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Belfield Prairie Fire


This was a tragic day in North Dakota’s history. As a result of a runaway prairie fire southwest of Belfield, the teacher of a country school and six of her students were killed.

It was 1914, and the prairie fires that had been devastating western North Dakota that fall had been particularly severe. Within the previous week alone, big fires in the Fayette area burned a strip twenty-five miles long between the Knife River and Crooked Creek. It was only stopped when it reached a large fire-break plowed by farmers ahead of the flames. Several people narrowly escaped death, and farmers took heavy losses.

Another prairie fire near Manning had caused similar losses.

The Belfield fire had been sparked by a threshing machine that was moving from field to field southwest of town. Five miles away, a 23-year-old teacher, Gladys Hollister, was holding classes for her 12 students in the Davis School. She was popular with students and parents and had been teaching in the county for several years.

At one o’clock, Miss Hollister spotted the fire moving down the valley toward them; high winds were fanning the flames, and she panicked. She knew there was a plowed field a distance away, and not knowing what else to do, she and the children headed out across the fields to reach it.

Six of the children broke off from the group and headed for their homes, which weren’t in the fire’s path. They were the only ones to survive.

The fire soon overtook those who were still running. Three of the children got separated from their teacher. They were later found huddled together and alive. But they were so badly burned that all three died by the following morning.

Meanwhile, as Miss Hollister got closer and closer to the plowed field, she and her remaining three students suddenly found their escape cut off. Smoke engulfed them, and they went down. After the fire rushed on, they were found clutching each other. Their clothes were burned off, the three children were dead, and Hollister was following close behind.

The six children who died were all between the ages of 6 and 12 and included two sets of siblings. Frank Davis, an uncle to some of the children, had struggled heroically to save them and was, himself, now in critical condition.

Doctors were rushed from Belfield, but it was too late; Miss Hollister and the three children who were still alive were too damaged. The young teacher did regain consciousness long enough to say she realized she made a mistake when she made a run for it. But she had done what she thought was best.

In a grim twist, the little school house had barely been touched by the fire. The flames were moving so fast they swept past and left little more than soot stains on the building.

But, unfortunately, hindsight is 20/20…

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm