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The Great Hyde County Prairie Fire of 1947
Editor’s Note: Third-generation rancher Johnny Bown sent this account of Hyde County’s devastating prairie fire to his mother-in-law in St. Louis 64 years ago. His daughter, Eileen Bown Just of Hoven, sent it to us in 2000. The September 1947 fire was apparently started by a cigarette flicked from a car on Highway 14 between Highmore and Holabird. It burned north northwest across 40 miles of prairie, almost to Lebanon.
The fire started about 30 miles south of us, and the wind brought it directly at us. Our house set in dry grass with prairie on all sides, so when I first saw the fire, there went all my hard work building the house.
Eventually the wind changed enough to push the fire to the east of our house one mile, so we were in luck. We had a cattle sprayer with a fire hose attachment, so we took it down to the fire, but it was no use. There were five fire trucks there already and they were helpless. It jumped wide highways and burned through green fields. There was no stopping it.
The whole country was just a black desert. My brothers Fred and Bob and the home place and ours were the only places it spared. The rest of the boys plus people from all over the state were fighting the fire, so I came back and got the saddle horse and took off to try to push the cattle into bare ground, but the doggone things were scared and wouldn't drive. The fire was coming right toward them at about 25 miles per hour, so I had to get them out.
Finally I got them crowded into a dam when it came roaring through, so I high-tailed it for home with the fire chasing me all the way. The heat was terrific! Never loved a horse as much as old Smoky after he took me out of that fire.
We fought side fires all that night, next day, and new fires flared up next night. Rosemary was out with an old water-soaked coat fighting too. She looked so cute all smoky and black. Ha. Most of the time she was patrolling the fire in the car, watching for fresh ones. In all it burned over 1,000 square miles, so it was fight or get burned up.
We were lucky. At one time about 200 square miles right next to us was roaring at once. Cattle, horses, rabbits, pheasants – everything was running madly ahead of it. When you drive around this black desert and see the paint burned off the sides of ranch houses and buildings, you wonder how those people ever saved them with water buckets and wet rags.
Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the September/October 2000 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117.