Occasionally a prairie fire would sweep through the dried prairie grasses, destroying houses, barns and even livestock. �Fire breaks� were plowed, or strips of prairie were burned around dwellings to break the course of the flames. An unusually disastrous prairie fire swept the territory near Vermillion in 1862.
A pioneer pastor wrote: �I have seen many prairie fires but never anything to compare with this ocean of flame which seemed to swallow everything in its way. Large bunches of grass were burned loose from the roots and whirled high into the air and far ahead like flaming torches, kindling new fires as they fell.
The fire spread with unbelievable rapidity. To quench it was impossible but we did what we could. Counter flames were started. Along the sides the fire was fought with heavy wet cloths. I myself used my raincoat as long as it lasted and I had the satisfaction of helping save considerable property.
One, family, seeing the fire close at range, took their household goods to a supposed place of safety. Through a strange trick of fate their goods were all destroyed while their house remained untouched�
The First School House
The first school in the county was taught in the winter of 1860-61 in a room over McHenry�s store in Vermillion, and here the first sermon in the county was preached in 1860. Two short terms of school were held in a little log church in 1862. A three month�s term was held in the winter of 1862 in the home of a settler.
These early schools were supported by subscription. The records were meager and incomplete. In November 1864 the �old log school house� was built by the military company then stationed at Vermillion. This was the second building used exclusively for school purposes in what is now South Dakota.
The building was also used for church gatherings of all denominations. It was built of logs from the Missouri River and had a dirt roof. From this time on school was held in the log schoolhouse until the erection of a new frame building, in 1872, upon the site of the present high school building. (The high school building was destroyed when the new high school was built on East Main Street.)
A bill was passed in the first session of the legislative assembly of Dakota Territory at Yankton in 1862 to locate The University of Dakota at Vermillion. This law was signed by Gov. Jayne on April 21, 1862. When the next session of the assembly in December 1862, provision was made for the government of The University of Dakota by the appointment of a board of 18 regents, who were authorized to procure �a suitable site� and to proceed to erect a plant as soon as funds were available. No appropriation was made by the assembly for the university at this time.
Excerpts from the Yankton Press and Dakotan, June 6, 1936 issue.
2009 will mark the 150th birthday of the city of Vermillion. Each week until the sesquicentennial celebration, this column will present notable historic information pertaining to the city and surrounding areas.