Nicodemus Survives Prairie Fire Once Again

NICO-Fire The fires on October 11, reached the southern edge of Nicodemus.

The line of fire exploding on the outskirts of Nicodemus was a dramatic scene. Many of us saw the live video shared Sunday night by Dr. JohnElla Holmes. She's a resident of the historic all black town in Graham county which is recognized by the National Park Service as a nationally significant park of American history. But the fire wasn't the only thing in the video that left an impression. We heard the authentic fear and uncertainty in Dr. Holmes voice. Residents were being evacuated, and they had no way of knowing whether they would see their town the same when they returned. 

In another live video, Dr. Holmes had warned a couple who had parked their RV in the Nicodemus roadside park to evacuate. Her voice was noticeably trembling and tearful, but also thankful and astonished that the couple was praying for Nicodemus. 

They weren't the only ones praying. Those videos were shared on Facebook several hundred times. Word spread through Kansas social media feeds faster than that prairie fire in the high winds, and the response was incredible. People from all over the state conveyed their prayers and concern. 

Times may be changing, but when a neighbor is in need in Kansas, we still stand ready to deliver aid. 

This hasn't been the first time Nicodemus residents have been tested by fire. 

"Last Sunday during the heavy gale that prevailed, a fire broke out." 

Those words could easily describe the prairie fire that blazed just south of Nicodemus last Sunday night, but they were published April 7, 1887 in the the Western Cyclone (the Nicodemus newspaper) to describe a fire that approached from northwest of town that was "blowing in a southeastern direction." It was spotted in time for residents to react. 

According to the Western Cyclone, "church dismissed preachers, merchants, bankers, lawyers, editors, postmaster, and all filed forth to meet the monster than came with all its threatening fury to destroy our town." Fortunately, the town was saved then, though many lost property, feed, and livestock. 

The paper also reported that Mrs. David Johnson, who lived in the path of the fire northwest of town, had been caught up in the flames, which "burned her body to a crisp." The paper, which was published the Thursday after the fire, noted that the towns doctor was attending her wounds. Unfortunately, by the time the publisher was setting the type for the next page of the issues they had to add "we stop the presses to announce the sad and painful death of Mrs. David Johnson, caused by being burned in the fire Sunday." 

If that scorching wasn't tragic enough for Nicodemus, an even fiercer blaze broke out just two days after that edition of the paper was printed. That second inferno scorched a twenty mile section of Graham and Norton counties. 

The April 14, 1887 edition of the Western Cyclone reported "the wind, which was blowing a gale of at least forty miles an hour, carried the flames at frightful speed." 

That fire grew to be seven miles wide and eventually jumped the north fork of the Solomon River. 

"Almost every stable with its stacks of hay and cribs of grain were burned leaving hundreds of farmers almost destitute. It is a pitiful sight to pass over the burned district and see the thousands of burned chickens, turkeys, and hundreds of hogs, with occasional horses and numerous cattle. Almost every farmer lost 50 to 500 bushels of corn . . . the people fought nobly for their lives and property, but it was no use. The property must go, and unless they fled, their lives were forfeited."

The paper listed off the losses to each individual, and estimated that "the northeast corner of Graham county is $20,000 poorer over the disastrous prairie fires of the past two weeks." That was no small amount in rural Kansas in the 1880s. Then, like now, concern for Nicodemus spread quickly through other Kansas communities

Yes, fire is a reality that has tested those living on the plains for generations. Still they persevere.

I had the unique experience of living in Nicodemus in 2012 and 2013, so the town is especially significant to me. I remember one of the residents warning about the danger of dry prairie grass. He recalled driving his truck into a field once and the heat from the exhaust set the grass afire. The emotion in his voice conveyed how desperately he fought to put it out. They don't take fire lightly in Nicodemus. 

I'm not sure they've identified the cause of this past Sunday's fire. There was dry lightning and there were certainly high winds - those two are a dangerous combination when the grass is dry. 

But while we may not for sure know the cause, we do know the response. The prayers of thousands of Kansans were heard by our merciful God. Perhaps more importantly, we heard ourselves and others praying them. Kansans care about Nicodemus, Kansans care about black history, and Kansans care about black lives.

Yesterday, Senator Moran visited Nicodemus to view the burnt fields and to recognize the Graham County Sheriff Department and volunteer firefighters. "You've helped preserve history," said Senator Moran, "but you've also helped save the future."

May that future be filled with more love for our neighbors.

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October 20, 2020
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In History
Posted on October 16, 2020

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