A long-ago Blizzard
This morning a blizzard began in our area. We knew exactly when it was coming, and pretty accurately what it would be. There’s not much unpredictable in the present day.
It wasn’t always that way.
I grew up with blizzards, the ferocious snow storms of the dry high plains. North Dakota.
Out at the farm home near Berlin ND was a trove of “junk”: albums, many photo portraits, and large numbers of old photographic negatives taken with two box cameras. In the collection, of the 110 year history of the farm, were two negatives that are especially intriguing, taken the same day, most likely about 1916 or 1917, just over 100 years ago.
Here are rough paper prints of the negatives. Click to enlarge.
Negatives aren’t labeled, of course. I think these are the winter of 1916 or 1917 because they show my grandmother, then about 32, and her four oldest children, Lucina, Esther (my mother), Verena and Mary. There was a fifth child by the time, George, but he would have been too little to frolic in the snow the day after the blizzard passed into history.
Prairie blizzards of my memory were ferocious affairs, sometimes several days duration. They differed from todays storms only in that the habitants of the prairie knew they were going to happen sometime, but had no idea exactly when or how severe they would be – there was no Accuweather then. The prudent settler prepared for the inevitable. Winters were not a time to take risks.
The storms pitted humanity against nature, and when they ended, it was time for a victory lap for the survivors. Photos like these were probably not uncommon.
This particular farm (pictured below about the same year as the blizzard) is one I know well, though it would be 24 more years before I made an appearance there.
Busch’s had some milk cows, then, and milking twice a day was mandatory. It could be a dangerous trip from house to barn; whiteouts could be disorienting. They also had a chicken coop, and the job of chickens was to lay eggs, which needed to be gathered.
(click to enlarge)
The house was small and cramped and a challenge to keep warm in this time of cold temperatures and high winds. There was no electricity, no television or radio, no insulation, no indoor plumbing. One can only imagine living through a blizzard.
But as these photos show, there were celebratory aspects. The dry granular snow drifted into virtual bricks, well suited to tunnels, and igloos if one had the interest. Post-blizzard could be fun for kids.
There were no machines to move the snow on the farm, no trips to town by car for groceries or whatever. People knew, of course, that what came, would ultimately go, and the snow piles would melt…on nature’s timeline.
I can imagine the day of these photographs was something of an exciting day at the farm. I can imagine, too, that some reader memories will come back, looking at these photos.
Happy winter! For me, for years, spring has begun February 1. Yes, I know. By then the worst is past, I reason.
(most of those commenting grew up or have some roots in North Dakota)
From Bob: Your blizzard memories are similar to mine, having lived on a remote farm through the 8th grade, one room school house and all. As you said, no electricity, television, central heat or indoor plumbing. And too often lots of snow to shovel by hand.
Young folks today grumble about the horrible winter and tough conditions but don’t know how good they have it compared to earlier generations on the open prairie.
Now we winter in Arizona, so really are spoiled. No blizzards or snow to shovel. Just oranges to pick, and sweep occasional sand off the patio adjacent to the 6th green on our 9 hole golf course.
from Laurie: Wow what a storm that was. Hard to imagine living back then. Life was so hard, today’s kids couldn’t handle it! Most likely I would have a very hard time too! Fun to see all of this info! Thanks for sharing!
from Beth: Loved that post. Blizzards are different now, even from when I was a kid. Hope all is well with you and yours!
from Darleen: The blizzards of yesteryear that I remember are one in the late ’40’s when I froze my nose and the one in the mid 60’s when the drifts were so high between the house & barn that a person could not see over the drift. During that one my mother was in the hospital in Jamestown so my dad was on the farm by himself…Dick the memories are endless of the blizzards. In MN we have not had the depth or low temps that I remember we had in ND. I also remember when the wind was strongthere were snow drifts on the window sill of my bedroom. I was snuggled under one of
my mother’s sheep wool quilts & was warm.
from Jim B: These are awesome, to think I was complaining about a little cool weather here in Florida the last couple weeks…..
from Fred: Thanks for the memories. I grew up on a farm near Lidgerwood (SE North Dakota) and I do remember some of those barn burner blizzards. Dad had a loader on the tractor and was able to dig us out. Another thing I remember is the cold. Twenty below seemed colder back then that it does now. Maybe because of the coats, heaters and furnaces that we have now. I enjoy your reminisces.
from Jim D: Thanks for sending this. I’ve been through a few of these including the March 1966 blizzard, the snow/dirt storm of 1975, and the late April blizzard of 1984 plus a few more. Always exciting!
responding to Jim: I’m wondering if the March 1966 blizzard you refer to is the March 1965 blizzard I remember when I was a teacher in Elgin ND. That was a terrible storm. My wife, and one year old, and I lived in an upstairs apartment. There was no school, of course, and there was nothing to do. I remember sitting at our table and cobbling together some research about “Changes in Small Schools in North Dakota”. I had enough data to do this. Here is the resulting article: Dick Bernard 1965 School001. The Grand Forks (ND) Herald did an editorial about the article a short while later! The project was just something to do during a blizzard….
Dick, from Jim D: Proof of the 1966 blizzard, here
from Dave: Very interesting, since my Mother was born in Illinois in 1909 and moved to Devil’s Lake [ND] when she was two. They moved to Wisconsin in 1921. She had fond memories of her childhood. I never visited Devil’s Lake while at Valley City. I have a 97-year old Uncle who was born in ND in 1920. He was a C-47 crew chief and flew many missions from D-Day on. His life’s story was just published in a book, “Clear the Prop.”
Wonder if ND gets the cold spells like we did in the 60s. I recall 40 below and 40 mph winds. Walked seven blocks to the [Valley City State Teachers College] cafeteria (in the basement of one of the girl’s dorms) and did not care to walk eight.
from JP: Brought back a lot of memories growing up in the Red River Valley in Southern Manitoba in the 1940s & 1950s.
from Leo: The storm I remember was 4/5/6 of Feb. 1947. All the roads were blocked. The main roads were open in a few days but the side roads were blocked for about two weeks. Dad took us to school in a wagon with runners pulled by a team of horses. Many kids never got to school. My mother said that main street in Fingal looked just like it did when she was a child. Teams of horses in the street. There was a drift by the trees north of our farmhouse that was within three feet of the power lines. Dad drew a line in the snow and said if I went over that line toward the power lines I would get a licking. I used my sled to go off that huge drift for a least a couple of months. My memory was that the total run was about a hundred yards. I would pull my sled to the top and the dog would get on the front and I would kneel on the back of the sled and down we would go, My recollection is that about ten people in the region died. I think Dad had twine or small rope between the house and barn to follow so he would not get lost in the storm. That was the worst storm during my youth. After we moved to Valley City in 1956 the storms were less significant.
from Dick: Leo’s memory prompts me to include this story of a northeast ND blizzard of Nov. 1860, as recalled by the legendary Father Joseph Goiffon, who lost his leg as a result of the blizzard. Here is his story: Blizzard of Nov. 1860001