The Blizzard of 1888

Today it seems like everyone is prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at them. Cell phones, GPS, four wheel drive, and accurate weather forecasts give a feeling of safety. A false sense of security blankets our instinct to avoid dangerous situations.

Because we farm - we're weather dependent.  We plan for worse case scenarios like feeding hay when equipment won't start, frozen waterlines, power outages, etc. There's a basic plan for just about every weather event.

When the windchill falls below zero the cattle are fed along the timber. The trees make a great windbreak. Bales of hay and straw are unrolled for feed and bedding.

Planning ahead is essential, the livestock depend on us.

Sometimes, when it comes to running errands or grocery shopping, we aren't as diligent and get caught off-guard.

Without moonlight to guide us, our path was illuminated by farmyard lights. We walked through the hills. We parked the truck on the side of the road. It was a surprisingly pleasant evening for a walk, temperatures near 30 degrees, very little wind, the drizzle was nearly over. We watched our footing carefully, a layer of ice covered the ground. As we walked I remembered reading about The Children's Blizzard of 1888.

The Blizzard of 1888

After weeks of bitter cold temperatures a moderate warming was a welcome relief on the prairies. Temperatures approached near 45 degrees on January 12, 1888. Farmers ventured out to replenish supplies of hay and visit town to conduct business. Children, lightly dressed, walked to school. They were eager to see friends, play outdoors, and enjoy the comparatively balmy weather.

In 1888 twenty-two weather stations, overseen by the Signal Corp, monitored weather data and relayed the information by Western Union to sixty “Flag Stations” throughout the prairie states to keep pioneers informed. On this day the message to fly the “cold wave” and “blizzard” flags never reached the volunteer flagmen. Warnings never came or arrived too late for the settlers of the Dakotas and Nebraska. They were caught off guard.

In the Dakota Territory the lunch hour had just ended. Children were at their desks when the wind began to howl in an eerie wail. A dark cloud descended rapidly from the northwest. Within minutes the sun disappeared, by all accounts nightfall had arrived. Ice crystals blasted the clapboard buildings. The wailing wind was deafening. Snow swirled in through every crevice. Gale force winds gusted to nearly eighty miles per hour.

Pioneers that lived through the blizzard of 1873, and the 1880 “snow winter,” where thousands of cattle froze to death on the prairie, had never seen a storm arrive with such speed and violence.

Visibility on this January day was so poor you couldn’t see more than a few inches ahead. Folks on the prairie were snow blinded by the blizzard, many died within a few steps of their homes.  

The Children

Many teachers released school and sent their students into the storm. The children became disoriented and couldn’t find their way home. In other schoolhouses teachers kept their students inside. When the supply of coal, school books, and desk were exhausted they surrounding cold stoves praying for rescue. They clung together for warmth.

Parents anxiously awaited the arrival of their children. Rescue parties searched schools and bare prairies. Hope of finding loved ones faded as the temperature fell and the storm raged on. Mothers stood in doorways calling out for their children. With their voices exhausted they rang cow bells or beat pots. They hoped the sound would direct their children home. The wind chill fell to 30 degrees below zero.

Winter Feeding


Farmers watering their cattle or out gathering hay from their stacks got caught by the storm. They knew from experience to get under the storm; visibility is better close to the ground. They crawled to find shelter.

In Minnesota a large number of farmers died when they became disoriented after securing their livestock. They couldn't find their houses which were just steps from their lean-to or dugout barns.

Iowa fared better, the storm didn’t rage here until dusk. Chores and errands were done for the day. In Keokuk, Iowa the temperature plummeted 50 degrees in eight hours. Company B, Second Regiment from Davenport, Iowa was headed to Des Moines to escort William Larabee in his inauguration parade. Company B, trapped by the storm, did not arrive.

The Weather System

The weather term for such a storm is anticyclone. Winds spiral inward toward the center of low pressure in a counter-clockwise pattern. The lowest air pressure was over Iowa and Nebraska. Higher pressure over North Dakota and Montana caused a vacuum effect over the mid-section of the country. Cold rushing air created great friction and static build-up. Snow thunderstorms raged across the plains. A phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s fire caused static build-up. The air was electrified. Sparks emitted from people's fingertips and caused hair to stand on end. The shocks were so fierce the pioneers refused to add fuel to fires.

The Aftermath

Children buried themselves in haystacks, huddled together in darkened classrooms, or froze to death on the prairie while searching for shelter. This was the fate of those caught in the blizzard.

On Friday, January 13, 1888 skies were clear, the air was bitter cold. Relieved students and teachers were grateful to be found alive. One teacher, who had ventured outdoors with her seven students found safety inside a haystack. They were alive, barely. Another teacher acted swiftly when the storm tore the school's roof away. Tying a makeshift rope out of torn cloth she tied her students together. Walking in a line, eyes frozen shut, they hit the side of a building and were saved.

Other unfortunate children got caught in the storm and were found frozen to death.

It's estimated that two hundred fifty fatalities littered the prairies, most of them children. Countless survivors of the initial storm succumbed to infection when frostbitten limbs were amputated. Others perished from pneumonia. It's estimated that this storm claimed five hundred lives.

That was then, This is now

When our truck wasn't able to compete with the ice we packed our gear and started walking. We talked about survival skills and common sense ideas…like staying home.

IMG_20140904_143708987Every now and again I have a bad day on the road. A couple of months ago my beautiful drive in the country turned ugly. I had three flat tires; one blow out, one flat, and a nail sticking out of the sidewall of the third tire. With the tires fixed I was back on the road. A few miles later the alternator failed. It wasn't a great day.

Last Saturday we hit a deer. Not a great day, either.


IMG_20141215_103711159 3Yesterday it was foggy with rain falling steadily. As I drove down the highway I saw a sign that read, “Next 2 miles...possible cattle on road”

My heart went out to the farmer. His cattle got out, It was very foggy and there's heavy traffic along this stretch of highway.

The next time I feel sorry for myself because I have a flat tire or a breakdown I'll remember that I've never had a day this bad. Even my worst day is better than a herd of cattle who've gone missing in the fog and worrying about the safety of both drivers and livestock on the road.


DSCN0684Timing Storms

Several years ago friends from our homeschool group took a cross-country trip to visit family in California. Marie set out with her two kids, Marcie (seven years old) and Bobby (ten years old). Her husband would join them a couple of weeks later. As they got into Kansas severe storms surrounded them. Tuning the radio to an AM station they heard the static and knew they were in the thick of it. The National Weather Service was broadcasting the path and locations of multiple storm cells. Marie could see some rotation of the clouds in the distance. She pulled to the side of the road and gave each of her kids a task; Marcie would listen to the radio and call out town names, along with the direction and speed of the storm. Bobby's task was to find the area on the map and calculated the route they'd take to avoid the most severe weather. The two worked as a team timing storms.

Marie had complete confidence in her kids, they worked well together. In some areas Bobby would have his mom pull over and wait while Marcie watched the clock, timing their move to the next safe area. On Marcie's and Bobby's instruction Marie would either move ahead or wait for the storm to pass. At one point they saw a tornado crossing the highway some distance behind them. The three hopscotched, waiting and moving, according to the weather service's alerts and the teamwork of  Bobby and Marcie. Rolling into a small town they saw buildings destroyed with a large debris field expanding for several blocks. Had it not been for the kids mapping and timing skills they would have been in the direct path of this tornado. Marie was thankful that she spent time teaching mapping skills, it paid off.

 The ignorant man marvels at the exceptional; the wise man marvels at the common; the greatest wonder of all is the regularity of nature. - G.D. Boardman


On Monday night Keith was in central Iowa for a meeting. On his way home severe storms surrounded him. He listened to the radio and I watched the weather broadcast provided by KCRG TV. They tracked the storm's speed, timing, along with the trajectory. I called Keith, we figured out when he should move or stop to avoid the most severe storm cells.

He'd pull over for a few minutes, then move ahead to a safer area.  Some of the storms closest to home were reported to have some rotation.  We timed his trip perfectly, he avoided downed trees, hail, and straight line winds. I was thinking of Marie, Marcie, and Bobby and thankful they shared their story with us. I was also grateful to the weather staff at KCRG TV.



DSCN1838There was a warm up here last week. The thawing snow streamed down the lane exactly as it was designed to do, but made it into an icy raceway. It's covered in three-inches of thick ice which makes it hard to stay on your feet. Keith has ice cleats for his boots which leave tiny, little holes in the deck. They also leave tiny, little holes in the floor if you forget to take them off, but he doesn't forget. I don't have cleats because I always forget. So, I have two choices;

1) fall on my butt or 2) walk cautiously and scream “Get away from me!” when one of the dogs runs at me.

The dogs are curious when I'm walking soooo slowly. Today, in my frantic attempt not to fall I started flailing at the dogs and I knocked myself down. That's when, always practical Keith, came over to where I was lying and asked, “Why don't you go out the other door and walk through the snow so you don't have to cross the icy driveway?”
Looking up at him I realized he's much smarter than you could ever hope to be. The other door, huh, great idea.

Last fall I was worried about 049 and 005 slipping on ice because they're both fourteen now. They're both doing fine. They're following the sun. In the morning they stand facing east then move throughout the day soaking up the rays. The sheep aren't bothered by the cold. They haven't been shorn yet so their wool is thick and long. Because they'll begin lambing in mid-April they'll keep their fleeces until mid March. Hopefully it will be warmer by then.


Our friend Corky is a bird watcher, as is her sister, Storm. Storm lives in Texas and watches her bird feeder all winter long waiting for the Robins to return. When they do she calls Corky and gives her the news along with a report on the number of robins she's seen. Corky marks her calendar and waits. It's usually three weeks until the birds make it this far north. Sure enough, as soon as the robins get here so does a blast of severe weather. Folklore says that the robins will have snow on their tail three times before warm weather is here to stay. Here's where you can track the robins migration.

 There seems to be so much more winter than we need this year. -Kathleen Norris

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Yesterday was the first day in over a month with temperatures above freezing. It was the perfect day for a walk in the woods. The dogs enjoyed the sunshine, too. Especially Eva who's recovered from her accident last spring. I searched the timber for berries, fruit or any sign of first food for the robins. Some of the gooseberry bushes have a few shriveled fruit clinging to the branches, but for the most part the bluejays have picked the timber clean.

Soaking up the sunshine
Soaking up the sunshine

The cattle lined up in the sunshine, soaking the beams into their souls. Their contentment was as visible as the sun itself. The chickens ventured a little farther than the barn yard for the first time in weeks. They cackled and called out with joy. It's amazing how restorative a small temperature inclination, accompanied with bright sunshine, is. Everything seemed to sing yesterday.





signs of spring!
signs of spring!


On our walk back up the lane in an area where the snow was pushed back so the bare ground was exposed, a small patch of grass was greening in the afternoon sun. Only 28 days until spring.

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads. -Henry David Thoreau


Spring is only 7 weeks away! This was the scene yesterday afternoon.DSCN1638We beat this blizzard home by about 30 minutes. We were heading home from Minnesota when blowing snow caused a whiteout. By the time the livestock were fed and watered the storm was raging. This is the view of the peach trees yesterday, January 26, 2014.




Here are the same trees last spring.










This morning the storm was gone and another beautiful Sun Dog greeted us.



This morning it was -19 below zero when we went out to do chores. In the eastern sky the sun had just risen, a beautiful sun dog greeted us. It was spectacular!







Yesterday afternoon, just before sunset Keith was checking on the cattle. He called up to the house asking for some help. A calf was stuck between two small trees.DSCN1584





DSCN1583 Garrett tried pushing the trees apart, it didn't work. Keith and Garrett tried lifting and pushing the calf to free her, but that didn't work either. Garrett and I held her still, keeping her legs and head away from the saw while Keith cut down the tree. That's how to free stuck calves.





DSCN1582We've had to free  stuck calves  before. It was simply a matter of waving our arms and walking straight at him until he stepped back on his own. This case was different. Everyday brings something new.


Boot weather.

On Monday, November 11 it started snowing early in the morning. I was reminded of the Armistice day blizzard of 1940. Luckily,  it stopped snowing around noon. I forgot what I hated most about winter until it started snowing. It's not the snow I hate, it's boot weather. Specifically, it's my left boot. It's a sock sucker. Slowly my sock starts sliding down my leg until it's wadded into the toe of my boot. I can't walk more than 100 yards before my foot is completely naked. Rubberbands haven't helped, tucking my pant leg inside my socks hasn't helped. Not even wearing socks that reach up to my chin has helped. I'd switch to one of my 17 other pairs of winter boots, but each one has another unique fault. One pair makes obscene noises when I walk, another rubs my ankle raw, and then there's the boot with a mysterious hole somewhere that water keeps seeping in. I don't dare buy another pair because Keith's convinced it's not the boots, it's me.

The farm is set for winter. Hay is stockpiled in the pasture, ready to feed. The pigs are out of the pasture until the ground is frozen. This prevents them from damaging the cover crops which will be the first areas they graze this spring. Six new pasture water stations for the cattle are almost complete. This was the last big project of the year. On Monday, during the snowfall, we finished trenching the lines.

I am working on my annual list of what I'm thankful for in time for Thanksgiving. At the top of my list is wonderful, supportive customers like you, thank you!