It was the great fire of 1871 that made me a country peddler. Oh, yes! I remember the fire very well. It was in October. We used to go to bed early, because the two roomers had to go to work very early. We were getting ready to go to bed, when we heard the fire bells ringing. I asked the two men if they wanted to see where the fire was.
"Why should I care where the fire is," one of the men said. "As long as our house is not on fire, I don't care what house is burning. There is a fire every Monday and Thursday in Chicago."
But I wanted to see the fire. So I went out into the street. I saw the flames across the river. But I thought that since the river was between the fire and our house, there was nothing to worry about. I went into the house and went to bed.
The next thing I knew my two bed-fellows were shaking me. "Get up," they cried. "The whole city is on fire! Save your things! We are going to Lincoln Park."
I jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. Everybody in the house was trying to save as much as possible. I tied my clothes in a sheet. With my clothes under my arm and my pack on my back, I left the house with the rest of the family. Everybody was running north. People were carrying all kinds of crazy things. A woman was carrying a pot of soup, which was spilling all over her dress. People were carrying cats, dogs and goats. In the great excitement people saved worthless things and left behind good things. I saw a woman carrying a big frame in which was framed her wedding veil and wreath. She said it would have been bad luck to leave it behind.
When we came to Lake Street I saw all the wagons of Marshall Field and Company lined up in front of their place of business. (The firm was then called Field, [Ieiter?] and Company) Man and boys were carrying the goods out of the building and loading everything into the wagons. The merchandise was taken to the street-car barns on State near Twentieth Street. I am sure that Marshall Field must have been one of the owners of the street-car company. Otherwise why would the street-car people have allowed him to bring his goods there. A couple of weeks later[,?] Marshall Field started doing business in the car-barns. I remember buying some goods there.
No one slept that night. People gathered on the streets and all kinds of reasons were given for the fire. I stood near a minister. He was talking to a group of men. He said the fire was sent by God as a warning that the people were wicked. He said there were too many saloons in Chicago. There were too many houses of prostitution. A woman who heard this said that since the fire started in a barn it was a direct warning from God. She said Jesus was also born in a barn. I talked to a man who lived next door to Mrs. O'Leary, and he told me that the fire started in Mrs. O'Leary's barn. She went out to milk the cow when it was beginning to get dark. She took a lamp with her and the cow kicked the lamp over and that's how the fire started. There were all kinds of songs made up about the fire. Years after the fire, people were still singing songs about it.
From: American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940