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A Legend Begins — The Great Chicago Fire

Mrs. Kate O’Leary was milking Daisy, her cow, late one October afternoon in 1871 in the Chicago countryside. There, in the barn, Daisy kicked over and broke a lantern, which quickly set the barn ablaze. The fire spread. Mrs. O’Leary was alone on the farm with her female Labrador, Sparky, and a few farm animals. She had to choose between putting the fire out and going for help. She decided to stay put and do her best to contain the fire and protect the farm animals.

Mrs. O’Leary’s closest neighbors lived several miles away and didn’t see the fire or even the smoke—at least not right away. But when the sun began to set, the Cataldo children noticed a glow in the direction of Mrs. O’Leary’s place, and they imagined a flying saucer was landing in the fields. In reality, it was the beginning of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that would turn the city of Chicago into ash.

Sparky & Smokey
Night fell. The fire crept to grass and trees. And when Mrs. O’Leary saw it spreading northeast towards the Cataldos, she gave up her efforts to put out the fire herself and led Daisy and the other farm animals upwind to safety. She couldn’t telephone for help, because Alexander Graham Bell wouldn’t invent the telephone until 1876. Mrs. O’Leary sent Sparky to warn the Cataldos.

Sparky ran alongside the fire. It was alive, cackling like an angry witch, growing in size, shrinking, growing again, sending off sparks and pops. At times, it threatened to overtake the Labrador and she increased her speed. When Sparky arrived at the Cataldos, the fire wasn’t far behind her.

Sparky roused Smokey, the Cataldos’ Labrador mix, from a sound sleep in his doghouse. She led Smokey to the front of the house, where he could see the smoke and fire fast approaching. The dogs barked and barked, hoping to awaken the Cataldos, but no one came to the windows or door. Smokey led Sparky to an open window in the basement. They squeezed through, ran up the two flights of stairs and into the bedrooms. They barked and whined and nudged the five Cataldo children, moma Rose and pop Carl out of sleep. Tired as they were, the Cataldos understood something was wrong, and they followed Smokey and Sparky out of the house.

Once outside, Rose and Carl saw smoke billowing in the moonlight and a wide swath of fire approaching fast and low to the ground. They could feel its dry heat and smell the odor of burning brush. Glowing sparks shot up from the flames like fireworks and exploded in the air, sending gray tendrils of ash and smoke back toward earth. Rose looked around at the windy but beautiful night—the clear sky decorated with sparkling stars, the full moon—and thought it odd that horrific things can happen on such beautiful nights. Rose and Carl led their children to a stream that bordered their property, and they began the long walk to safety.

The Cloverleaf
The winds picked up speed and pushed the fire farther and faster. It spread from the Cataldos to other neighboring farms, and finally it roared into the middle of Chicago. The dense smoke and intense heat cut off many escape routes. Sparky and Smokey ran from house to house, safely leading people and pets from smoke-filled, burning and sometimes even collapsed buildings to safety.

During the rescues, a frightening yet wonderful thing happened. While Sparky and Smokey were running through the charred shell of a church, the fire suddenly flared up and surrounded them. Flames lashed like whips and licked at their heads. Yet, the dogs didn’t feel heat or pain, even when the fire branded a four-leaf clover pattern into their ears right down to the skin. The flames then receded and Sparky and Smokey escaped.

The fire raged for three days. Then, just as quickly as it spread, the fire died down again.

In Irish tradition, the shamrock or three-leaf clover represents the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. A rare fourth leaf, like Sparky and Smokey’s, represents God’s Grace. The four-leaf clover is the luckiest clover of all.

An ages-old symbol of good luck, the cloverleafs did seem to protect Sparky and Smokey. Smoke didn’t fill their lungs. Chimneys falling from burning buildings, uprooted trees, collapsing structures never touched them. Flames drew away when the dogs walked through. The Chicago Fire was the Cloverleaf Dogs’ ‘baptism by fire,’ and afterwards, the dogs carried luck with them in the clovers on their ears.

In the years that followed, Sparky and Smokey passed the clovers on to a litter of puppies. The markings—a dark cloverleaf on the outside of each ear—appeared to be branded on the skin; no hair grew on them.

On the tenth anniversary of the fire, the Chicago Times Tribune quoted Rose Cataldo saying, “The Cloverleaf Dogs were sent from heaven and I hope they will always be safe.” Rose had no way of knowing it, but luck, and grace, would follow the Cloverleaf Dogs through time, and they would continue to help people and animals in need … but there’d be some bumps along the way.

The Legend of the Cloverleaf Dogs had begun.

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