The popular story is the Chicago fire was started by a cow. Since the cow tragically died in the blaze, the heifer’s motive remains a mystery. Perhaps the cow was trying to get out of some debts. Maybe it was cashing in on it’s own life insurance policy. The world may never know. Actually, we will, because that story, common as it may be, is apparently bullshit. Pun intended.
On the 50th anniversary of the fire, Michael Ahern, one of the Chicago Tribune reporters who covered the fire and reported that a cow caused it, retracted his story. He admitted that he and two of his colleagues concocted the whole thing. Proof that fake news existed long before Facebook.
Another hypothesis was that a meteor had caused the blaze during crash landing. This was posited in 1882 by Ignatius L. Donnelly. Good Ol’ Iggy figured that perhaps a meteor of frozen methane sparked the fire. It was actually a footnote in a larger work called “Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel”. In that book, his main topic was that a giant meteor smashed into earth 12,000 years ago, wiping out advanced civilizations and causing humans to become cave dwellers again. Ignatius was also famous for his proposal that Francis Bacon was the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays, and that the lost city of Atlantis was perhaps the birthplace of many modern civilizations.
Perhaps you’re noticing a theme: Ignatius never knew what he was talking about.
He was basically the 19th century’s Giorgio A. Tsoukalos.
Presently, there has never been a credible account of a meteor causing a fire anywhere on earth. The burn that we see as they enter the atmosphere is not the rock actually burning, but highly compressed air in front of the meteor’s surface combusting under extreme pressure. Once the rock slows down to terminal velocity, this type of combustion dissipates. Infact, many meteors are reported to be cool to the touch immediately after landing. However, the reason that Ignatius liked the idea so much wasn’t because there was scientific evidence for it, but that the theory would explain another mystery.
The Great Chicago Fire began on October 8th, 1871. It burned for three days, destroyed 3.3 square miles, and killed up to 300 humans. The statistics on dead cows is harder to find, but I’m gonna guess that it was three (or as least just the one).
The interesting thing is that as well known as that fire was, and as much as it has shaped the character and mythos of that city, The Great Chicago Fire wasn’t even the biggest or deadliest fire on that day. On Sunday, October 8th, 1871, fires also broke out in Port Huron and Holland Michigan, as well as the largest in Peshtigo, Wisconsin (by comparison, it burned 1,875 square miles and possibly killed as many as 2,500). How on earth could that many fires all break out on the same day, if it wasn’t caused by a meteor shower raining flames upon the shores of the Great Lakes?
Simple, in 1871, the Great Lakes region had experienced a severe drought, not receiving rain for months. Not only that, but ever since the 1830s, the region had grown a massive logging industry, cutting and processing thousands of acres of forest, and leaving behind branches, bark and quantities of unused wood, known as “slash”. Many farmers would have been performing controlled burns in October after harvesting their summer crops. So when a storm front moved into the region, bringing with it heavy gusts of wind, many controlled fires became less-so.
Like any other cool story involving cows and celestial fireballs, usually the cause of the mystery is stupid people doing stupid things.
None of this changes the fact that Chicago burned to the ground, destroying 17,500 buildings and leaving more than 100,000 residents homeless.
That’s a lot of construction work that needed to be done.
After a city burns to the ground, the immediate problem becomes that you need resources, and you no longer have local business that can manufacture them, so you have to start bringing them in from nearby cities. Luckily for Chicago, Milwaukee, WI is just 90 miles north by boat on Lake Michigan. Luckily for Milwaukee, WI, Chicago was thirsty.
Milwaukee’s beer industry had been doing great before the Chicago fire, but increased demand created by the loss of Chicago breweries heavily bolstered their dominance all across the north eastern United States.
- Around 1880, Milwaukee’s population was around 115,000.
- In the same year, the Schlitz brewery made 110,000 barrels of beer.
- Their local rival, Pabst Brewing Company, made 180,000 barrels.
- That doesn’t even count the “smaller” breweries at the time: Blatz and Miller.
That’s a lot of beer. That’s a lot of money. It’s so much money, that in 1920, when the 18th amendment was passed, outlawing the production and sale of commercial alcohol, not one of those four breweries went out of business during the 13 years of prohibition.
How does a company go 13 years without making the one thing it was supposed to?
Well, you continue making some beer illegally, selling it to bootleggers, and paying off the cops to keep quiet. You also start getting creative with the legal ways you can make money. In the case of Pabst, you start making cheese.
Well, you start making things that sort of look like cheese.
Apparently, in the years following prohibition, Pabst started making a “cheese food” called “Pabst-ett”.
Pabst-ett was advertised as “delicious and digestible”, apparently melting in your mouth and your bowels. It was a pasteurized process cheese spread, which could be purchased in a handy “2-lb economy loaf”.
If you’re starting to wonder if it had any resemblance to the cheese-food you were raised on, Velveeta, it did.
So much so, that Kraft sued Pabst for patent infringement on the various steps of making their cheese food. In a complicated settlement, Pabst began paying licensing fees, and continued making Pabst-ett until the 21st amendment was passed in 1933, decriminalizing beer. Pabst immediately sold all of their cheese food production to Kraft and went back to what they did best.
That has nothing to do with what you’re drinking this week, but I just wanted to mention it because Pabst-ett highly digestible cheese food is absolutely ridiculous.
This week, we will be ordering:
BOTTLES OF PBR
Look, I know that we didn’t spend anytime talking about why PBR, Pabst Blue Ribbon, is called that, but honestly I don’t care. The story is boring. The owner tied blue silk ribbons around the bottles. People started to order the blue ribbon beer. That’s it. It did actually win awards, but that really isn’t where the name comes from.
We’ve also talked about PBR’s six-packs before, but I don’t want you to drink cans this time around.
Let me say it again, very clearly, so there is zero confusion:
YOU’RE ORDERING BOTTLES OF PBR.
Got it? Good.
Bourbon. On the rocks.