern plains as the culprits for spreading the fires.

The fires in Michigan devastated 2.5 million acres of forest (an area the size of the state of Connecticut). Between Peshtigo, Michigan, and Chicago, the wildfires of October 1871 killed between 1500 and 2500 people--the deadliest wildfire in recorded human history. Uninterrupted drought had plagued the Midwest in October of 1871 and the logging town of Peshtigo in northeast Wisconsin became a tinderbox waiting to blow. Residents fled into rivers and Lake Michigan to escape the firestorms that engulfed the town and spread into Menominee County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Coined as the Great Michigan Fire, that same Sunday, residents in Holland, Michigan, were served the same fate by hurricane-force winds and fires on the coast of Lake Michigan. The winds spread embers across the state and, in just 30 hours, forest fires marched through Grayling, Manistee, Big Rapids, Midland, Bay City, and finally reached Caro where dry conditions were even worse. Faced with 100-foot flames, residents in the Saginaw Bay-area, like those in Peshtigo, rushed into the waters of Lake Huron to escape the blaze.

Painting by Dennis Matheis, from cover of The Holland Fire of October 8, 1871
by Donald van Reken (ca. 1982)

East Shore News (Oceana County), the Escanaba Tribune, and the Sanilac Jeffersonian are among the newspapers that reported on the devastation. The article in the Escanaba Tribune detailed that the “streets were lined with men, women and children fleeing for their lives.” In the same article, Mr. Place (the gentleman sent to the scene) confirmed the decimation of Peshtigo: the “fire came upon them so suddenly that it was not in the reach of mortal power to stay its fury.” The Sanilac Jeffersonian reported on the damages in Port Huron, specifically in Rock Falls, Sand Beach, Elm Creek, Port Hope, and Huron City where residents suffered estimated losses of $10,000 to $100,000. East Shore News described scenes of devastation from Muskegon and Peshtigo, told of how the city of Holland burned, detailed Big Rapids as “entirely destroyed,” reported every house in Birch Creek burned, and lamented “most horrible scenes took place at Peshtigo.”

Destruction in Chicago,
October 1871
The fires of October 1871 served as a warning about land-use practices of the time. The subsequent 150 years have seen a transformation in the mitigation of wildfires. The National Weather Service now has incident meteorologists who support firefighters battling wildfires across the US. But that doesn’t mean that wildfires are no longer a problem we must contend. As the climate changes and weather patterns shift, long periods of dry weather are creating new threats across North America and the globe. Our awareness of the issue has dramatically increased thanks to climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. As we witnessed 150 years ago, we should never underestimate the destructive power of forest fires, even in the water-rich Great Lakes region.

Friday, October 1, 2021

A Stroll Down Newspaper Lane

by C.J. Eno

For anyone that hasn’t had the pleasure of checking out Clarke’s Digital Michigan Newspaper Portal, it contains digitized collections of newspapers throughout the state, many of which were digitized right here at the Clarke. This year, assisted by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the Library of Michigan, we sought to expand this valuable resource to its fullest extent. Libraries and universities across the state were scoured for digitized newspaper collections. Genealogical societies, historical institutions, commercial newspaper archives, contemporary newspaper sites, governmental entities, and everything in between were also thoroughly searched for accessible collections of Michigan newspapers. Once found, each was vetted, and the data recorded for incorporation into our portal. The stated goal of this endeavor was “to create the single most comprehensive, publicly accessible, online tool available to researchers that identifies online Michigan newspaper resources.” We can proudly proclaim that this has been accomplished in a big way.


The number of newspaper titles on the Portal has nearly tripled to an impressive 1067 and now cover every county in the state (where previously, only 64 of 83 counties were represented). If you don’t have the wherewithal to scroll through all these newspaper titles to find an 1879 copy of the Wexford County Pioneer, we’ve included a helpful drop-down box to select which county you’d like to search. While not all of these titles’ collections are free to view, the majority are, and we’ve included a designation for each title to help users know what to expect in this regard. Digital newspapers from today or 200 years ago can be found within the Portal, with helpful date-ranges for each title’s collection posted next to its entry.


While working with these digital newspaper collections, I’ve come to appreciate how much information can be found within. I don’t mean the obvious kind of information that would pique the interest of any historian, like myself, but rather information that can transcend multiple disciplines and interests. For example, the Portal essentially holds the entire evolution of print advertising in Michigan, which could be analyzed in countless ways, and offer palpable inspiration for any student of business or marketing. Have you ever wondered if print advertising was better in the 1920s or the 1960s? Nothing stands in your way now; pit them against one another for your amusement. Are you a fan of literature? Many newspapers ran serials of fiction from issue to issue that, taken together, form into lengthy novellas. Also, unlike readers of the past, you won’t need to wait another week to find out what happens to the daring captain, wealthy heiress, or intrepid explorer. Stitch together your favorite, make a trip to your local copyright lawyer, and then get a quick production deal with Netflix. I won’t stop you. Have you ever wanted to read foreign-language newspapers in Finnish, Arabic, Spanish, German, Italian or Hungarian? Now they’re just a click away. Will you be utterly baffled by the jokes made in comics from 100 years ago? More than likely but find out for yourself. How big of a deal was Harry Houdini in the public sphere? Were crossword puzzles easier or harder decades ago? How garish were hats in 1923? Just a little browsing through the Portal and you’ll find your answers.


During this project, I saw a national news piece in The L’Anse Sentinel, showing Amelia Earhart making final checks on her Lockheed L10 Electra, for an anticipated trip around the globe. Unbeknownst to the writer, photographer, and eventual readers of Baraga County, it would be one of her last photo-ops before that very plane disappeared over the Pacific. I stumbled upon a story in the True Northerner [Paw Paw] about a family of serial killers in Kansas, the Benders, that preyed upon random travelers in the early 1870s. I had never heard of it, but it seemed to be quite the sensation at the time. For lighter fare, I found a story in the Alma Record about an enlisted cat in the U.S. Navy, and how poor Tom the Terror faced a court-martial for assaulting an officer. Then there’s a story in The Evening Record [Traverse City] that reports the sighting of a sea serpent near the shore of Traverse City that terrified the handful of witnesses that saw it. I also followed a story in the pages of The Calumet News of an expedition to the North Pole to locate the elusive Crocker Land. The explorers (and readers) weren’t yet aware that previous explorer Robert Peary fabricated the entire tale, but it was written in 1913 when there still existed unexplored corners of this world; it was like reading the buildup of an H.P. Lovecraft tale. These are but a mere sampling of what can be discovered in the Portal, whether the search is intentional or not.   

It’s easy to forget in this world of hyper-information that one can still find an unexplored corner; something new (or perhaps simply forgotten) that can spark inspiration or excitement. If that’s what you’re looking for, the Portal is a great place to begin your search. Maybe you’ll find what you were looking for, and maybe with a little luck and patience, you’ll find something better. It’s because within the pages of these newspapers we can see the very zeitgeist of Michigan, in all its parts, as it evolves through the decades. With the luxury of hindsight, we can see it all; the good, the bad, and the upsettingly ugly. A million theses, dissertations, and comparative analyses live within these newspapers, as do a million novels, at least a thousand true-crime dramas, and easily a couple hundred Netflix deals.                 


So, please take some time to enjoy this hefty expanse of new titles on the Portal. From myself, and Ashish Puskar, the virtuoso that worked so hard to get all these new links online (as well as implementing all the new user interface features on the Portal), we hope that it provides you that spark.


Until next time, see you in the funny papers.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Lest we Forget: Remembering September 11

 by Gillian Macdonald

As the news media around the US girds itself to mark the somber occasion of September 11, we take a moment to reflect on this tragedy. Twenty years ago, the September 11 attacks sent shock waves through the nation and the world. Thousands lost their lives when four commercial airplanes were used to target prominent US buildings, including the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Here in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, the Morning Sun and Central Michigan Life reported on the tragic events. The Morning Sun’s headline read: “Under attack: Outrageous attacks claim thousands.” Susan Field and Linda Gittleman reported on a Western Michigan University student’s grounding by Federal Aviation officials in Mount Pleasant that Tuesday. Jason Schilling was on a routine flight for his aviation class when he was grounded by the FAA. Entering the terminal in Mount Pleasant, Schilling and his friend were confronted with the unfolding attacks on a television mounted on the wall. Schilling commented “We were up there flying. We couldn’t even believe it.” In Isabella County, the Michigan State Police were on high alert and the emergency management center was on partial activation status.

Heather Sonntag from CM Life reported that senior Kristina Bukoski thought “the devastation on her television was staged,” she didn’t quite know how to comprehend the tragedy. Students from CMU’s campus were left speechless and relied on each other and counseling support to deal with the overwhelming loss. In response, the University organized meetings at the dining halls and Bovee University Center allowing students and counselors to meet and lean on each other. CMU President Rao formed an emergency ad hoc crisis management team in effort to control safety concerns across campus. The attacks themselves had forced the cancellation of classes on September 11; by September 12, President Rao followed President Bush’s lead by urging a return to normalcy on campus. The faculty were also instructed to be considerate of individual reactions to the tragedy; students were not excused from class but allowed to leave campus if they wanted.

Twenty years later, we can still abide by President Rao’s words to campus: “It is important that, in the face of tragedies such as this, humans come together in support of and respect for one another, and I feel sure that this will be the case at CMU because of our long tradition of caring for one another.” Life has never been the same, nor should it be. The first memorials to the attacks came in the immediate aftermath and each year, two bright columns of light shine in New York city near the site of where the World Trade Center once stood. Here on CMU’s campus, the September 11 attacks are marked every year with a memorial flag garden situated next to the Park Library. Lest we forget those who lost their lives.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Final Word

Frank Boles

Since 1991, I have had the privilege of serving as the director of the Clarke Historical Library. During that time, I have benefited from the advice and help of many people, to whom I offer my deepest thanks, and for whom I hold the highest regard. They have helped the library accomplish not simply annual goals, but perform a fundamental societal mission of preserving our individual and collective memory.

The Clarke Family

The Clarke Historical Library was founded in 1954 by a generous gift from Dr. Norman Clarke Sr. to his alma mater, Central Michigan University. Dr. Clarke Sr. wrote into the donation agreement an ongoing role for himself and his family. It is a testament to the family’s interest that after Norm Clarke Sr. died, his son Dr. Norman Clarke Jr. continued to represent the family within the library. When Norm Jr. died, his son Norman Clarke III assumed the role of family representative.

The continuity created by the presence of first, the donor, and later, his family gives the Clarke Historical Library an opportunity that few “named” libraries have. It allows us not only to be guided by the purposes established by the founder, but it also creates an opportunity to speak with the family about how changing times might cause us to re-interpret the founder’s statements. Dr. Norman Clarke Sr. was a visionary, but after sixty-seven years even a visionary’s ideas need some adjusting.

I am extremely grateful for the guidance of the late Norman Clarke Jr. and his son Norman Clarke III, the family’s current official representative. My thanks also to James Frye, a grandson of Norman Clarke Sr., who also carries on the legacy of his grandfather in stewarding the library.

The Library’s Board of Governors

The Clarke Historical Library is unique among CMU units in that it has, by terms of the agreement signed with the library’s founder, a separate Board of Governors. The Clarke Board consists of a family representative, four University officials, and five members nominated by the Clarke Board for service and whose selection is confirmed by CMU’s Board of Trustees.

The truth is Boards can be tremendous advocates and also significant pains in the behind. Board members bring fresh insights to the library and sometimes can persuade senior university administrators to adopt opinions that might not be well received coming from a mere library director. But Board members can also micromanage and insist on things best understood (maybe only understood) by them. Fortunately for me, the members of the Clarke Board of Governors have been powerful influences for the better and usually left the messy intricacies of library administration to the library administration. I am grateful for the hard work, good advice, and sympathetic ears given by all those who have taken on the obligations of Board membership.

Although many individuals have served on the Board, let me thank all of them by thanking the current members for their service, including the family representative Norman Clarke III, the three university officers who serve on the board ex-officio–President Robert Davies, Dean Kathy Irwin, the chair of the Department of History, Greg Smith, the five elected members, Board chair Carla Hills, Michael Federspiel, Robert Kohrman, Carlin Smith, Larry Wagenaar, and emeritus member Sandra Bell Croll.

The Dean’s Office

There is a standing joke in the Clarke that I am going “upstairs” to the Dean’s Office to beg for something. I cannot count the number of times I have found my way into the Dean’s Office explaining some “wonderful” opportunity (please note, they were all “wonderful” unless they are also “extraordinary.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it) that the Clarke could take advantage of, if we could find a bit more money. And most often, the dean found the money.

But the Clarke Historical Library’s relationship with both the dean and the University Library is about much more than about successful begging for dollars. It was about an understanding of and the support for aspirations not always shared at CMU. When CMU compares itself to “peer” institutions the usual suspects are the other schools that compose the MAC sports conference. When I compare the Clarke Historical Library to other special collection libraries, my “peer” group was invariably Big Ten schools, such as the University of Michigan.  

That significant jump in size and scope was something that the dean was sympathetic to and helped nurture. The dean didn’t have to do this–I know many colleagues at other institutions who, when they made this kind of argument, were told that while the administration understood, it wasn’t “feasible.” I was allowed to develop the library aspirationally, rather than being told to think less ambitiously because of existing institutional parameters. The Clarke Historical Library could play with the big kids, and is, in fact, part of their club.

A less fortunate friend once described the institutional support I received by saying, “you’re a lucky guy.” I have indeed been very lucky into whom I reported. I owe a great debt both to Tom Moore, the retired Dean of Libraries, and Kathy Irwin, the current Dean. Without their support, the Clarke would be a much smaller place.

The Clarke Historical Library Staff

I cannot write enough words or find ones that are sufficiently praiseworthy to describe the Clarke staff with whom I have worked. They are the people who, every day, make things happen. They supply the reference service for which we are justly praised. They undertake the “backroom” work that prepares books and archival material for use and enables excellent reference. They do outreach, whether it is planning for speakers, creating beautiful and informative exhibits, making hundreds of thousands of pages from Michigan newspapers available online, or building the subset of CMU’s website that is most visited by people not affiliated with the university. I am so much in their debt I don’t know where to begin to express my thanks.

Given that dilemma let me thank all those I have worked with me by naming and thanking the current staff: Christa Clare, C.J. Eno, Megan Farrell, Marian Matyn, Laura Thompson, Samuel Tibebe, and Bryan Whitledge. Let me also thank two recently retired Clarke staff members, John Fierst and Tanya Fox and another recent retiree from the University Library, Janet Danek, who while she was technically on the Libraries staff also designed exhibits in the Clarke Library galleries. They all perform their assignments with extraordinary merit.

And I hope all of the staff, current and retired, will understand my need to express a special thank you to Christa Clare, who met me at the door my first day on the job and amazingly will be here on the day I walk out for the last time. She has stories – I just hope she won’t tell them.

My thanks also to our student employees. Their energy and work are amazing, and they are always very polite to the old guy, particularly when I start making references to ancient sit-coms that both aired and went out of syndication before they were born. Some of the student employees even know who Gilligan is, although they may not understand why an island was named for him.

The Donors

For all the effort shown by the Clarke staff, it is really the donors that make everything work. There are simply too many donors to thank each of you by name. I know this from painful experience. We tried every year, and usually missed someone.

I cherish each of you as individuals I am pleased to have known, and for the things you have made it possible for the library to do. Three-quarters of the material received by the library arrives as gifts-in-kind. What doesn’t get carted in the door is often purchased with money from donors.

If there are too many donors to thank each by name, let me at least pay special thanks to a small group of donors who, during my time as director, took the extraordinary step of creating an endowment or serving as the major funder of an endowment campaign. These include the late Amanda Boulton, Eunice Burgess, Susan and Robert Clarke (not related to the original donor family), Sandra Bell Croll, Michael Federspiel, Robert Graham, in memory of his wife and daughter, Christa Kamenetsky, Robert and Charles Knapp in memory of their parents, Robert Kohrman, the late Leon and Francis McDermott, Hank Meijer, , Francis and Mary Lois Molson, the late Susan Stan, the late Bill Strickler (whose endowment is housed in the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation) and Jack and Mary Lou Westbrook.

And My Family

More times than I care to count, the responsibilities of being director impacted my family, usually not in a good way. Evenings spent at speaker presentations, road trips to visit donors or to professional conferences–there always seemed to be a need to be gone, and a need for their understanding why. My deepest thanks go to my wife, Valerie, our surviving son Nick, and our deceased son Matt.

A Closing Invocation

What I am most grateful for is that all the effort and support I have described acknowledges the important work done by the Clarke Historical Library. Sometimes, people dismiss what libraries like this one do as unimportant to “the real world.” That is a mistake that values short-term goals over matters of existential importance. In a speech I presented many years ago, and in a slightly different context, I said,

“We cause to be remembered triumph and tragedy. We give voice to those who can no longer speak. We preserve memories for those who can no longer remember. … We are the stewards of humanity’s legacy.”  What special collections libraries and archives do “explains who we are. It explains why we are. It opens a window to our individual and collective soul. Archives are, and will remain, that place where, above everything else, the soul of a person and of a community is both preserved and laid bare. Insofar as any human can find truth, truth is in our holdings. Insofar as any human can find immortality, immortality is in our stacks.”

As I retire, I am humbled by and grateful for all those who have shared this generous vision of what the library does. Your support has made possible what has been accomplished.

I hope you will continue to support the stewardship of humanity’s legacy found within the Clarke Historical Library.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Hello, CMU Negative Photo Index!

[Monday, August 23, 2021. 8:05 AM. Heard over a crackly loudspeaker from a particularly enthusiastic member of the student body…]

Good Morning Students and Faculty!

This is not a test. This is the new Central Michigan University Negative Photo Index!

Time to slide on down to Clarke Historical Library website, and browse through list of eight consecutive decades of CMU photography. Is it me, or does this project look like it took a long time? That’s right, documenting nearly 32,000 rolls of film so you can have access to a catalog of pictures just in time for the new school year.

Want to find a file? Easy! Just open the Clarke website, and head over to Research materials. Under CMU materials, you will find the new Negative Photo Index. Click there, and you will be taken to a landing site for materials. Photos are separated by year, in five-year increments.

Some classics include:

  • 67-416, the Korean Orphanage Drive Greased Pig Race
  • 70-219, Greeks Pie in Face
  • 73-419, Clown Headshots
  • 2002-163, chess match with Smith playing students all at once
  • 3293, Civil Defense Nuns and others learning to use Geiger Counters
  • 3700, Students Laughing at EMU threat sign
  • 4110, Bovee’s Miniature Animals

Is it a little too early this morning for this much information? That’s fine. The Negative Photo Index is here to stay, so you can head there anytime.

While this index may not look like much, there is history in every file. Did you know that Central Michigan University used to have a Most Eligible Bachelor Contest? Or, that Homecoming Festivities used to include a huge bonfire (negative 67-447b, look it up)! Some traditions never die, but these files show us traditions that did. It also shows us how the school has changed over the years. From the Sheep Sheds office where CMLife used to operate from, to the old library located in Ronan Hall, Central Michigan University’s campus looks different every decade (something we can all relate to right now).

Maybe you’re not a person who needs to be at the Clarke? You aren’t a history major, why is this important to you? Well, my good friend, let me tell you why! This is our school’s historical record. That seems cliche, but my point stands. If you’re an activist, the photos here tell the story of all activists before you, what worked and what didn’t. If you’re a student who’s curious about our school’s multicultural history, we’ve got photos of the first celebration of Black History Month at CMU, events hosted by students during Asian Heritage Week, and tons of photos of Office of Native American Programs events such as the Women’s Circle in 2000.

Maybe you’re a more technical major, and need some ideas for your senior project. We have photos of labs, student exhibitions, faculty research, and much more. Inspiration is here. Still not convinced? We have pictures of every single professor on campus. Want to see how they looked in the 80’s? Aquanets and shoulder pads as far as the eyes can see.

Thank you, CMU Negative Photo Index. From your professional purpose as a research tool, to your hidden purpose of giving a laugh to those that need it.

This is Nova Moore, and I am signing off to see 81-205. What is it? Guess you’ll have to come and see.

Greeks Pie in the face fundraiser,
Negative 70-219, 1970

Student in sculpture class,
Negative 82-082, 1982

Homecoming bonfire,
Negative 67-447b, 1967

Professor Smith plays chess against all students at once,
Negative 2002-163, 2002

Clown headshots,
Negative 73-419, 1973

Civil Defense Nun with Geiger counter,
Negative 3293, ca. 1960-64

Korean Orphanage Project fundraiser, greased pig race,
Negative 67-416, 1967