It was early October 2020, the election bearing down on us like a fire while the Western US burned, and I was sitting on my back deck, thinking about my great-grandfather’s account of the October 12, 1918 fire in Cloquet, Minnesota, the home of my mother’s side of the family. Because I like to corroborate my facts, I pulled out my copy of The Fires of Autumn: The Cloquet-Moose Lake Disaster of 1918 and physically jolted when I came across a photo of Red Cross relief workers assisting refugees, the caption noting that the workers were wearing influenza masks due to the pandemic. So self-obsessed with the troubles of my century, I had spent months with my great-grandfather’s journals without realizing that the 1918 pandemic was ongoing during the aftermath of the most destructive event to befall Cloquet.
The parallels snapped into place, pandemic and fire cycling back around a century later, as I sat on my deck in Nebraska—miles away from northern Minnesota—and relived history from a safe remove.
The disastrous 1918 fire forced the Weyerhaeusers to reconsider their standing in Cloquet’s future since the valuable white pine had been essentially logged out of the area many years earlier. Cloquet remained the center of northern Minnesota operations at the time of the fire, but the Weyerhaeuser interest had shifted westward to Washington and Oregon. The town of Cloquet was rebuilt after the 1918 fire and the Weyerhaeusers focused on developing their secondary markets for wood products, like the Northwest Paper Company, which has employed members of my extended family ever since.
I am deeply fortunate to have access to my great-grandfather’s personal account of the 1918 fire, written on the fifty-year-anniversary in 1968. I never met my great-grandparents; but, in this essay, I tried to write toward the fears my great-grandparents and I had in common. I knew I had to reveal the century-old twist partway through the piece—my young great-grandmother saving my ancestors—to show how terrible and timeless these events were. No one in my family died as a result of either the Cloquet fire or the 1918 pandemic, but the crackle of threats remains, a century later, whether it is this one or the last. Hopefully this is not the last.
KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Author of Curing Season (WVU Press, 2022) and recipient of a 2021 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council. Kristine’s work was named Notable in Best American Essays 2021 and 2019 and is published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Speculative Nonfiction, among others. She is the director of Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.