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Rice’s Fire-Break Machine


For a long time, prairie fires plagued farmers and ranchers in North Dakota, but the Jamestown Daily Alert reported today in 1891 that Stustman County was soon going to be ready to fight fire with fire. County commissioners had recently bought a “fire-break machine,” and would begin work within the county in a week.

E.C. Rice of Mandan invented a machine that consisted of a five-foot-long pipe that ran into a frame of several other smaller pipes that resembled a gridiron. The gridiron was covered by sheet iron, and on the other end of the pipe was a gas can. Gas would run from the can, down the pipe and into the prongs of the frame which would ignite as the machine was drawn over the ground by three horses. If the grass was dry enough, the gas would readily ignite, starting a small prairie fire in its wake.

To control the fire, three discs, which were several feet long were drug behind the frame to confine and extinguish the fire. A wet cattle hide loaded with dirt was drug behind the last disc to put out any remaining flames, and another man followed after to assure nothing was left smoldering.

The machine broke a path five feet wide and could cover 20 miles in one day. Plans were already drawn up by Stustman County Commissioners to begin at Windsor and continue working the borders before plowing additional breaks throughout the county. The Alert said “Work [will keep] going until all danger is over.”

The machine had already been used in Morton County for two seasons with considerable success and Stutsman county officials remained optimistic that the machine would help contain any prairie fires. Yet, the Alert warned farmers not to be too confident in the county’s work. It said, “Of course if the plan is a success, the breaks made will only be a check in preventing any general fire. It is not intended that individual farmers rely on the county’s efforts to protect their places.”

Several fires were later reported in Stustsman County that month, and blame was often placed on hunters and threshing crews. Farmers, however, always received an equal amount of blame for neglecting to make fire breaks. The Alert and fellow farmers pointed out that many safeguarded their crops from hail and frost, but did nothing to prevent prairie fires, which was a danger that consumes more crops than hail and frost combined.

V.L. Craig, a Stutsman County farmer said a penalty should be enacted for farmers and threshers who fail to make good fire breaks. The Alert further stated a need for a good, cheap machine to create fire breaks, but also said “A fool killer for the farmer who neglects to make [fire breaks] by plowing, [is]...badly wanted in North Dakota.” E.C. Rice gave them a machine, but the “fool killer” was still lacking.

By Tessa Sandstrom


“Will burn fire guards: a fire-break machine,” Jamestown Daily Alert. September 8, 1891: 3.

Jamestown Daily Alert. September 16, 1891: 3.

Jamestown Daily Alert. September 19, 1891: 2.

Jamestown Daily Alert. September 23, 1891.