The beauty of the rich farmland of Michigan’s Thumb holds a secret history of devastation. After the clear-cut lumbering era of the 1800’s thousands of slashings, tree tops and branches were left. Farmers cleared the debris by burning for years. In the middle of this tender box was Paris Township which contains the historic town of Parisville. Founded by Polish immigrants escaping the oppression of Prussian Empire, this community claims to be the first Polish settlement in North America.
1881 Fire That Destroyed Michigan’s Thumb
The community was also in the path of one of the largest forest fires of the 1880’s. The Great Fire of 1881 fire scorched a mass of land 60 miles long north to south and 30 miles wide across the eastern half of Huron and Tuscola counties and most of Sanilac County.
According to records filed by the US Army after the Great Fire of 1881, Parisville township was listed as having the 446 buildings destroyed and 22 lives lost. This was the greatest amount of devastation within the three Michigan counties that experienced the great fire. (1)
Eyewitness Accounts of the Thumb Fire
One of the most amazing stories was revealing in a letter from Deine Schwester to her family in Europe. Here is an excerpt.
“Tuesday morning the nuns were here collecting for the poor. The sky looked shadowy and opaque. Our chickens had vanished. The horses were skittish. Then we smelled smoke.
August, it happened so fast! The forest to our west was burning! Wind carried sparks through the treetops, setting everything around us ablaze. Flames surrounded our hotel. There was no escape.
We fixed an icon of Our Lady to the front porch and raced back inside. We prayed.
Four hours the fire roared! Timbers creaked. Windows cracked. Heat blasted.
An unsettling silence followed. We opened the door and crept out past Our Lady. There was not a blister or burn on her. Yet the fire had consumed everything. Charred bodies of man and beast littered the landscape. The air reeked of soot and singed hide.” (1)
The Four Miracles at Parisville
Local lore indicates that the fire sparing the hotel is one of the four miracles of the great fire. The other miracles include a cow coming into Parisville after the fire. Despite the area being totally engulfed in flames somehow this animal survived and it offered survivors some nurishment with its milk. The other event was two loads of hay that survived the fire. The final miracle was the cross outside the town’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church wasn’t burned.
In a business atlas published a few year later indicated that much of the community recovered and it was noted as one of the most productive townships in the Thumb.
- Report on the Michigan Forest Fires of 1881 By William O. Bailey