October 08: don’t blame the cow

2012/10/08 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1871 a fire started in the O’Leary barn on Chicago’s west side.

The fire, legendarily blamed on the poor cow, was the start of the Great Chicago Fire that burned for three days.  So intense was the blaze, and so rickety Chicago’s buildings, and so filthy its waterways (and choked with combustible boats, barges and their cargo), that the fire jumped the Chicago River and swept through the area now called the Loop and far beyond.  All told, over three square miles were scorched, over 17,000 buildings lost, 100,000 (one-third of the city’s population) were left homeless.

The city rebuilt quickly, and impressively.  Without the fire, who knows: Chicago might look like a larger version of Milwaukee.  Instead it became the laboratory for the country’s best architects, the capital of tall and soaring things as well as the White City.  Decades later, in a show of surprising municipal humor (we assume), the O’Leary farm was redeveloped as the fire fighting academy for the city.

Still, poor Bessie bears the blame, targeted in nursery rhymes and Far Side cartoons alike.  The cow finally got her due, and a little respect, in the Cow Parade program that was such a smashing success that the cows have made it to dozens of cities around the world.  For our part, we never suspected the cow.  We remain suspicious of the farm cat.

Image: flaming cow, from the 1999 Cows on Parade, Chicago (from this source)

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§ 2 Responses to October 08: don’t blame the cow

  • Always with the cats. Has anybody ever considered that it might have been the family dog, who was probably attempting to reposition the lantern for Mrs. O’Leary (so she could see better), but then got distracted by a squirrel and dropped the lantern?

  • Clio says:

    No, no one ever has. Ever.

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