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McHistory: Early Settlers Battled Prairie Fire To Tame The Land

Mary Ann Marmon.jpg
McLean County Museum of History
"Mary Ann Cheney Marmon was McLean County pioneer royalty if there ever was such," said Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.

There is not much prairie left in Illinois. Once, there was a waving sea of tall perennial flowers and grasses across much of the state, ranging from from Blue Stem (big and little) to Golden Alexander. Now, there is .01% of the original prairie left in Illinois.

William B. Carlock, an early settler said of the prairie, “Such beauty as no human tongue can describe.”

The early settlers in the area in the 1820s and 30s left vivid records of what they saw and the hazards they endured, such as prairie fire.

Mary Ann Cheney Marmon was born in the summer of 1837 in a spacious log cabin in Old Town township, said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp. “I use the word spacious, because it was a four-room log cabin.”

Her grandparents on her mother’s side were John and Anna Dawson, among the very first Euro-Americans to come to what became McLean County, south of present-day Bloomington in the spring of 1822. Her grandparents on her father’s side were Jonathon and Katharine Cheney and they settled on the eastern edge of the county in 1825. Cheney’s grove, a large, wooded band along the Mackinaw River is named for them, as is Cheney’s Grove Township where the community of Saybrook was established in the 1830s. Dawson Township is another link to the family.

“Mary Ann Cheney Marmon was pioneer royalty, if there ever was such,” said Kemp.

Cheney Marmon wrote several accounts of settlement period life, including how settlers interacted with indigenous people that included the Kickapoo and Delaware, about social life and housekeeping, and prairie fires.

“My father's farm was just south of Ellsworth a mile or more from the head of the Sangamon River. This bottom land in the fall was covered with tall grass as high as a horse's neck. And then the fire got into it. The Creek being dry, it was alarming for those who lived in the path of the flames,” wrote Marmon.

Being born in McLean County in 1837 makes you an early settler, Kemp said. The county wasn't established until late 1830. And Bloomington wasn’t underway until 1831.

“When well underway, they were fearfully grand and frightful to behold. Especially at night, a more beautiful sight could scarcely be imagined, when the miles and miles of roaring and leaping flames could be seen sweeping over the hills at a tremendous speed and lighting the whole heavens with a brilliant glow,” wrote Cheney Marmon.

She wrote about firefighting practices that still exist today, creating burned areas wide enough to prevent flames from leaping the gap and about ways to put out embers that manageed to cross the firebreaks.

“If a fire was then seen to be coming dangerously near, all hands turned out to fight the foe. They put on old clothes and took older clothes to fight the fire with. They tied them with sticks and poles. Men's apparel was the best implements, old coats, pants, or vests, not taking fire so easily. The men mounted their horses armed with wagons of defense and rode away as fast as their horses could carry them," wrote Cheney Marmon.

Fire shaped the emergence and persistence of the Grand Prairie. The deep fibrous roots of prairie plants protected grasses and perennial flowers from periodic burnings that increased the growth and productivity of the plants in the soil, said Kemp.

Cheney Marmon wrote about plowing furrows a half or quarter mile away from fences and deliberately burning the areas between because the fences were expensive and represented value.

“These fences were what were called ‘worm fences,’ from the zigzag manner in which they were built. They were made of split rails laid six or eight feet high. These rails were made from trees cut into logs, and then the logs were split into rails and hauled many miles. Being in the zigzag form, the corners held an amount of grass that had been blown there, thus making it impossible to save the fences when once they caught fire," said Cheney Marmon. “Sometimes miles of these fences were burned, involving much loss.”

Kemp said some of the prairie fires were natural. Others were caused by humans either by accident or deliberately. Kemp said both settlers and native Americans did so.

“Often to clear heavy stands of grass, sometimes to channel game in large hunts,” said Kemp.

Cheney Marmom's father died of typhoid while driving cattle to Ohio. The railroads did not come until the 1850s. Her mother, Mariah, remarried to a druggist, William Paist, in Bloomington where the family moved. Cheney Marmon married William Marmon who worked at the drug store and later took over the business.

Cheney Marmon later left written accounts of her youth.

“When I was a little girl, I watched these fires with a childish awe and wonderment” she wrote.

The McHistory series is a co-production of the Museum of History and WGLT. McHistory brings you the words and writings of people in Mclean County in years gone by.

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