The 1894 fire destroys Brook Park, Mission Creek

This Ojibwe woman was 22 years old when the firestorm swept down upon the shores of Grindstone Lake. Mah-kah-day-gwon (Blackfeather) heard the cries of Mary Ellen Patrick and her two young sons. Their boat was being blown around the lake by the swirling winds. She put her own two children in a canoe and paddled out to rescue the family. That evening, she gave them food and shelter, even sewing a pair of moccasins for Roy Patrick, who had lost his shoes.

• Part 2 in a series

In 1894, Brook Park was called Pokegama. South of Hinckley was the small hamlet of Mission Creek. Both Brook Park and Mission Creek have a claim to being the place where the Hinckley Fire began.

Fires had been burning all over the area all summer. Between May and Sept. 6 there was less than two inches of rainfall in the county. The timber industry was the top industry in the area.

Two fires edged ever closer toward one another — one  burning in the woods north of Pine City and the other burning in the woods near Quamba.

On the morning of Sept. 1, the smoke that had surrounded the area was thick, and both Mission Creek and Pokegama residents would soon be fighting a losing battle against the two strong fires which combined and became a firestorm.

Mission Creek in 1894 was a small village that contained 26 houses, one store, one hotel, a blacksmith shop and a schoolhouse, but was there primarily to operate a large sawmill. With a population of no more than 150 people, the primary occupation of the residents was the timber industry. Agriculture was not a significant occupation for many living in the area. However, after the fire, Mr. David Hedman had the distinction of having the only surviving home and outbuildings in the entire settlement of Mission Creek, thanks to a field of potatoes. On the southwest side of the Hedman property that field of potatoes sheltered the Hedman home and the people of Mission Creek during the fire.

According to “The Hinckley Fire: Stories from the Hinckley Fire Survivors,” written and compiled by Antone A. Anderson and Clara Anderson McDermott (both survivors of the fire), around noon on Sept. 1, 1894, the clouds of smoke that could be seen in the southwest were causing unease in the inhabitants of Mission Creek. By 2 p.m. the wind became a hurricane and by 3 p.m. it was dark as night and the place was on fire. Mr. Boyle, the store proprietor, ordered everyone to the potato patch and had his men bring barrels of water to the patch. The residents stayed there, their faces pressed into the ground, until the fire passed over. After the worst was over they counted up the crowd and found they were missing one and went in search; they found him a few rods from the rest and okay. In all, says the book, 76 people (and one house) were saved from a fiery fate by Mr. Hedman’s potato patch.

Pokegama (Brook Park) suffered much the same fate. The settlement of Pokegama was a stop on the Great Northern Railroad and was home to approximately 150 people. The town held 25 homes, a sawmill, post office, hotel general store, boarding house and a newly completed school house. On the morning of Sept. 1, the town received the “keys” for the school from the builders.

Around noon, the sun turned blood red; some survivors reported it was as if there was an eclipse. Soot had begun to fall from the sky in town, and scouts were eventually sent out to determine the next course of action for the citizens of the railroad stop. About 2 p.m. an increase in wind and the influx of an oppressive heat and dryness foretold the encroaching fire.  

Just as the people in Pokegama began to panic, the scouts returned confirming their fears. Most ran north in the hopes of finding some swamp or pond known to them miles away. The fire was now surrounding the town on three sides, and those residents still in the area knew that the remaining time was precious. Those not fleeing north to the swamp took refuge in cellars and wells. Most of these refuge seekers did not survive the fire; the fire stole the oxygen from their lungs.

Those seeking shelter in the mill pond or swamp were not out of danger. The mill pond was surrounded on two sides by trees. As the flames approached and devoured these trees, sparks, heat and misery rained down on those trying to survive in the pond. Men used their jackets and women their dresses soaked in water to protect themselves from the heat and sparks. Not all were successful. About 30 people perished in the fire in Pokegama.

But the fire was just beginning and was only getting stronger. Now it was heading north and turning into a firestorm larger than the world had ever seen. While the survivors of Mission Creek waited in their potato field and those seeking refuge in the mill pond emerged and made the sad trek back to their destroyed town, the fire was heading toward Hinckley.

Check next week’s issue of the paper to read the next installment in the series on the Great Hinckley Fire.

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