As part of a late winter painting project, I spent last weekend removing and cleaning books from one of two floor-to-ceiling bookcases in our home. A life-long bookworm, I also inherited book collections from my grandfather and father. My bookshelves contain hundreds of volumes, including some dating to the 1800s.
I started in the fishing section, which fills several shelves. Most of the fishing books are about fly-fishing, a sport which has produced more literature over the centuries than any other outdoor pursuit. My collection doesn’t go back that far, but it contains a number of well-read titles, including a first edition copy of “Trout Madness” by the late John Voelker, and a number of his other works. Voelker, an Upper Peninsula native who wrote under the pen name Robert Traver, is considered the dean of American fishing writers.
My collection includes other famous fishermen, such as Lee Wulff, Joe Brooks and Sparse Gray Hackle. All were popular writers of the 20th century, which was the heyday of outdoor writing. Prior to the dawn of the Internet, nearly all fishing information came from books and magazines.
Back then, if you wanted to make your mark in fishing, you wrote about it. This is why hundreds of books are devoted to fly-fishing techniques and fly tying. I have some of the classics, such as “Selective Trout” by Doug Swisher and Carl Richards and “Saltwater Fly-fishing” by Lefty Kreh. I also have a few coffee-table books with beautiful photos of famous fishing destinations from around the world. However, the most used books in my fishing collection are a couple of reference works—the formidable McClane’s “Standard Angling Encyclopedia” and Gary Soucie’s guide to terminal tackle, “Hook, Line and Sinker.”
From the fishing section I moved on to hunting, shooting and wildlife. Most of the shooting books were my father’s and include works by his hero, Jack O’Connor. My favorites among the hunting books are bird-hunting tomes by the likes of Charlie Waterman, Steve Grooms and Tom Huggler. I even have a copy of Mike Furtman’s “On the Wings of the North Wind,” where he followed the duck migration from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Best of all are the collections of hunting and fishing stories by dozens of writers from the 1800s to the present. In these books you can read about everything from tiger hunting in colonial Vietnam to salmon fishing in Maine. Many of these books came from my father. Reading them, I was introduced to both the great outdoors and great writing.
Dad belonged to the Outdoor Life Book Club for a couple years around 1960. Today the monthly selections from such clubs are an endless stream of how-to drivel, but back then you got good books. Many of the books are about wilderness or nature with authors like Sigurd Olson and Justice William O. Douglas. When I was a kid, these writers introduced big thoughts to a young mind.
The next shelf contained Irish books from by Grandpa Casey’s collection. Many of these books are over 100 years old and contain the signature of my great-grandfather, who may have brought them along when he immigrated to America. Several are small, well-worn leather bound volumes of Irish verse. Perhaps these pocket-sized books were the smart phones of their era.
Grandpa Casey’s book collection was nearly as large as my own and contained many popular works from his era, ranging from novels to nonfiction. I have first edition copies of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and WWII cartoonist Bill Maudlin’s “Up Front,” as well as other books published during and immediately after the war. Grandpa was a perennial packrat and often saved magazines or news clippings from historic events. A few of those ended up on my bookshelf, too.
The big discovery of the weekend was a pamphlet called “Fury of the Flames, A Pictorial Record of the Great Forest Fires Which Raged in Northern Minnesota October 12-15, 1918.” Better known as the Cloquet Fire, this autumn blaze claimed 453 lives and ranks among Minnesota’s worst disasters. The towns of Cloquet and Moose Lake were annihilated, as were smaller communities in Carlton and St. Louis counties. Large portions of Duluth burned as well, including the prestigious Northland Country Club.
The pictures in the pamphlet tell the story. Taken so soon after the fire the rubble was still smoking, they show devastation on an almost unimaginable scale. A panoramic view of Cloquet shows a stark scene where square piles of ash are all that remains of homes. A picture from Moose Lake shows a row of caskets lining a mass grave. Another picture shows what the caption calls “a caravan of death near Duluth,” where trucks filled with caskets rumble down a gravel road.
Lashed by gale winds, the fire quickly raged across 1,500 square miles. The winds were so strong trees were uprooted. People had little time to escape the fire’s wrath. A chilling picture shows a scene along the Pike Lake Road north of Duluth, where one car missed a curve in the smoky gloom and others, following its taillights, did the same. The caption notes, “The death loss here was heavy.” One scene shows two cars that were driven into Moose Lake to get away from the flames.
About 12,000 people were left homeless in the fire’s aftermath. A commission appointed by the governor estimated property loss at $20-25 million. Recovery began quickly. Although the pamphlet was published in 1919, just a year after the fire, it notes much of Moose Lake was already rebuilt.
Paging through the pamphlet, I was struck by two things. When you are looking at familiar places, 1918 really wasn’t that long ago. Not many years ago I talked with my grandmother about her experiences during the fire. Many of the forests surrounding Duluth sprouted from its ashes. While we now have better fire prevention and, to a certain extent, better fire-fighting capabilities, during the right conditions massive wildfires still occur. When they do, we remain powerless to stop them.
Airdate: March 16, 2012
Photo courtesy of Velovotee on Flickr.