Door County Belgian community to commemorate 150th anniversary of The Great Fire

Barb Englebret Chisholm holds a photo of her great grandparents, Desire and Emerence...
Barb Englebret Chisholm holds a photo of her great grandparents, Desire and Emerence Englebert, who survived the fire by hiding in a well with their first child.(WBAY)
Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 3:21 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2021 at 5:06 PM CDT
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NAMUR, Wis. (WBAY) - The Belgian community in southern Door County is set to remember The Great Fire of 1871.

This weekend, the Belgian Heritage Center in Namur will host a number of events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of that tragic fire.

Stories have been passed down to Barb Englebret Chisholm through four generations, and for the past 10 years she’s presented a reenactment of the day her great grandparents survived The Great Fire of 1871.

“Every time I do that I get astounded at what they survived and how they survived. They couldn’t escape and so they went down into this well on their homestead and had a little child and passed him back and forth as the fire approached them on all sides and they could hear it coming,” says Chisholm.

Often referred to as The Grest Peshtigo Fire, the deadliest forest fire in U.S. history, which claimed up to 2,000 lives, it was actually two separate fires that roared up both sides of the bay where settlers were clearing land.

“Really what happened is that there were similar conditions on both sides of Green Bay -- it was dry, there were fires burning for months because fire was common in those days. What happened on October 8th, though, is that a weather system came in, created much greater winds, and those wind fed the fire, the fires of course consume oxygen, they feed on that and it just swept up both sides of Green Bay and so it really was two simultaneous fires, one on each side of the bay that caused all this devastation,” explains Sandy Orsted, Belgian Heritage Center treasurer.

Raging through Belgian settlements from New Franken to Sturgeon Bay, the fire killed an estimated 300 people on the peninsula.

150 years later, descendants say that tragedy and how their ancestors overcame it must never be forgotten.

“I want to pass that on to my grandchildren and my children, so that they know where they came from and why they are who they are, it’s because of these very people,” says Chisholm.

“When you look at the challenges that were faced by our ancestors, you really get an appreciation for how tough their life was and how tough they had to be to overcome that and survive and thrive in that environment, and that’s what we enjoy today, they are the ones that formed the basis for the communities that we are very lucky to call home,” adds Orsted.

For a complete list of all the events taking place this weekend at the Belgian Heritage Center Friday, October 8th through Sunday, October 10th, visit

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