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May 12: Prairie Fires

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Wildfires are not new to North Dakota. With the vast expanses of grass, fires can spread easily. On this date in 1900, the Washburn Leader lamented the numerous fires that swept through the western part of the state in recent months. The concern centered around the destruction of farmland and crops, but the flames also struck businesses like the Little Missouri Horse Company barns in March of 1900.

In January alone, prairie fires destroyed a considerable amount of land in both Emmons and Barnes counties. Many farmers’ homes and barns burned to the ground. These disasters were so prevalent at the time that the newspaper took to advertising preventative methods to slow the spread of a prairie fire.

The Dickinson Press ran an article on homemade tools. The “Prairie Fire Extinguisher” method consisted of a machine traditionally used to harvest grain called a header. Stripped of its platform and gearing, the header had old carpets and sacks fastened along the axle to drag along the ground. Two pipes poked with holes were connected to barrels of water to drip water on the ground. The article claimed that the machine could “extinguish more miles of fire than twenty men in the old-fashioned way of fighting fire.”

Another method of prevention suggested that farmers plow fire guards. Fire guards involved removing tall dry grass and plowing a furrow that would keep a fire from spreading.

In 1892 the 777 Cattle Company also had a version of the prairie fire extinguisher. This one used corrugated iron. Three or four strips of iron three feet wide and eight feet long were put together in a way that would be flexible. Horses would pull the metal, combing dirt over the fire to smother the flames.

The fire threat was high throughout North Dakota’s early settlement history. Research suggests that as settlers continued to move into the area, the frequency and intensity began to decrease. Fires were now being stopped by roads and man-made waterways.

Dakota Datebook by Olivia Burmeister


  • The Washburn Leader. [volume], May 12, 1900, Image 2
  • The Dickinson Press. (Dickinson, Stark County, D.T. [i.e. N.D.]) 1883-1927, January 20, 1900, Image 4
  • Bismarck Daily Tribune. [volume], April 07, 1900, Image 3
  • The Dickinson Press., March 24, 1900, Image 3

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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