The Great Marshfield Fire: A symbol of rebirth
By Kris Leonhardt
From noon on that dry June 27, 1887, Marshfield business owners and residents helplessly watched as building after building disappeared before their eyes while the city struggled to get the fire under control. By 4:30 p.m. the flames were finally contained, and by 5 p.m. the fire had been extinguished.
Experiencing the devastating loss of shelter, food, clothing, trade tools, and ultimately their jobs and sole sources of income, many escaped with just the clothes on their backs. Loss from the fire was estimated at $4 million, but not a single life was taken by the disaster.
As residents were overcome by the sense of helplessness and loss, trainloads of aid began pouring in from neighboring communities. A relief center was set up in the roller rink on East Second Street and Maple Avenue as a receiving and distribution center.
Hope was further strengthened when the stars and stripes rose up the Upham Company flagpole. The move somehow symbolized the rebirth of the city, and residents began visualizing a bigger and better Marshfield.
William Upham announced a rebuilding of his manufacturing company to include a store, a five-story grain elevator, a planing mill, a saw mill, a furniture factory, two large warehouses, and a flouring mill. The structures were to be as big, if not bigger, than the ones he had lost and would put 600 men back into employment by Oct. 1.
Crude wooden shacks were constructed as temporary facilities for both businesses and residences as the city worked to get back on its feet.
In order to assure that such a tragedy would never occur again, an ordinance was drafted that required new structures in the city be constructed of brick or stone. By September, 53 new brick structures were being constructed within the city limits, including two three-story hotels. Also in progress was a new Wisconsin Central Depot that would measure 25 feet by 125 feet.
The desire to rebuild and modernize the city brought along new residents with real estate sales increasing by 50 percent, and businesses envisioned a bigger and better future.
From there the city never looked back but for the exception of one day: June 27. The day would be sealed in the recollections of those present and memorialized by future generations.
In 1967 the city held a Four-Score celebration, marking the 80th anniversary of the Great Marshfield Fire. The event was highlighted by a massive parade held July 1 that welcomed entries from Minneapolis, Antigo, Durand, Keil, Mazomanie, New London, Phillips, and other municipalities all over the state.
WDLB’s Bob Burt commemorated the event with a special presentation, which was preserved by the North Wood County Historical Society and set to video by volunteer Matt Pilz. The full video is available here.