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Finding Minnesota: Fires Of 1918 Museum

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(credit: CBS) Mike Binkley
Mike Binkley has been covering Minnesota news for more than 25 year...
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MOOSE LAKE, Minn. (WCCO) There are buildings still standing in Minnesota that are 150 to 200 years old, but many towns in the northeastern part of the state don’t have buildings older than 92.

That’s because they had to start over from scratch after 1918. On Oct. 12 of that year, an enormous fire wiped out dozens of towns in Carlton, Pine, Aitkin, St. Louis and Itasca Counties — killing 453 people.

It’s considered the deadliest natural disaster in state history. But to this day, many Minnesotans don’t even know about the horrific fires of 1918.

Sparks from trains apparently touched off the fires during an extended drought, just as World War I was winding down. More than 250,000 acres burned.

“And that’s why there are no really old homes down along the lakeshore and stuff,” said Curt Frohrip, whose mother survived the fires in Moose Lake. “Everything in the town was wiped out basically.”

There are seven survivors still living from that period, who gathered on Oct. 9 to mark the anniversary of the tragedy.

They included Caroline Alberg, 92, who was a newborn in the hospital with her mother when the fires raced through her family’s farm. Her father and three brothers escaped by jumping into a bog, wrapped in wet blankets.

“The fire was coming so fast, and had its own wind storm,” she said. “And it went over so fast. By the time it went over, the blankets were all dry but everybody was alive.”

Those are the types of stories you’ll learn about in a museum dedicated to the Fires of 1918, in Moose Lake, next to the old train depot.

Marlene Berube works there as a docent, and said she became more aware of the magnitude of the fires after taking that position.

“My father was in the Home Guard during the war,” she said. “Their duty was to go out after the fire and pick up the bodies and bring them back in. My dad never talked about it. He told my brother once what it was, and he says ‘I never want to talk about it again.'”

Another survivor, Mike Shimell, was just a toddler when the fires killed his 3-year-old sister, Mary.

“It was a subject that wasn’t brought up too much in our family,” he said. “With the sister gone, my mother wouldn’t talk much about it.”

Since people were so reluctant to talk back then, Shimell and the other survivors are grateful that the stories are now available for future generations.

“I think it’s wonderful that they have this museum,” Alberg said.

Many people confuse the fires of 1918 with the great Hinckley fire, which also killed more than 400 people in 1894. The city of Hinckley has its own museum devoted to the victims of that tragedy.

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