Kathy Kettenhoven has spent nine years researching the Peshtigo fire, which took place on Oct. 8, 1871.
Her research has helped her compile an adventure/romance fiction story with strong ties to what really took place on that tragic day. Entitled “The Tempest of the Timber,” Kettenhoven’s book has been published online and is now available through Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
“When I was a young girl, my mother told me about an ancestor who survived the Peshtigo Fire. I didn’t know what a conflagration was and I thought if it was really that bad, I would have learned about it in school or at least heard of it,” said Kettenhoven. “Mom told me there was a museum about it in Peshtigo, and I planned to visit it someday.
“Some years later, my husband Steve and I decided to take our children on a day trip. I thought it would be a good time to cross the Peshtigo Fire Museum off my bucket list,” continued Kettenhoven. “The museum is set in an old church adjacent to the Peshtigo Cemetery on Oconto Avenue. It is full of items from the early settlers, but there are few actual relics from the fire. The most noteworthy artifact is the actual tabernacle that Father Peter Pernin saved by taking it with him to the river.
“The museum curator explained that the fire was so massive and severe that very little could survive, and I only needed to look a bit further to learn about what the survivors endured,” she said. “The museum has binders full of letters, newspaper articles, photos and written accounts of survivors. These are valuable treasures of history. This is where I learned about the Sugar Bushes, where the most lives were lost.
“There is a mass grave in the Peshtigo Cemetery containing the remains of several hundred unidentified persons. Many individual headstones are severely weather damaged and the engraving is becoming smooth, making them difficult to read,” Kettenhoven explained. “These poor souls of the Peshtigo Fire had no voice in the shadow of the Chicago Fire, which occurred the same night a few hundred miles away. Now time wants to erase even their markers.
“The world’s eyes were preoccupied with Chicago, yet it is estimated that approximately 2,000 more souls were lost in Peshtigo, the Sugar Bushes, Upper Michigan and across the bay of Green Bay up into the Door Peninsula where many Belgian families settled. It is my hope that this novel will help to bring more recognition to the Peshtigo Fire, the most devastating fire in American history.
“I visited the Peshtigo Fire Museum and cemeteries many times, searching for survivors that I read about. These are the ones that inspired me. Some of them couldn’t read, write or speak English, but with someone’s help their stories were recorded for the generations,” said Kettenhoven. “In my research, I loved to look at the pages of the ancient letters and follow the curve of their writing. The language was so different then. I fell into their dreams of settling the territory and learned about the early logging area from books, newspaper clippings and microfilm.”
Kettenhoven’s research revealed many interesting facts. The fire was especially violent thanks to drought conditions. A week prior to the Peshtigo Fire, a smaller fire had burned out the town’s telegraph lines. Then, when the big fire came, they had no way to send for help.
A survivor was sent to Marinette, and sent a message by ship to Green Bay. A telegraph was then sent to the governor’s office. The governor was in Chicago surveying the fire damage there at the time. It took two days for the message to get to the governor.
“There are many survivor letters, but I wanted to do a story leading up to the fire,” Kettenhoven said. “I have to consider my book fiction; it combines adventure and romance themes leading up to the fire. The book spans 15 years before the fire.”
Kettenhoven’s main character emigrated from Germany and wanted to be a farmer. He started working in a logging camp. Many of the book’s other characters were formed using various stories that actually took place. Real business people and scenarios of the day are part of Kettenhoven’s book.
Another main character is a young lady who works in the boarding house. A thread of romance is woven throughout Kettenhoven’s story.
“There are many books written on the Peshtigo Fire, but I don’t know of any that focus on what life was like back then. My goal is to paint a picture of what their lives were like. People don’t understand that these people experienced so much oppression in their own countries that it drove them to America,” said Kettenhoven. “They purchased land for $1.25 per acre and built their dreams of having their own farms, clearing the land of trees and stumps and working hard to use the land to its full potential. Then, all of their hopes and dreams were destroyed in one night. Many lost their entire family.”
Strong winds and dry conditions aided the fire as it spread quickly. People had to jump in the river to survive. Many stayed in the freezing water for many hours, dumping water on themselves to cool their heads from the fire. Some survived the fire, only to die of hypothermia from being in the cold water for so long.
“I think it would have been a very different world, if not for the Peshtigo Fire. Perhaps the bustling village of Peshtigo and the Peshtigo Harbor might have meshed into one of the largest and most industrious cities in Wisconsin, but I like to think of it as the small lumber town in northeast Wisconsin that it was,” stated Kettenhoven. “I now realize that Peshtigo and what used to be the Sugar Bushes will never be crossed off my bucket list. I want to go back again.
“I worked on the book for many years, and spent about two years writing to agents,” Kettenhoven said. “I then began to explore self-publishing. There is no up-front cost with e-books, and it was a perfect scenario for me.”
Readers can purchase “The Tempest of the Timber” for many electronic devices, including the Nook (barnesandnoble.com), Kindle (amazon.com), smartphones, iPads, and personal computers. Free apps can be downloaded on personal computers in order to make the e-book accessible.
Kettenhoven’s book, which debuted on Amazon.com on Feb. 23, is priced at $3.99, and her biggest hope is that people will read it and leave lots of reviews. Reviews are needed to help boost the book’s credibility. The e-book had 17 downloads in the first six days.
“I’m already thinking about what I want to do next,” Kettenhoven said. “I’m hoping for good sales on the e-book, and hopefully a publishing house will pick it up and print it. Then, I’ll have a hard copy to present to the Peshtigo Library and a copy to keep for myself.
“I’ll never be one of those people who say they don’t know what they’ll do when they retire,” Kettenhoven said. “I always have dreams that give me something to work toward.”