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Uncommon Leadership

Isaac received a message from Luther. Luther was usually upbeat and positive. The message that Luther wrote this day was anything but positive. He begged his friend for money, provisions, clothing, blankets anything, anything that would help ease the suffering of people who had been badly afflicted by disaster. Isaac would of course relay this plea through the proper channels. Isaac did not realize that the proper channels were empty, dormant, and pointed in another direction.

Isaac’s attempt to bring aid would sit unnoticed and unattended to for more than a day. The intended recipient was 150 miles away from where Isaac thought he would be, and not only was the recipient not there, hardly anyone else was there either. Finally, an elderly clerk opened Isaac’s message, which was just a retelling of the urgent plea from Luther to send help. When the clerk read it, he made a frantic mad dash to a home nearby, where Frank lived.

Frank had no authority or title to take any action. This was not a deterrence. Not only was it no deterrence, but it also barely caused a pause. Frank sprang into action immediately. Frank grabbed a hat and coat and ran out the door. Frank started giving orders and was never questioned or challenged. The situation was crying out for leadership. Frank didn’t wait for someone to decide what was necessary, there was no time for that.

Word reached Frank that there was a rail car filled with relief supplies destined for somewhere else. That would never do. The rail car was redirected to the source of the distress that had been outlined in the message that had just been read. Frank inquired if the supplies in the rail car included blankets. When the reply was negative, Frank went about acquiring blankets by means of anyone who was within earshot would have to go out to family, friends, strangers, anywhere to beg, borrow or steal or however they could get them – get blankets and bring them back. Next, someone told Frank that all the effort for blankets was useless, the rail car was full as it was. Frank found room for dozens of blankets in the “full” railcar.

Frank went back to giving orders and dictating instructions. The rail car was sent off to provide relief within a few hours of Frank finding out that help was needed. Everyone in any proximity listened to Frank, took the orders given and complied without question, even though Frank lacked any leadership training and any authority to give commands.

Ok, maybe enough mystery. Luther’s full name was Luther Noyes, and he was editor and publisher of a northern Wisconsin newspaper. Luther’s newspaper was the Marinette and Peshtigo Eagle. His message was sent out on October 10, 1871. Isaac was Isaac Stephenson, a wealthy businessman who relayed Luther’s message about the death and destruction caused by the Peshtigo fire which burned almost 1,200,000 acres, killed between 1,500 and 2,500 and is still considered one of this nation’s worst natural disasters.

Isaac’s friend, the one who was 150 miles from where he was supposed to be, was Gov. Lucius Fairchild, governor of Wisconsin. Fairchild took off for Chicago, site of another, more famous fire, in the early hours of October 9, 1871 as soon as he heard about the fire. He wanted to offer as much aid and all the resources that he could on behalf of Illinois’ neighbor, the 30th state, Wisconsin. The railcar that Frank had commandeered was of course, destined for Chicago, until it was waylaid toward Peshtigo.

Frank is none other than Frances Fairchild, wife of Lucius. She was born in Ohio in the late 1840’s to Charles Merriman Bull and the former Mary Ann Cowles. While still in her teens, she married Civil War hero Brigadier General Lucius Fairchild, and they were married for 33 years before he passed away at the age of 64 in 1896. Together they had five children. I never found out where she picked up the nickname Frank.

This is a companion piece to the one that I wrote last week, comparing the Great Chicago Fire to the Peshtigo Fire. Comparisons might be in order, as they both started on the same day – October 8, 1871. The common thread, besides their day of origin, is the uncommon woman who stood in her husband’s stead and made uncommon things happen in the face of an unimaginable tragedy.

In honor of Women’s History Month, I give you Frances (Bull) Fairchild, wife of the tenth governor of Wisconsin. She performed her great service to the distressed people of northern Wisconsin without authority or any kind of decree declaring her sovereignty at that moment. She was 24 years old in 1871.

Source: “Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History” by Denise Gess and William Lutz, 2002, published by Owl Book.

Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Bravo, Tom! This is awesome. I’m still noting a tad annoyance about “the more famous fire.” You have no need to compete on historical significance. Wisconsin has you and Frank and thus, all is right with the world. She’s my kind of lady! This is #BraveLeadership in action!

    • And a “Frank Fairchild Fan Club” there should definitely be! I love this story too. What’s really odd and kind of funny – history geek and student that I am, I own two different textbooks, yes textbooks, on Wisconsin history. One was written by the guy who taught the course that I took in the late 70’s, and another one I just picked up somewhere. The first textbook devotes ONE sentence to the Peshtigo Fire, and the other one doesn’t mention it at all! I just love how a 24 year old woman grabbed the reins and did everything that she could possibly do to start the wheels in motion for bringing relief to area that was besieged by a huge, almost unthinkable natural disaster. It gave me a chance to try some literary techniques and have a little fun with the story. That it was a big historical event and that it took place in my beloved Wisconsin, all the better. I always appreciate your comments and input… thank you so much, I’m glad that you like Frank, she was doing the “Brave” thing in her own way, 150 years ago…

  2. As I knew the story from you previous post, Tom, I thought it a funny description but read it for content, not style. Although I had my reservation around the title you had chosen.

    Then I read Carol’s question and your answer – and had to read the whole piece once more.

    Then the thought came to me, that perhaps this kind of leadership was not uncommon at all. At a time of slow communication and transportation, how many wives have been in “similar” positions: decisions had to be made and they just did what was needed. It just didn’t make its way into the history books because – well, you know…
    Your “story” that the Great Chicago Fire was broadly known because it was a city and perhaps a bigger economic loss than the even deadlier but rural Peshtigo Fire might not have been about city vs rural at all. It might have been played down because of who made the decisions that needed to be made.

    • The leadership was not uncommon because it came from a woman, and a comparatively young woman at that. It was uncommon leadership because a steady, focused, determined hand took the wheel at just the right time. She could’ve just as easily said “What can I do, the governor is gone to Chicago?” It was the accumulation of circumstances that merged and she didn’t hesitate or flinch. In the face of the horrible tragedy that was unfolding in the northern part of her state, she responded with exactly what was needed – that’s what was uncommon about it, not from who it came. Many other people would have shrunk from that task, but she didn’t, and she pulled many levers that were just what was required in that moment. That’s what was uncommon.

      I loved the exchange over inferred vs. implied. My piece was somewhat based on assumptions, if I would have addressed all of the inherent assumptions, it would have been a much longer piece. Thank you for your attention to it and your lovely thoughts. I could geek out on so many aspects of the story, just because of it being Wisconsin history..

    • I’m not inferring anything, that would be up to you. I might have been implying that this was a standard “good old boy” story because of the use of what seemed like all male names. I even thought that my references to Frank were getting clumsy because I did not use any pronouns in reference to her, because I didn’t want to give away the rhetorical game that I was playing. The moment called for determined leadership, and Frank delivered that. I was just trying surprise readers with her gender and her age, that’s all. Not that a woman can’t display determined leadership, of course they can. In 1871, there weren’t many opportunities that women were allowed to demonstrate these qualities, and I thought it was an interesting story to tell. I love history, I love Wisconsin, and I thought people would be interested in hearing this story. I played with the narrative a bit to possibly deceive readers into assuming that this was a different kind of story. What were you inferring from my telling it this way?

      • It had nothing to do with the names – I loved the story. When I read the last line: “without authority or any kind of decree declaring her sovereignty at that moment” it killed the spirit of the story for me. Could certainly be my own sensitivity to what seems to be a growing sentiment about the role of women in the country – I also think I was influenced by a comment on LI about “walking alongside our husbands.” That sounded a little handmaid-ish to me and rubbed me the wrong way. I read that before I read the story.

        I appreciate you responding to my query which was a bit snarky. I apologize.

        If I go back and read it without my filters, it is a good story, and I have always been a proponent of leaders emerging as the need arises – whatever their gender, age or any relevant demographic. And I think Charlotte has a point about women stepping up back then because they had to – as did men.

        I had the opportunity to hear Carly Fiorina speak years ago. She made a point that leadership is not a title, it is an act and anyone can do it. Always liked that.

        • Carol – the whole point is that an opportunity and lead was presented, as there was a vacuum created by the absence of the governor. Whoever took up the banner of leadership was going to do it without being the governor, as he was 150 miles away in Chicago. Not everyone was going to recognize anyone who was not governor.

          Frances Fairchild was able to inspire, motivate and stir people to action – that’s the point of the story. She was not governor, but in that moment, she assumed that authority. She had to carry herself in such a way as no one stopped to say “Wait, what gives you the authority to do this?” Everyone seemed to agree on the gravity of the situation, and someone, in this case, Frances, stepped in to make things happen.

          Right now we live in a time where contrary thinking is always needed, but unfortunately, it’s also omnipresent. We sometimes paralyze ourselves with everyone wanting to shoot down whatever is being discussed, and not always with virtuous motives. A comparable moment isn’t likely to happen now, 150 years removed from this, because of communications and no one ever being “out of touch” or unavailable. She stepped into the breach, as it were, when circumstances definitely required her, someone, anyone, to do so. I just thought it was interesting how it played out.

          I thank you for your insightful comments. The last thing that I wanted to was to come off as condescending, but with her nickname being “Frank” I felt gave me an opportunity to do some verbal trickery. It was all in the service of surprise, nothing more.

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