Green River Star -

By Misty Brodiaea Springer
Public Affairs and Grants Administrator 

Notes from Town Square: About O'Leary's Cow


Every year on the first day of Camp Chipmunk all the Girl Scouts assembled in the dining hall, joined in a rousing round of “Old Mother Leary” usually accompanied by the pounding of forks and a few hoots and hollers for special effect.

The song gives a thrilling account of the Great Chicago Fire and the naughty cow blamed for starting it. The whole thing was very exciting because the girls were separated into groups and assigned parts.

Following my favorite line in the song, “And when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said, ‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight,’” we all broke into our various parts.

It went like this; the first group shouted “Fire! Fire! Fire!” sounding as terrified as possible; then, the next group chimed in responsibly, “Pour on water! Pour on water!” Following that, in screeching falsetto came, “Save my children! Save my Children!” and finally, this part was the most fun as it was always delivered in the deepest baritone any respectable nine year-old girl could muster, “Jump lady jump! Jump lady jump.

The song was fun, and it conjured up all sorts of heroic characters in a child’s imagination set against the backdrop of flames ten stories high liking the sky.

Following the song there was sometimes a perfunctory lecture about safety around the camp fire but no one paid attention because we were always eating lunch by then.

And I do not ever recall learning the origins of the song, a fire that destroyed over 2,000 acres of the bustling mid-western city a century before.

It was only years later while attending college in Chicago that I connected the legend of O’Leary’s cow, the famous fire that created a playground for the best and brightest architects of their day, and a favorite song from my youth growing up across the country.

Chicago’s great fire of 1871 was also the inspiration for Fire Prevention Week, the longest running public health and safety observance on record.

The fire raged from Oct. 8-10 when a rain storm helped firefighters bring the blaze under control.

The fire left an estimated 300 people dead and 100,000 others homeless. More than 17,000 structures were destroyed and damages were estimated at $200 million.

The fire broke out near a barn on DeKoven Street where Mrs. O’Leary an Irish Immigrant, kept her three milking cows. The lady protested her innocence swearing that she and her cows were safely tucked-in for the night.

Over the years, plenty of alternate theories have been offered. Journalists and historians have pointed the blame on O’Leary’s neighbors, a couple of boys sneaking a cigarette behind her barn, and even a meteorite.

The catastrophe that befell Chicago altered the way that firefighters and public officials thought about fire safety. A month later, Joseph Medill was elected Mayor of Chicago promising to institute stricter building and fire codes. Forty years after that, the Fire Marshals Association of North America (today known as the International Fire Marshals) decided that the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire should be commemorated by keeping the public informed about the importance of fire prevention. In 1920, Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation, and since 1922, Fire Prevention Week has been observed each October.

On Tuesday, the City of Green River will also be recognizing National Fire Prevention Week and the brave Volunteer Firefighters that serve Green River. Bye the way, in 1997 the Chicago City Council passed a resolution exonerating Catherine O’Leary and her cow.


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