© 2023 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prairie Fire

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When David Macrae reached Keokuk on his steamboat trip up the Mississippi River in 1870, he decided to head out toward Iowa City and Des Moines for a first-hand look at the Great American Prairie. The young Scotsman had read enough romance novels to know about buffalo and Indians, about pioneers breaking the prairie sod, and his imagination had been fueled by the Armageddon-like descriptions of prairie fires. Macrae wanted to see it all.

His trip had barely begun when he and his companions came across a man out on the prairie, apparently taking a slow ride under an umbrella. "Strange place for a ride," said Macrae, but he was told that the man was plowing with a buggy plow, cutting four furrows at once. Where was the sturdy peasant, back bent to the plow he had seen in the pictures?

Well, at least he might see herds of buffalo chased through the tall grass by mighty hunters on horseback. No, he was told, the only hunting in Iowa these days was ducks.

Macrae did meet a Choctaw Indian who invited him to visit his home in Arkansas. "Can you guarantee I won't be scalped?" the Scotsman asked. "Oh," said the Choctaw, "scalping is played out. We farm now, and besides, the Chief has become a Presbyterian minister."

Just when the prairie visit seemed a total bust, Macrae's party did come across a prairie fire. He knew from books that there should be a wall of flame thirty feet high and miles wide racing across the prairie, consuming everything in its path, buffalo stampeding before it. This one, however, fell short. There was a little crawling streak of fire like a scarlet thread. The ground before it was green, the ground behind it black, as if a funeral pall had been drawn over it. Farmers had set it deliberately to give the new grass a jump-start.

David Macrae left Iowa disappointed that Iowans were not doing anything right. Apparently, they had not read the same books he had read back in Scotland, and they were ignorant of how a prairie ought to behave.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.