Matt Hemmingsen (1876-1967) Memoirs: Forest Fires 1894 to Water Bombers 1970s

This continues the memoirs of pioneer lumberman, Matt Hemmingsen.  Part I was set in northern Wisconsin, during the last quarter of the 19th Century. It covered homestead life, construction of roads, railbeds, schools, and lots more – including, of course, logging.


Matt was our grandfather. Part II will speak to his encounters with forest fires over the drought stricken summer of 1894, in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. It will then skip toward the last quarter of the 20th century, to Hemmingsen experience with forest fires in British Columbia. 



Devastation everywhere; but on what date? Granddad wrote of his most memorable forest fire; that with close calls for loved ones and loss of family property. The problem:  he precisely fixed September 4, as the day on which his Bayfield and surrounding counties of Wisconsin, burned. History shows it happened in late July.1 However, a terrible fire did occur on that September day, about 100 miles away, in the area of Hinckley MN.2 

Part I showed that Matt and his brother Harry, often worked their father’s contracts for road and railroad construction. As well, the two teamed up in logging gigs across their broader area. These wanderings, combined with the fact the September date seems a triggering point, suggests that Matt may have attended both events. Of course, he would have seen many of lesser account.

Perspective on “then and now”: we yearn for the good old days, free from stress of the 24-hour news cycle that keeps our adrenaline pumping. Responders had little to work with in Matt’s time. They were without our communications and reliable weather forecasts. The right path to safety would be frightfully unclear. Again, there were many fires that season, and those before. Similar hazzard was so for many occupations and health issues. They had little time to proclaim “I’m all stressed out”.


Despite stress, Matt reached his 90s on a much accomplished life. We will zoom past his migration to the west coast of Canada and his pioneering days there. Past the births of his children, including that of our father, John. In turn, past the births of John’s children; past our Port Renfrew days of “From The Logging Camps” and “Forest Regeneration” – found in this blog’s “Memories” section. Even past vast advances in fire management over time, and land for a moment, at less than a decade shy of John’s retirement. 

Close to 80 years had elapsed.  Matt had already seen the repurposed WW II cargo transport, that plump red and white work-horse Martin Mars seaplane, splash a whole lot of lake water from its belly, onto acreage of raging forest fires.  In fact, John would assume heavy involvement in the business venture.3

In his short piece, Matt mentioned that financial suits around the fires of 1894 were of no consideration. At the contrary, the early 1970s saw John address a $1,500,000 settlement around accountability. 3



We learned two things in Part I that would affect recovery: depression hit in 1893 and the hewn logs used for Ole’s 1886 home build had been in preparation for a long time. They were seasoned to prevent shrinkage after construction. 

Just as our recent massive floods caused a dearth of wallboard nationwide, in turn, slowing down re-construction efforts, where ever were the 1894’ers to find seasoned logs?  Any laid-away stack would have surely burned. To cut new, would now mean from a distant forest. To buy seasoned from a distant source would be problematic too, for most had lost their assets and livelihood, and it was depression time. Homesteading was Ole’s second job. His work as a Civil Engineer may have spared him some, but the depression may have muted the help. 

Of course, many who were affected would have had a far more difficult lot.

Whose story was it? This is genealogy, so we look at things from a family perspective. These, Matt’s memoirs, put three small paragraphs on the event. He was 18, with his adult life ahead of him. How different would Ole’s account be?  He was now 43, having built his home just eight years prior. He still had five children under fourteen at home, with Clarence, just weeks conceived. 

Hand-me-downs: Clarence on the way reminds that all baby furniture made in 1887 to ready for George was gone. Clothing put-aways that started in 1874 with Etta and 1876 with Matt, would not now clothe twelve siblings, as they grew.

Heirlooms: Whatever little treasures the nine Norwegian-born family members of Ole, Berith and Alette had brought to America, were gone. Whatever sweet knit or crochet items that our Berith made during her year in Wisconsin to welcome George, her only American-born babe, gone too. All vestige of Matt’s mom, gone.

But it is not entirely certain: Matt’s account does not specifically say the 1886 home was lost along with the farm buildings. We can only hope. It is most likely, though, that Mildred Hemmingson was standing on the porch of an 1894 re-build in the homestead photo previously posted that was attributed to the 1886 version. 

This ends Part II.  Part III will start with logging horses, building sleigh roads, sleigh hauling and  the work of expert cant hook men to deck mammoth piles of logs on river banks. As the late 1890s advanced, wages began to rise.

Left: Hemmingsen-Cameron Co. Ltd. operation at Port Renfrew, B. C. in 1940 – and in 1990 when our family revisited the area – 50 years after they replanted it for forest regeneration. For additional posts on HEMMINGSEN LOGGING HISTORY in northwestern Wisconsin, on Vancouver Island and in Newfoundland CLICK HERE


Notes and Sources 

1 Historical Essay “Notable Fires In Wisconsin”: accessed at Wisconsin Historical Society © 1996-2019;
2 Ashland Daily Press, April. 23, 1935 Title “Hinckley: Fire of September 4, 1894” accessed at Wisconsin Historical Society © 1996-2019; Historical Essay “Notable Fires In Wisconsin
3 The Hemmingsen Family Collection including “John O Hemmingsen/Mary Margaret Hemmingsen (Dickson) authored 1999 by John Oliver Hemmingsen. All materials posthumously published here are copyright © Marilee Wein 2018-2019. All rights reserved. 



4 thoughts on “Matt Hemmingsen (1876-1967) Memoirs: Forest Fires 1894 to Water Bombers 1970s

  1. Always found it weird your dad was not mentioned at the Water Bomber museum on Sproat Lake. I of course remember that era, we asked them and hey had no clue. As usual forwarded to the kids. ch



    1. Oh! too bad. Dad once took me in a little plane following in the wake of the Mars – subject of a later post maybe. Worried he might get Child Protective Services posthumously on his tail
      I am still hearing about my girls at Salt Spring with Solje gasping astonishment over her trove of pictures! Thank you!


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