The Chequamegon School District Listening Sessions have brought out a good deal of interesting topics for discussion.
Perhaps because of the nice weather and the summer weather, there were fewer participants than usual last week at the sessions held in Park Falls and Glidden.
But, those who turned out were obviously interested in what Chequamegon School District Administrator Mark Weddig had to say and were anxious to add their own comments.
The sessions began as a need for better communications between the schools and the community.
Weddig spoke of the financial situation that the schools are finding themselves in which is commonly called deficit spending.
"That means we are spending from our fund balance,"
Weddig said. "But the good news is that the projected deficit for the years 2018-19 was estimated to be at around $775,000, however it has turned out to be only $200,000."
He noted that at some point down the road the district may have to come to the public and ask them to support their schools with tax dollars in the form of a referendum.
"Right now, it looks like we can push that back to 2024," he said. "But, we want to keep that in our conversations so that the district taxpayers aren't surprised. We want them to be aware of what may be coming."
A second bit of good news financially is that the district has zero debt.
"We will probably continue to incur more debt over our ten-year plan for things like HVAC, carpeting, parking lots and other needs," he said. "But, for right now, we have zero debt and we feel we're in pretty good shape."
The district, he added has done a good job of managing its finances — but that doesn't mean that it might not need some help at some point.
In the area of working with the community, Weddig said that there was a recent agreement to work with the City of Park Falls to help with the costs of the new bleachers which will be in place for the fall season.
"We also have students, mostly juniors and seniors, who are out in the community improving their soft skills and shadowing employees who are working in an area that interests the students," he said. "We have job sharing and school-to-work programs and also job apprentices."
The Seeds to Table program has seen 20 gardening plots to be used by those who register.
"The only cost to the planters is to supply 20 percent of their crops to the Lord's Cupboard so others may have some fresh food," he said. "We're also hoping to have a program offering information on how to put up fresh food through canning and freezing."
There is also a strong backpack program filling backpacks with food for students who may not have any food in their homes.
Plans for an Early Learning Center, to provide care for infants through toddlers is nearing completion.
"We will house this program at the Park Falls Elementary as it has come to our attention that there is a huge need for child care," he added. "We believe that the children who go to this learning center will be much better prepared for school and will be more comfortable in a school setting."
The first accepted to this program, will be the children of the school staff members.
"We think we'll be able to draw in real quality teachers if they have this program for their own children," he said, adding that the program will be certified to accept Wisconsin Shares to help pay for daycare costs.
A great link between schools and community is the fitness center.
"We have businesses stepping forward to pay part or all of the fees for their employees to utilize our fitness center and also the pool," he said.
There are also discounts or free passes offered to those employees who have been recently laid off from the Park Falls paper mill.
Then, Weddig provided updates in Our Five Schools. He noted that this is the third year of the inception of the strategic plan.
"I think we are starting to get some real traction and it has been valuable in so many ways," Wedding said "I want to start people thinking of our district as five schools. There's the Park Falls Elementary and Glidden Elementary and also Chequamegon Middle School in Glidden. Then we have the Class Act Charter School and Chequamegon High School."
Weddig said that the community can look proudly on these five schools that provide educational opportunities for students.
"I'd like to point out that there is a real legacy with the Charter School and all of the forestry projects that have gone before," he said. "When the forester was out helping students mark trees it was noted that some of those trees were planted in 1941 in a program that was set up in the days of Aldo Leopold."
"We'd also like to give credit to the students in the Glidden Elementary where they exceeded in their math and reading tests by as much as 83 percent. The Park Falls Elementary was awarded by the DPI for the 4th year in a row for test scores compared to other schools who also have 50 percent free and re duced lunch students."
"The Chequamegon High School continues to offer progressive tech education and has received $23,000 in grants so CHS students might attend tech classes fully funded," he noted.
Susie Daniels of the Price County AODA/Mental Health Coalition said there are numerous efforts being made in the area of alcohol and drug programs and she offered to give presentations in the schools for parents or educators or during the next listening session.
"Under the definition of mental health we have some serious concerns and we are working on these topics in all three districts [Prentice, Phillips, and Chequamegon] to make the connections and to assist with training in peer support to offer strength." Daniels said.
There will be an open house at both building campuses on Aug. 26 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
When the sun rose on the morning of Thursday, July 26, 1894, smoke hung in the air above Phillips. It was an acrid, bitter scent that got caught in the lungs of the men heading to work at the sawmill and worked its way into the heavy fabric of women's dresses. It followed the children and dogs running down the dry streets, morphing with the little puffs of dust that rose from their movement.
The summer of 1894 was hot and dry. Once May had arrived, almost no rain fell.
The ground had grown parched and dusty. Squaw Creek melted to a mere trickle. The level of Elk Lake dropped until rocks jutted out of the water where muskallunge normally lurked. All around town, the swamps dried and cedar trees turned yellow under the hot sun.
Phillips, a humming lumber town, with upwards of 1,500 residents continued none-the-less. Business was thriving. Logging was at its peak and the John R. Davis Lumber Company, located on the Elk Lake shoreline, was reputedly one of the biggest and best in the burgeoning Northwoods. It employed some 400 men and processed as much as 50 million feet of lumber per year. By July, 12 million feet of pine boards were neatly stacked in the three lumberyards.
The community also boasted the Fayette Shaw Tannery — another significant employer — four churches, bakeries, a bank, general stores, two newspapers, a hardware store, lodging houses, a county jail and courthouse, a school, two doctors, and a post office among others.
As the smoke drifted into town that Thursday, E.D. Sperry, the town's new fire chief, prepared his crews in case the smoke amounted to anything. Fires were not uncommon; with logging operations underway, there were hundreds of acres of slashings, and the piles of bark and logs lay drying in the forest.
Still, Sperry was cautious. The fire department had only been formed eight months earlier, and had already fought several fires in the town ... a commonality in the days when kerosene lanterns and dynamite were the norm. He was adamant about keeping his crew of men well-trained and prepared.
As the day crept on, a wind kicked up, blowing still more smoke into town. While Sperry's crew lined the wooden sidewalks of Argyle Avenue with water barrels and buckets, the main industries in town closed early and the men went to the western edge of town to watch for sparks. As evening fell, the wind dropped, and the men retired to their beds.
Friday dawned parchingly hot. Clouds of smoke hung heavy in the air, turned the rising sun to a dim red globe in the sky. By noon, the wind picked up again, and on it flew bright glowing embers.
Crews of men once again left work to take a stand between the town and a dense cedar swamp lying just to the west. The belief was still strong that the swamp would be wet enough to slow the progress of the fire.
Within minutes, everything changed.
The wind blew vigor into the fire, which exploded through the dried cedar swamp and hit the southwestern edge of Phillips in a wall of flame that reportedly burned 50 feet into the air, "... bringing with it consternation to the hearts and souls of the brave men who ... had fought bravely and untiringly only to see their homes burn," the Prentice Calumet later reported.
The mill whistle began to blow, warning the townspeople that the fire had hit town. The fire crew laid out hose and began the fight of a lifetime.
Sheriff Kelleher began preparing an evacuation, and 15 rail cars were hooked up, prepared to carry women and children to Prentice.
The townspeople reacted differently to the shrill of the whistle. The speed at which the fire entered Phillips caused intense panic in those who witnessed it, while others remained calm.
One survivor later recalled her mother insisting the lunch dishes be washed before they head for the train. Some had the presence of mind to take their most valuable items, wrapped in blankets, and bury them in the front yard of their houses.
Very quickly, though, the fire began to worsen. Houses were bursting into flames. Rumors raced through town that people were dying, that escape routes were being cut off.
Former telegraph office employee R.T. Breitengross broke into the deserted telegraph office, sending out a mad flurry of telegrams to the outside world, informing them of the tragedy unfolding in Phillips. His last message before being forced to abandon the building read: "It is too hot to stay any longer; goodbye."
By the hundreds, people began to flee town — by train, by wagon, on horseback or on foot, heading in any direction they believed the fire was not. The community of Prentice welcomed hundreds of refugees from Phillips into their homes, offering them shelter, food, and safety.
Not everyone was so fortunate.
Some 400 women and children were transported by horse teams to Eaton's Hill a mile south of town. Others fled to the river and the lake on the north end of town, but the air grew so hot that people had to lay in the shallow water in order to avoid having their hair and clothing catching fire. Another 250 residents took refuge at the fairgrounds northeast of the city, where the lumber company's horses were also relocated.
"Such scenes I hope never to witness again, women crying and screaming for their children who had become separated from them and children crying for their mothers, others almost beside themselves," city resident Mrs. L.S. Wells later wrote to a friend.
"There was excitement, panic, tears, and certainly pathos in every home as we looked for the last time at all we had built up and grown to love. I can still remember the fierceness of the crackling cedar and pines and the black, dense smoke surrounding us," wrote Min Marks Ives, a record later published in THE-BEE in 1966.
Only 20 minutes after the wall of flames hit Phillips, the lumber yards were on fire. A second wave of fire hit Phillips a bit later. By evening, the entire business section was on fire. In total, four waves of fires hit the town, leaping from building to building, with the fire department log later reporting as many as 10 structures spontaneously combusting at a time.
"The course of the fire was freakish, burning round and round until it finally spent itself," recalled Anna C. Olson, a survivor of the fire.
The wooden sidewalks quickly became like lines of tinder leading the fire from house to house.
The fire crews fought to save the sawmill until 9 p.m., when the fire destroyed the pumping station. Undeterred, they continued fighting with buckets, shovels, and wet blankets, working until they dropped from exhaustion.
The tannery went around 11 p.m. The fire department turned their attention to some 20 houses and the German Lutheran Church on the far southern end of town.
"The very air seemed to explode and burn. No power on earth could have stopped it. It was a terrible night for those who were cut off and surrounded at different points by the fire. Many were obligated to keep their heads covered all night with wet clothing and to throw water over each other to keep alive. It was a terrible night never to be forgotten by those who passed through it," read an article published in THE-BEE, published Aug. 1, 1894.
Those who had taken refuge outside of town were forced to remain vigilant of the embers flying through the air, which were hot enough to burn the skin.
Reportedly, several babies were born that night. One, a bouncing baby boy later named Art Johnson, was born in a stable at the fairgrounds — another in a cellar underground.
With the fire roaring through town, Frank Cliss took his wife and young child to their boathouse on Elk Lake, where they were joined by their neighbors James Locke, his wife, and six children, Mrs. Dave Bryden and three children.
Reports vary as to what happened next. Many years later, Moose Kenyon, a writer for the Phillips Times, wrote that he was a witness to the incident. He reported that as the piles of dry pine board in the lumber yards burst into flames, the combination of heat and wind created a fiery whirl storm, kicking up waves on the lake that swamped the Cliss boat.
Other reports blame a dog for upsetting the watercraft and plunging its occupants into the lake. Several drown instantly. Moose Kenyon reported Mrs. Mary Cliss survived only by clinging to an overturned boat, but her face was so badly burned that she later lost her eyesight.
The fire, practically untouched by the firefighting efforts, consumed the town until only 39 buildings remained. With nothing left to fuel it, the winds pushed it northeast, where it continued for 20 miles until rain stopped it five days later, on July 31 in the Pike Lake area.
Dawn came slowly for the shaken survivors of the fire. As they traipsed slowly back into town, they found little remaining apart from smoldering ash and rubble.
The only part of the town left standing was what little could not burn: the vaults and safes of the courthouse, the walls of the county jail, the blackened headstones in the cemetery, cast iron stoves awkwardly perched in what had once been homes. The entirety of the John R. Davis Lumber Company was destroyed.
The fire department estimated $1.75 million in losses — approximately $46 million in today's dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
The Worcester Town Hall, made of brick, had survived, and was transformed into the headquarters of the relief committee. The German Lutheran church also remained standing and the town's two doctors turned it into a makeshift hospital to care for the injured and ill.
Rumors were rife immediately following the fire, with numerous reports of multiple deaths — which were unfounded, according to the Prentice Calumet.
Although the number of deceased is debated by some people to this day, a considerable number of reports agreed that 13 was the final death toll.
On the day after the fire, the Phillips Times reported 20 people had died. The headline read "Phillips swept by fire; twenty lives lost." The article listed 15 people had drowned, and stated other persons had been burned. Several other deaths from the fire were believed.
On Aug. 1, 1894, THE-BEE reported 13 deaths, which the Times also began using in future publications. The fire department log of the fire also recorded 13 deaths.
Those identified in articles of the time included an unknown woman found burned beyond recognition on the back lot of the Phillips Times office, Frank Cliss and his child, James Locke, his wife and five children, Mrs. Dave Bryden and two children — all of whom were found in the lake.
Reports documented the deep grief that went into the recovery of those bodies from the lake, several of which were young children.
Relief began to arrive rapidly from cities all over Wisconsin — Fifield, Stevens Point, Medford, Marshfield, Rhinelander, Ashland, Milwaukee — likely alerted by the telegrams dispatched the day of the fire.
Tents were set up in town to offer shelter. Many women and children were temporarily sent away to stay with relatives until conditions improved. Jennie and Sanford Shell, whose house amazingly survived the fire, housed and helped as many as possible. People slept on their floor, or camped in the front yard.
The game laws were suspended or ignored as townspeople sought to feed themselves.
In the days following the fire, illness abounded in Phillips. People suffered from exposure to the smoke, as well as dubious drinking water, and exposure to the elements. Typhoid fever spread through the town, followed by diphtheria and pneumonia.
Some survived the fire only to die later of illness.
The two doctors, Dr. Sperry and Dr. Fenelon, worked around the clock, offering their service free of charge to those who had lost everything to the fire. Every man on the fire department had suffered a burn or injury to one degree or another.
Those who had insurance — and many did — set about planning to rebuild. The town filled with those working to provide relief, insurance agents, and newspaper men.
State Governor George Peck and gubernatorial candidate William Upham arrived in Phillips by train and rolled up their sleeves to help with unloading supplies and assisting the relief committee.
People reacted in different ways after the fire — some spurred onward to rebuild, some so deeply traumatized by the experience that they left never to return, others despairing of their utter economic loss. Rare accounts say that some individuals took advantage of the situation to steal whatever they could find from the vanquished town.
The ashes of Phillips had barely settled when it was announced John R. Davis would rebuild the sawmill, and work to rebuild the Fayette Shaw Tannery was begun practically immediately. In the days immediately following the fire, it was announced the hardware store and the bank would be rebuilt as well. An eight-room schoolhouse was planned to be constructed by Sept. 15. Many of the buildings constructed after the fire were made of brick — a deterrent to future conflagrations.
The railroad lines transported freight for the rebuilding of Phillips free of charge.
"While the loss has been terrible, every property owner and resident evinces a proper spirit by not giving up hope. All maintain that it will only be a short time before Phillips will be a better city than ever. The business portion will be of brick and the city will be more substantially built," stated an article that ran in both the Phillips Times and the Prentice Calumet.
Ike's Lunch Counter was reportedly the first new building erected after the fire, according to THE-BEE. Charlie Roser's eatery came soon after.
Articles published throughout August reported that architects and carpenters flocked to the town as thick as grasshoppers, and by Aug. 22, 1894, nearly 250 houses and business were reconstructed. The sound of hammers was a near-constant noise in the city.
At a speed which in the modern day seems impossible to reckon, the city was rebuilt. Almost incredibly, one year to the day after Phillips was destroyed, the community welcomed over 2,000 visitors to their rebuilt city — celebrating a tenacity that defined the people who settled it.
THE-BEE printed a special edition on July 27, 1895, recording all that had occurred over the past year.
"The scene of today shows little trace of the track of the fires of July 27," read an article printed in the Phoenix Edition. "Pioneers are always men, strong and undaunted. The log house of the homesteader has been replaced by a more substantial structure. The comfortable dwelling houses that were destroyed ... have been rebuilt and have been multiplied a hundred fold."
Attorney Michael Barry welcomed the visitors to Phillips' celebration, saying, "My friends, perhaps you understand how all this was done. We do not.
"Your kind aid and sympathy have been large factors in its accomplishment; the indomitable pluck and untiring industry of our own people counted for much, but looking back over these anxious months, one is compelled to believe there is something here more than the result of mere human achievement."
This coming Saturday, July 27, will mark the 125th year since the fire hit Phillips in 1894, and the community will continue a long tradition of marking the date with a special ceremony.
The event, which has been orchestrated by the Phillips Area Chamber of Commerce, will be held at 3 p.m. at Bostrom Park off Lake Avenue.
Guest speakers will include Phillips Mayor Charles Peterson, Village of Prentice president Bruce Jilka, Phillips Fire Chief Jim Pisca, and Price County Board Chairman Bob Kopisch.
After welcomes and a history of the fire, a 25-year-old time capsule which was buried in Bostrom Park back in 1994 will be exhumed and opened.
A new time capsule will be filled and reburied, with plans to have it reopened in 75 years at the 200th anniversary of the Phillips fire. Attendees are welcome to bring items to be placed in the time capsule.
Copies of the Phillips fire centennial book and commemorative T-shirts will also be available for sale.