More Storm Stories

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.                                           – Charles Dudley Warner

Before I quit talking about hard winters, I wanted to post a few interesting stories that have recently landed on my desk.   The first comes from Marvine Koliha of Howells, who wrote about her family’s experiences during the 1949 blizzards:

“I remember that winter.  School was postponed so many times.  I think we were given a grace period so we didn’t have to make up all the days missed from the blizzards.  Mom had so many baskets  of eggs in the basement, and nowhere to go with them. I know the paths scooped to the different buildings to get feed to the livestock. With a full cellar and a deep freezer full of food, we made out. But the basics like flour, coffee, &  sugar were needed.  So my dad took a gunny sack and walked the mile over snowbanks to highway #15, flagged down a motorist & got a ride to Pilger for supplies.  He was able to get another ride back & walked over snowbanks, although it was tougher now with a heavy gunny sack. We didn’t have school on Wed. of last week, due to the extreme cold.  I had to laugh because I walked 1/2 mile to school when it was 20 below zero.  Kids were a lot tougher in the old days.”

Dialing back to 1936, I found some clippings from the Colfax County Press’s Peeking into the Past column that tell about the hardships of that winter:


Feb 13 1936 1Feb 13 1936 2Feb 13 1936 3Feb 13 1936 4Feb 20 1936 1Feb 20 1936 2Feb 20 1936 3Feb 20 1936 4

Once February was over, the weather improved quickly and the farmers started thinking about planting their fields in anticipation of abundant crops in 1936.  Here are some clippings from the March 11, 1936 issue of the Colfax County Press.

March 11 1936 1March 11 1936 2


In March 1936 everyone was looking forward to warm weather and the fields drying out so that crops could be planted.  As the old saying goes, you should be careful what you ask for.

Posted in 1930s, 1950s | Leave a comment

Another Winter of Our Discontent – 1936

Oh sure, the winter of 1948-49 was a bad one.  But was it the worst?  There have been plenty of other cold, snowy winters in Nebraska.  I personally experienced a number of them in the 1950s and 1960s.  For example, the winter of 1959-60:

Snow 1960

The March 1, 1965 snowstorm that was timed perfectly (in my view, anyway) to strand lots of farm kids in town for a night:

3-1-65 Snowstorm 1

3-1-65 Snowstorm 2

The 1919 Blizzard that blocked the railroad tracks east of town:

1919 Blizzard

And at least on one occasion in 1932 there was a photo-worthy snowfall in our village.




But I think the winter of 1936 has a shot at our No. 1 Worst Winter, because of a little something called the 1936 North American Cold Wave –

“The 1936 North American cold wave ranks among the most intense cold waves of the 1930s. The states of the Midwest United States were hit the hardest. February 1936 was one of the coldest months recorded in the Midwest. The states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota saw their coldest month on record.

Most places across the Midwest saw a colder than average January. The plains states started to get a taste of what it would be like until March. The state of North Dakota saw an average temperature of −7.0 °F (−21.7 °C). Most states in the Midwest were very cold in January 1936. The severe winds made wind chills in some locations go down to −85 °F (−65 °C).  Heavy snow and cold created dangerous conditions outside. Many people suffered from frostbite and hypothermia.

February was by far the coldest month in the severe cold wave. The states of South Dakota, Minnesota, and North Dakota saw their coldest month on record, and average temperatures were below 0 °F (−18 °C). More heavy snow and severe wind chills created very dangerous conditions. Wind chills in some locations were near −100 °F (−73 °C). This intense cold compelled some people to wear seven layers of clothing before going outdoors. And two states in this February saw their coldest temperatures on record, −58 °F (−50 °C) in McIntosh, South Dakota, and −60 °F (−51 °C) in Parshall, North Dakota. These two states also recorded all-time high temperatures in July, less than five months later.”


Figure Caption: The average February 1936 temperature in each state, in degrees Fahrenheit. The record coldest temperatures are based on a 112-year period of records, 1895–2006.

In Nebraska, the average temperature for the month of February, 1936 was 7.5 degrees, and the average temperature from December 1935 through February 1936 as only 17.1 degrees.  That winter, Lincoln, Nebraska recorded -20o on February 5, and 33 days with temperatures below zero.  Omaha recorded 29 consecutive days in which the minimum temperature was below zero (January 22 – February 19, 1936).

Blanche HS Graduation 1The statistics are impressive.  And for an idea of how this miserable weather affected our citizens, I call on no less an authority than… my Mom.

My mother, Blanche Poledna Cada, was a 19-year-old, first-year country school teacher in 1936.  She taught at rural, one-room schools in Cuming County, Nebraska for 3 years, during which time she kept a little diary.  During the week she boarded with one of the families living near the school, and walked to school every day, arriving early to open the building, fire up the coal stove, and pump water for the pupils.  Many of the entries in her diary during the winter months of 1936 reflect the harsh conditions that people living in rural Nebraska experienced….

January 15 – Cloudy and snowing.  Wedding day of Clara Marik and Ernest Kucera.  Terrible snowstorm but go to the ballroom anyway… not very crowded because of snow.

January 16 – Is it cold – clear and plenty of snow.  Porch of school blocked.  Gets cloudy toward evening.

Winter 1936


January 17 – A terrible blizzard all day…  wind from the northeast.  Gus and Lumir Bazata come for kids and get stuck on school ground.  Boy, Gustie’s language.  All boys push them.  Get my stockings, petticoat, and skirt all wet in coming home in storm.

February 3 – A terrible blizzard and keeps getting worse every minute.  Take two pair of stockings to school.  Four pupils are absent.  All go home with wagons.  Freeze my cheek going home and mother calls up – is worried.

2-22-1936 13

February 4 – Clear, cold and drifting.  Wore overalls to school today.  Had 3 absent.  Couldn’t make snow banks – had to scoop in front of horses.  Mailman didn’t go for 2 days already.  Sure lonesome for mail.

February 5 – Clear and gets cloudy after school.  Roads still blocked.  Had 2 absent.  Mailman doesn’t go for 3 days already.  Joe Bazata scoops snow paths to school toilets.  Cheek still frozen.

February 7 – Cloudy and cold, terrible wind in the afternoon, sure starts drifting. Mr. Uher and Mrs. Glodowski stuck.  Mailman goes around for the first time today.  Freeze my cheek something awful again.

February 8 – Sure windy and drifting cold.  We live in the dining room.  I go without breakfast.  Frank goes and borrows coal from school – don’t have anything to burn.

February 11 – Partly cloudy and then turns cold and snows.  Tonight is the postponed wedding dance of Gall and Brester.  No wedding dance again.  Goodbye to dances, I think.  J. Bazata scoops snow by school again.  Roads terrible – no mail since February 7.

2-22-1936 9


February 12 – Snows and is cold and windy.  Sure hard walking to school.  Froze my cheek on the other side this morning. No mail.

February 13 – Cloudy and then turns cold and a strong wind comes up.  Sure drifts.  Makes me sick.  School stove smokes in the morning, like a smokehouse.  A strong wind turns up and sure drifts.  Frank comes for me with wagon.

Febuary 14 – Clear and how cold.  Freeze my face on both sides.   Coldest day in school house yet – feet cold all day.  Only 6 pupils in school so didn’t even distribute valentines.  Get all the papers and read them – all you read is about blizzards.

February 15 – Cloudy and snowing all day.

February 16 – Mother calls me at 1.  She says they have no coal to burn – live in kitchen.

February 17 – Cloudy and snowing.  Clears, and a strong wind comes up and drifts.  Sure cold.  Have only 4 pupils in school.  Joe Bazata scoops snow out of coal shed – do not have much coal.  Howells schools are closed on account of coal.  Mary Pekny is not teaching for 2 weeks already.

February 18 – Cloudy and then clears and turns to a perfect day.  Have 6 pupils in school.  Last recess we watch all the men clear the roads with discs and snow plows.  No wedding because grooms couldn’t get licenses – postponed after Easter.

February 19 – Men are cleaning roads again. Ed Balak brings coal to school.  No mail for 5 days.

2-22-1936 4

February 20 – Clear and warmer.  No mail yet.  Highways still blocked.

February 23 – So warm and thaws.  Oh, the roads (tunnels).  Get all our mail today.

February 25 – Cloudy all day and colder.  It rains, sleets, and snows.

February 26 – Clear and warm, perfect day – too nice.  Finally I get to go home.  Roads tough, get home after 7.  Have to go by Howells road.

2-22-1936 5

February 29 – Partly cloudy and colder.   Sure am surprised at snow banks on our yard.

2-22-1936 102-22-1936 122-22-1936 112-22-1936 82-22-1936 72-22-1936 62-22-1936 12-22-1936 32-22-1936 2

Not much of a way to spend a quiet winter day, is it?

So which was worse – 1936 or 1949?  I guess it’s a matter of naming your poison.  Would you prefer a virtually unbroken winter, with two months of frequent, almost daily, small snowfalls, record low temperatures, and strong, icy cold winds (1936)?  Or would you rather get socked two or three times with huge, paralyzing blizzards, with periods of relative quiet in between (1948-49)?  Don’t ask me – I live in the Tennessee River Valley; we are still waiting for our first snowfall this winter.

Incidentally, this terrible winter was followed a few months later by the 1936 North American heat wave, the most severe heat wave in the modern history of North America.  Record high temperatures were set in Nebraska, and accompanied by a severe drought, the effects were catastrophic.  But that’s a story for another time.

Thanks again to Sharon and Larry Steinberger, who shared the 1936 snow clearing photos from the collection of her father, Morris Odvarka.

Posted in 1930s | 6 Comments

The Winter of Our Discontent – 1948-49

Is it cold enough for you, Bunky?  It is for one of our frequent contributors, Robert Prazak.  Already back in November he started feeling the winter chill coming on, and was reminded of an exceptionally tough winter in Clarkson during his childhood.  I’ve been holding his story back, waiting for some snow and cold weather, and decided that today would be as good a day as any to post it.  On this day 66 years ago, January 2, 1949, a 3-day blizzard slammed into Our Town to cap one of the worst winters in Nebraska’s history.

Robert wrote:  “Having just finished up with my late chores preparing for winter here in Bella Vista, Arkansas, I have plenty of time to reflect on winters past. My chores now aren’t nearly as many as in the old days. Nowadays the biggest job is getting the firewood ready for the fireplace, which is actually a rather large task, but with an overabundance of downed oak and pine it is not too hard to gather enough wood for five months of burning. I must brag first about our retirement city– as it has just been named by Money magazine and some other publications as the best place to retire in the United States. Our Nebraska Club is the largest group here with over 300 members, and the Jim Severas formerly of Clarkson and we have taken our turns in leading the group. Enough bragging, now it’s time to get the fireplace going as the cold weather has just hit and sit with my favorite wiener dogs and watch the fire and dream about the Blizzards of 49 and The Winter That Wouldn’t Quit.

“For our family, preparing for a bad winter didn’t start when the cold weather hit; it began in late summer as mom would can many things, ranging from tomatoes, peaches, corn, and apples to pork. All this would be taken to the storm cellar along with bushels of potatoes that dad would dig up and we kids would help pick. The storm cellar was a scary place for a 10 year old as it always had lots of spider webs, toads, and once in a while a snake. This also served as a great place to take shelter when the clouds got too black in the west and a tornado was possible. Dad always made sure we had plenty of coal in the coal room for burning in the furnace. The lumber and coal company would come with a truck and would shovel the coal down a chute through the basement window into the coal room. We had a chicken coop with laying hens and a barn with a milk cow. So no matter how bad the winter was going to be we were going to survive quite easily.  (It’s worth noting that, although you might get the impression that the Prazaks lived on a farm, they actually had a house on the north end of Main Street in Clarkson)
“If the lights went out we had plenty of oil lamps and flashlights; Our furnace required some work as I remember dad going down to shove coal maybe 3 or 4 times a day, and then the clinkers as they were called (residue from the burned coal that formed and looked like a small meteor) had to be taken out and put in a metal can and hauled outside. Around that time dad purchased a device called a stoker that was a time saver as once a day it needed to be filled and an auger would slowly push the coal into the furnace. If the electricity went off you were back to stage one, but gravity would push the heat up the stairs.
“If I remember correctly the winter of 1949 which is and was the worst in any of our lifetimes, was more than one blizzard and actually started in November with the worst one being in January and then followed by smaller snowstorms. For the farmers with livestock and many other adults this was an incredibly hard time dealing with loss of livestock and suffering. For a ten year old kid it was viewed quite differently as it meant snowball fights, building forts and snowmen, sleigh riding, and best of all NO SCHOOL. I wouldn’t want my grandkids to read this, but for me play was more important than studying. School work was put in its proper position when I went on to get a bachelors and masters degree. Thanks goodness they aren’t like that.

“THE BLIZZARD IS COMING – Weather forecasting back then was not an exact science, as there were no weather satellites, Doppler weather, even TV weather maps. The weather was on the radio and all you knew was what was happening up north or out west and they made an educated guess. As good an indicator as any was the drop in the barometer, as that seemed to get us kids in a wild and noisy mood and the teachers had to impart more penalties on us to keep us in line. The wind blowing out of the east also was a storm indicator. Our family always listened to the weather on the radio, and if a storm was moving in from western Nebraska that meant there would be snow in Clarkson the next morning with the possibility of no school. That night I would crawl under the feather tic full of anticipation for the announcement on the radio.

“KFAB, WOW, and WJAG were our choices for school closings and weather news. I would be the first one up and looking out the window for snow and wind. I don’t know how this happened, but I had a radio and would turn it on listening to weather closings in anticipation of a day of play. Closings would usually start out west (Grand Island) and work their way east; if and when Clarkson (no school) was mentioned you could probably hear me say an exuberant “YES”.
“This was great for the first few storms, but then the storms got worse and it was too bad to go to the neighbors and guess what; it became boring staying at home for days at a time and I started wishing for school to be back in session. When we were snowbound and the wind was howling our chimney would make a moaning sound that would scare any of my friends (if they could get over). Sometimes this moaning sound would last all night and you knew that by morning there were going to be some enormous drifts. Another indicator of a bad storm was if you could hear snowplows and the roar of maintainers trying to clear the road, as the road past our house was old 91 highway and that was one of the first to be opened. The storms became so bad that the National Guard was enlisted to fly and drop bales of hay to stranded cattle in order to survive. This happened mainly out west in the Sandhills.
“When we could get out between storms there was great fun to be had for kids. Snowball fights, snowmen, forts, and best of all sleigh riding. Our city fathers blocked off a couple streets starting at the now Bed and Breakfast all the way down to Moores Department Store on main street. This seemed awesome as the hill at that time seemed so steep (I looked at it last summer and it must have shrunk); also the hill by the old high school was used to slide down, and if you moved over to the corner of the hill there was a double jump where you could get airborne. And yes, as you said, Avis, there was always the fire escape to slide down for extra thrills. We usually had races down the hill and the ones who knew enough to wax their runners had an advantage over the rest.

“The snow removal from the streets was put on the vacant area next to the train depot and the snow started getting so high that the Colfax County Press sponsored a contest as to when an object under the mountain of snow would again appear in the spring. The mountain of snow just kept getting higher and higher and it was June before the object again appeared.

Robert Prazak 1949 1

Photo:  Vince Prazak and Ted Urbanek standing near a snow drift on old Highway 91.  Only the very top of the telephone pole is visible.  (Photo courtesy of Robert Prazak)

“Some of my other favorite winter activities involved my Catholic friends. Clarkson and Heun both had what was called Pout; this was a dinner put on to help the church fund, but for us it was one of the greatest meals one could possibly ask for: duck or goose, dumplings and sauerkraut (knedliky and zeli) and kolache and rolls. All this served with the help of pretty, young Czech girls waiting on you hand and foot (even at age 10, I could spot a pretty girl).  Another Catholic activity that stood out in my memory involved Father Kubesh. Father had a rather interesting hobby of making sound recordings. One night, during probably the worst blizzard of that year, he left the microphone of his tape recorder outside and recorded the sounds of that blizzard. Some of my Catholic buddies and I got to listen to it. At the first you could hear the occasional swoosh of snow and wind; a little later the sounds became more frequent and finally there was a constant wailing of the wind as the snow drifted higher and higher. If you closed your eyes you could just visualize the immensity of the storm. In fact, that is what I think I will do now; put another log on the fire, get to the recliner with a dog on each side of me and close my eyes, dream of blizzards past and probably wake up an hour later.”

Robert Prazak 1949 2Photo:  Train with rotary cutting head passing through town, headed west.  (Photo courtesy of Robert Prazak)

As Robert noted, winter started early that year.  The first half of November 1948 was warm, with high temperatures reaching the 70s on some days.  On November 18-19 it all changed; a storm that started out with thunder, lightning, rain and sleet turned to blowing, drifting snow in a band from southwestern to northeastern Nebraska.   Roads closed and people were trapped in their homes for days.  Here is an excerpt from the November 26, 1948 issue of the Colfax County Press:

“Creston residents had a taste of pioneer life-no phones, no electric lights, no mail, no newspapers, no radios-over the weekend following the blizzard and no one seems to like it.
The storm started late Thursday afternoon. Persons having cars on the streets that evening found it impossible to travel and many cars were stalled on the town’s streets until late Saturday.
“Shortly after 11:00 p.m. the electric current failed and the town was without lights or power for 40 hours. The storage batteries kept phone service in town alive until Saturday morning.
“Families with Stokers were unable to keep the houses warm. At least two families moved in with neighbors. Several families, who had no cooking facilities other than electric stoves, had cold meals.
“Highways were blocked in all directions by the snow and wind which continued all day Friday. Business was at a stand-still Friday, some businessmen went up town only long enough to build fires.
“The road to Columbus was opened Saturday afternoon, the road to Leigh was opened Sunday evening and by Monday afternoon a rotary plow had opened the highway to Humphrey. Local phone service was resumed Saturday evening but long distance service will still out Wednesday. Many roads along the mail routes were still blocked a week after the storm.
“A road two miles south of Creston was opened to Humphrey Saturday because of the illness of Hans Twistmeyer. Mr. Twistmeyer was taken to Omaha to a hospital. Another road was opened to the Ewald Hake farm Monday because of the illness of Mrs. Hake. Eldon Kapels suffered a broken leg when a horse he was riding fell.”

Not only were roads closed, but railroads as well.  The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad stopped running at McCook, a major railroad junction, and both telephone and telegraph service was out for many communities.  The central part of the state was hit hardest – Albion got 20 inches of snow, and the Bloomfield-Hartington area in northeastern Nebraska got up to 24 inches.  Fremont got 10 inches of snow, but Omaha only got 2 and Lincoln 3 inches.

Harrison 1949

Photo:  Chicago and Northwestern tracks near Harrison, Nebraska.  (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications [NET] )

And after that pre-winter blast, there were a series of moderate snowfalls and moderate temperatures in November and December.  Then winter resumed in force on January 2, 1949. The forecast on New Year’s Day called for light to moderate snow across the entire state.  Instead, the skies darkened in the west and brought a storm with high winds and large amounts of snow.  During the night, the temperature dropped from 32 down to -3 degrees, and the winds gusted to 65-70 miles per hour.  The storm howled until January 5, lasting from 48 to 72 hours in much of the state.

Jim Krzycki, a member of the Schuyler Historical Society and co-curator of the Colfax County Museum, wrote the following story in the July 24, 2013 edition of the Columbus Telegram:

Blizzard of 1949 stuff of legend

“Jan. 2, 1949 started out as a calm, almost autumn-like, morning. I was in Kindergarten at the time. The Nebraska Weather Service issued the following forecast: “Cloudy with light snow. Little change in temperature. Highs today 25-30.”

In Oklahoma, a storm was being born. A great mass hundreds of miles wide began travelling eastward across Oklahoma and Kansas. It brought winds up to 65 miles per hour. The Blizzard of ’49 was on its way.  Like a hurricane, the winds blew. In its center was an eye of calm and clear weather. Around it, revolving counter-clockwise, were whipping winds. On its lower side it brought a sodden rain and mild temperatures. On the upper side, chilled by inflowing arctic air, the storm brought snow that a howling wind churned to blot out visibility and blow into drifts. Colorado, Wyoming, and western Nebraska first felt this storm. The rest of the state of Nebraska braced itself.

Next came a meteorological freak. Instead of continuing on its expected path through Kansas, the storm turned north that carried it past Grand Island. The storm then doubled back, moving as far west as Valentine, straightened out and went to the northeast. As a result, Omaha and the most extreme eastern Nebraska escaped the storm but the rest of the state really got its share. Western Nebraska got a double dose. Nebraska was being crippled. Trains were lifeless, and travelers huddled in wayside refuges or felt the effects of frostbite in stalled vehicles. Whole towns went on short rations of food and fuel. Communities responded to the occasion. Roadside businesses, filling stations, and homes gave shelter to the travelers that stumbled in from the freezing temperatures.

In Schuyler, the police force and fire department went door to door asking everybody if they could aid stranded motorists. My grandparents were able to help two couples. As soon as they were made comfortable, grandma started baking fresh bread and other delicacies. The people were with us for several days and helped with everything they could during their stay.

It took a long time to clear the streets and roads due to the very high drifts (some were as high as 25 or 30 feet) and stalling of the snow plows.

There was no east-west train traffic. Highways were closed. The entire community was paralyzed. And there was no school!  Neighbors were helping neighbors and the people that were being sheltered pitched in to help with household as well as shoveling snow. We had to have a clear path to the barn for wood, coal and cobs, and there had to be a path to the chicken coop and garage, too. Sometimes, people went to aid the sick who were waiting for medical emergency crews that couldn’t get to them.

Veterans of the blizzard of 1888, who remembered that storm, were impressed with the magnitude of the blizzard of ’49.

Some 7,500 passengers on 50 trains were backed up from Salt Lake City to Chicago.

If roads or rails were cleared, the snow blew right back in.

Often, roads were cleared — one lane only. After the roads were opened in this way, the plows went back to widen the clearing.

Airplanes were used to get medical help to those in need and to fly feed to cattle and livestock. Even yeast was flown in as bread trucks could not make deliveries and many a woman had to bake their own bread.

Which blizzard was worse — the blizzard of 1888 or the blizzard of 1949?

According to the Omaha Weather Bureau, the blizzard of 1888 was the most severe in loss of life, Although, the earlier storm records were sketchy and there were fewer observers, there were 14 lives lost during the storm of 1888 and only four lost their lives in the state of Nebraska during the blizzard of 1949. The storm of ’88 extended from east of the Rockies to the Gulf. The blizzard of ’49 extended through Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and a portion of South Dakota. The blizzard of ’49 was more severe in wind velocity and the 40 inch snowfall was double that received in ’88. The same characteristics of both storms-was the fineness of the snow and the quickness with which it struck. The snow was a fine as flour and suffocated many animals and choked many people or made breathing difficult. The fine snow packed more tightly in ’49. The blizzard struck about 1 p.m. so many people were caught unaware when they ventured out in the pleasant morning weather. In ’88 the farm houses were further apart and the roads were not cleared, so getting to safety was more difficult. Storing of food for the winter made things a lot easier in case of bad weather in ’49. Earlier pioneer houses were more flimsy and offered poorer shelter.”

The National Weather Service in North Platte ( )  describes the record storm this way:

January 2, 2015 will mark the 66th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1949 – a storm that today still reminds Nebraskans to be prepared before the winter storm strikes. The historic blizzard hit from January 2nd to the 4th, and was the first winter storm of the year to dump over two feet of snow for some locales. Blizzard impacts were found across four states and in Nebraska. The blizzard caused thousands of head of livestock lost, and the ones which survived some had to be shoveled out. The storm closed roadways and rails, which included Union Pacific Railroad’s main line that was closed for seven weeks.

Winter storms are considered the deceptive killers. Blizzards produce strong winds that can reach 35 miles per hour or higher. The Blizzard of 1949 produced winds of 50 to 60 mph that created snow drifts over 35 feet. In Brule Nebraska, snow drifts reached an estimated 20 feet at one farmstead. At the Happy Jacks Convenience Store in Brule, the old timers still remember the storm well. “Anytime a big winter storm is brewing, folks will call for home heating fuel, quickly adding that it could be as bad as the ’49 storm” said Wade Hill, an employee at Happy Jacks. In North Platte, the Weather Service recorded a three day storm snow total of 16.5 inches in town and 15.4 inches at Lee Bird Field.

The Blizzard of 1949 still remains one of the worst blizzards on record in Nebraska. Through joint efforts in humanitarian missions, lives and livestock were saved through “Operation Haylift” and “Operation Snowbound”.  For many areas, it took planes to deliver critical supplies to remote towns.

By the time the storm was over, Ellsworth, NE had reported 25” of snow, Crescent Lake 23”, Ogallala 18”, Gordon 16”, North Platte 15.4”, Ainsworth 15”, Merriman 14”, O’Neill 11”, and Broken Bow 10”.

The January 2-5, 1949 blizzard hit Western Nebraska especially hard.  Doug Wilson, who now lives in Lincoln, recalled that winter out west:

“I remember it well—what school kid could forget a Christmas vacation that was extended a week beyond the normal one of 2 weeks. My brothers and I had all the scooping we could wish for during that time. They were older and got a job with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad clearing snow from the Chadron rail yards—lots of buildings beside the passenger depot. I worked the local residential neighborhood from morning to night—long days, but lots of money for a young kid. From that blizzard on, I had 5 near neighbors that gave me standing orders to clear their walks and drives whenever it snowed—something I did until 1956 when I moved from that neighborhood into the college dorm.

“A friend and I walked to the RR yards one day when a train crew was clearing the main track through town. Because of the snow depth and the way in which it had drifted, we walked up a long sloping drift that allowed us to stand atop a 12-15’ tall storage shed beside the tracks. From there we watched the crew with their V-plow (followed by several hopper cars of crushed rock for weight and then a large steam locomotive) try to penetrate the enormous drifts. They would back the train up to a spot about 2-3 miles east of town and make a run for it—kind of like we did once in a while with a car trying to get through some snow or mud. Their progress was slow, but they finally accomplished their goal—and we got a good showering of snow a few times when the train passed our vantage point atop the shed.  I later worked on a couple area ranches and those folks had great stories to tell about their ordeal of losing cattle and having hay dropped to aid the survivors. One of the ranchers in South Dakota (30 miles north of Chadron) didn’t get to town for 3 weeks—and that was to Oelrichs by tractor.

“My wife grew up in Holt County and was snowed away from home for a week. She and her brother stayed in Emmet with a friend until their dad picked them up and took them home with his track tractor while pulling a sled loaded with fuel barrels and groceries.”

Chadron 1949

Photo:  Chadron, Nebraska was buried under 41 inches of snow on January 4, 1949.  (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications [NET] )

More snows followed in late January, and the situation became so dire for ranchers and livestock in Western Nebraska that the National Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were called in to open roads with bulldozers (Operation Snowbound), provide aid, and drop hay to stranded cattle (Operation Haylift). Milder weather in February allowed everyone to dig out and catch their breath, but another blizzard on March 30-31 (up to 20 inches of snow and 60 mph winds) reminded everyone that winters can last long in the Cornhusker State.  Wessels Living History Farm in York, NE provides a summary of the relief efforts ( ):

Operation Snowbound was an effort by many groups, including the Fifth Army, the Red Cross, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Air Force, the National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol. In Nebraska, Operation Snowbound:

  • covered 193,193 square miles in four states
  • saved more than 4 million cattle from starvation
  • freed more than 243,000 snowbound people
  • cleared more than 115,0000 miles of road
  • used 1,600 pieces of heavy equipment
  • coordinated a 6,000-man workforce.


If you are up for some fascinating reading on these long winter nights, I recommend Harl A. Dalstrom’s “I’m Never Going to Be Snowbound Again – The Winter of 1948-1949 in Nebraska.”  Nebraska History 82 (2002): 110-166.   Dalstrom provides a comprehensive account of the impact of that winter, filled with individual stories of survival and details of the relief efforts.

So… was it the worst winter ever?  I remember a lot of long, snowy, cold winters in the 1950s and 1960s.  Blocked country roads and snow drifts you could tunnel into, walking onto the roofs of buildings on snow drifts, Highways 91 and 32 closed for days.  None of those winters was as bad this. But the Clarkson area may have experienced an even worse winter than 1948-49 within the living memories of a few of us – the Winter of 1936.  More on that next time.

Posted in 1940s | 10 Comments

Clarkson and the Great War: Part 2 – Our Village Joins the Fight

For the first 2 ½ years of World War I the United States was able to stay out of it.  The slaughter on the battlefields, month after month, was unlike anything that had ever been seen.  The losses of young men were unbelievable.  In a single day during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, the British lost 20,000 men killed and 40,000 wounded; when this one battle was over there were over 1 million casualties on both sides, and the trench lines had hardly moved.

Most Americans viewed it as just another endless European war in which monarchs and colonial empires settled their differences by conscripting their people into armies to fight it out.  Just the kind of thing many of our ancestors emigrated to America to get away from.   The American public in general wanted nothing to do with the Great War – President Wilson was re-elected in 1916 with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”

A good illustration of the attitude of most Americans toward the disaster occurring in Europe during 1914-1916 can be seen from a picture in the Clarkson Museum’s “war room.”

Clarkson Museum_20140602_002

It depicts the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) as a many-headed Hydra and two-headed eagle battling animals symbolizing the other nations at war (the Allied Powers – Britain, France, etc.).  The dates on the bottom of the page count year after year of this terrible war, ending… when?  I suppose that the picture leans toward the Allied cause by depicting Germany as a black, snake-headed creature, but it’s a bit hard to tell – the message seems to be “Stay Out!”

In any event, it didn’t work.  By 1918, only the countries in gray in the map below had managed to avoid getting embroiled in the Great War:


Staying out of the fighting was probably a very popular sentiment in the Clarkson area as well.  Most of the locals were first- or second-generation immigrants from Germany or Bohemia/Moravia.  The Germans felt an attachment to their native land; they still spoke the language, ate their traditional foods, and were proud of their culture.  It’s only natural that they would be unwilling to go to war against their homeland, and they didn’t relish the thought of taking up arms to kill their friends and relatives back home.  Among other reasons, many Bohemians had immigrated to America in the late 1800s to avoid being conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army to fight for a cause and an Empire which they hated.  If the United States entered the war, they might be drafted and sent back to Europe to die, perhaps fighting against their fellow Bohemians in the Austrian army.  On the other hand, if the Austro-Hungarian Empire was beaten and dismantled, the Czech-Americans could help their friends back home achieve the freedom and independence for which they had dreamed for 300 years.  These are the kinds of impulses that young men had to balance as U.S. involvement in the Great War was discussed.

But eventually the U.S. was pushed too far by Germany’s provocations.  In an effort to starve Great Britain, Germany commenced unrestricted U-Boat (submarine) warfare on all shipping toward England, and the toll of American lives lost from sunken freighters and passenger liners began to add up.  A secret message from Germany to the Mexican government (the Zimmerman telegram) was intercepted which offered to Mexico large areas of the American Southwest (Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico) if they would ally themselves with Germany in a war against the U.S.  Abandoning neutrality, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Once the U.S. declared war on the Germany, Clarkson jumped in with both feet.    Less than a month later, 15 young men from Clarkson had volunteered for military service, and over the course of the war some 81 young men volunteered or were drafted, of whom 6 lost their lives.

Clarkson Museum_20140602_046

On May 3, 1917 the Colfax County Press reported:

“Fifteen Clarkson youths volunteered for the Army, responding to President Wilson’s call for volunteers and pledged to fight for the flag which stands for honor and for the rights of mankind. The volunteers are: Richard Karel, Anton Luxa, Alois Hanel, Jos. Makovsky, Edward Vitek, Frank Polacek, Cyril Chrastil, Frank Zelenda, George Homola, Albin Vraspir, Emil Lukl, Anton J. Svoboda, Bohumil Bukacek and Wm. Rosmarin. Lad Kubil of Clarkson who is attending the University in Lincoln, has also enlisted in the army and will leave for Fort Snelling, Minn. next week. The citizens of Clarkson, to show their appreciation and loyalty paid the boys transportation to Omaha besides giving each a gold five-dollar piece as a souvenir from home. Escorting the volunteers to Omaha was Jos. R. Vitek.”

A crowd gathered at the Opera House to celebrate their patriotism, on what must have been a chilly day (the men have removed their hats of course, but many of the women are wearing knit caps or shawls).  It was a solemn moment, and the men have serious, almost melancholy looks on their faces.  No one in the room knew what awaited them.

Clarkson Museum_20140602_048

Happily, all 15 of these initial volunteers survived the war and returned home.  Although one of them, Frank Zelenda, died young due to war-related causes, most passed away in the 1960s after a long life.  Here are the stories and service records of some of them:

Bohumil Bukacek

Bohumil Bukacek – May 18, 1893 – May 5, 1964.  His grave in the Bohemian Cemetery in Omaha displays the code “SGT CAS DET 1035 DEMOB GP WWI” (He was a Sergeant in a Casualty Detachment of the 1035th Demobilization Group, whose task was to return soldiers to civilian life after they had been wounded or once hostilities were over).

Cyril Chrastek – Believed to have died on June 7, 1963 at age 65


Louis Hanel


R Karel


Emil Lukl – January 7, 1886 – March 18, 1969 in Klamath Falls, OR.  His grave says “ENG1 US NAVY WWI” (Engineman First Class in the U.S. Navy).

Anton Luxa – May 14, 1896 – August 4, 1966.  Sgt. US Army.  Buried in San Antonio, TX

Joe Makousky

Joseph B. Makovsky – From the June 26, 1924 Leigh World – Jos. B. Makousky, adjutant of the Clarkson post of the American Legion, is in receipt of a supply of blanks for soldiers’ bonus and every ex-soldier of this community is requested to call on Mr. Makousky for same. Anyone desiring to have the blank filled out by the officer is asked to bring his discharge papers when making the application.


Frank Polacek

Frank Polacek – May 20, 1888 – July 4, 1960

William Rozmarin

William Rozmarin – August 17, 1896 – February 1979 (?)

Anton J. Swoboda – Bat. A 30, Coast Artillery


Edward Vitek

Edward VitekFrom the September 26, 1947 issue of the Leigh World

Funeral services were held for Edward Vitek, 50, at Clarkson whose remains were sent there from Chicago for burial.

Services were conducted at the New Zion Presbyterian Church by Rev. Rundon of Wahoo, in the absence of Rev. Filipi, who had an out of town mission. Pallbearers were members of the American Legion Post.

Edward Vitek was born in Clarkson, September 10, 1897. He was the son of the late Joseph and Anna Vitek. He grew to manhood in Clarkson and attended the public school there. In May 1917 he volunteered in the U.S. Army and served 19 months on the Hawaiian Island during World War I.

He was united in marriage to Miss Ida Krofta on June 18, 1925. They established their home in Creston where Mr. Vitek operated a meat market for several years, later moving to Chicago. He has been in failing health for the past few years and passed away September 19, 1947, at Hines Veterans Hospital in Maywood, Illinois.

He is survived by his wife, Ida; two sons, Kenneth and Larry; a sister, Mrs. Rudolph Novotny, Clarkson; three brothers, Joseph R. and Adolph E. of Clarkson and Frank J., of Buhl, Idaho.

Albin Vraspir – 1890-1954 WWI  Co. 202, C. A. C. T. (Coastal Artillery Corps)

Frank Zelenda –  Private, Coastal Artillery Corps.  Died Febuary 27, 1931.

From the August 16, 1917 Colfax County Press – Frank Zelenda, who left with the first Clarkson volunteer boys last May, wrote to his sister, Mrs. Anton Makovsky, that he arrived safely in the Philippine Islands and is nearly nine thousand miles from home

From the April 3, 1924 Colfax County Press –  Frank Zelenda spent the weekend in Schuyler at the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Roether. Mr. Zelenda returned last week from the May sanitarium where he was accompanied by Mr. Roether for an examination covering a peculiar condition that comes over him periodically.
Mr. Zelenda was one of the last Colfax county boys in the service to reach home, having been stationed in the Philippine Islands. Soon after his return he suffered a partial loss of his sight, the spell lasting for several weeks.
Another attack came upon him and several weeks later he was attacked for the third time. It was then that he decided to go to the Mayos for an examination. The case had progressed to such a point that it was waning, and the specialists advised that he return with the beginning of the next attack so he can be under observation.
Mr. Zelenda sees all objects in doubles. He is compelled to wear glasses with one eye darkened. In addition to this irregular vision, he feels dizzy, during these attacks.

From March 5, 1931 Colfax County Press – After suffering for a period of several years, Frank Zelenda, an ex-service man and a former Clarkson boy, made his supreme sacrifice at the Veterans Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had been a patient for a long time. Word of his demise reached Clarkson relatives. He died at the age of 39 years, 8 months and 8 days.

The deceased was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on the 19th day of June, 1891, and when a small boy he came to this community with his parents. The family located on a farm in Stanton County and after losing both of his parents, Frank came to Clarkson and made his home here for many years.

Shortly after America declared war on Germany, Frank joined a group of Clarkson volunteers and entred Uncle Sam’s fighting forces. He left Clarkson on May 3, 1917, with the first contingent of volunteers and remained in service for almost three years.

He returned to Clarkson in the fall of 1919, after having served in the Philipine and Hawaiian Islands. His health had been greatly impaired and he was unable to find relief for his illness.

In 1925, he was admitted to a Veterans hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, where death ended his suffering.

The remains were brought to Clarkson and interment was made in the local cemetery. The rites were conducted from the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Zelenda, with services at the New Zion Church conducted by Rev. Filipi.

The deceased is survived by three brothers, Joseph Zelenda of Schuyler, Edward and Leo Zelenda of Clarkson; two sisters, Mrs. Anton Makovsky of Buhl, Idaho, and Mrs. W.H. Roether of Schuyler.


The names of those who served from the Clarkson area and survived the War were recorded in the November 3, 1921 issue of the Colfax County Press:

Jos. M. Makovsky, secretary of the Clarkson American Legion, Vitek Post, is in receipt of honorary certificates from the State Executive Department for all ex-servicemen who gave Clarkson as their home address while serving in the Army during the recent conflict.

All ex-servicemen included in the below published list are requested to apply for them at the Armistice day services at Clarkson Nov. 11, at which time the memorable documents will be officially handed out to them.

The Honor Roll referred to above contains the following names:
Albert O’Brien, Joseph B. Makovsky, Alois F. Tomes, Jos. F. Seda, Adolf W. Tomes, Frank Kozisek, Lester Scovill, Robert H. Noh, Frank Zelenda, Oscar W. Hahn, Emil Lukl, Henry M. Menke, William Severa, Frank Bourek, Frank R. Vanicek, George Humlicek, Paul J. Havel, Charles J. Vanicek, Charles J. Novotny, William A. Karel, Jos. Hejtmanek, John E. Knapp, Fred Teply, Anton J. Podany, Jerry Mundil, Edward Cada, Adolf A. Jonas, Adolf J. Faimon, Frank A. Podany, Jerry J. Lukl, William Budin, Emil J. Novotny, Richard Karel, Stanley Kubik, Frank J. Janousek, Frank Hamernik, Emil Hladky, Jos. Lapour, John C. Mastny, Jos. Kudera, Louis V. Hanel, Jerry M. Molacek, Jos. E. Stanek, John G. Fuhr, George Homola, William E. Podany, Henry Janda, James Zoubek, James Podany, Ludvik Novotny, Edward E. Hanel, Emil Ahrens, Bohumil Krofta, Anton J. Swoboda, Ladislav Horak, Frank Polacek, Emil J. Konicek, Jerry Kadlec, Jay E. Arnold, Louis E. Warner, Leonard F. Noh, Henry J. Dworak, Cyril Chrastek, Charles Lukl, Charles H. Glasner, Albin Vraspir, George A. Reiter, J.W. Knipping, Percy Butterfield, William Rozmarin, Jos. Mundil, Jr., Edward Vitek, Charles Gross, Albert Walla, G.B. Fayman.

Portraits of some of these young servicemen are below:

Adolph Tomes

Albert O'Brien


Albert Walla Alois Totusek


Ben Jonas Charles Lukl


Charles Novotny Charley Gross

Frank Janousek Frank Kozisek Frank Podany Gustav Fayman Henry Janda Jerry Lukl Joe Brdicko John Poledna Joseph Mundil Joseph Prchal Joseph Vodehnal


Stephen Podany

 Karel and NohWilliam A. Karel (trombone) and Leonard F. Noh (saxophone)

Wm Karel

L F Noh


These 75 names do not include the 6 Clarkson men who gave their lives in the Great War.  More about them in a future post.


Posted in 1910s | 3 Comments

Activity Spotted Downtown

We haven’t had a pop quiz for a while.  For 5 points, what is going on on the south side of Pine Street?

Okay, time’s up.  Put down your pencil, turn your test paper over, and pass it to the right, where a Teacher’s Pet will collect all the papers and take them to the front of the room.

The correct answer is these are stages in the construction of the new Post Office building on the south end of the main drag through town.  See more pictures below.

My beautiful picture

My beautiful picture

My beautiful pictureMy beautiful pictureThe new building was sandwiched in between the telephone building (red brick structure on the right/south side) and the soon-to-be-demolished Clarkson Hatchery and Farm Supply to the left/north.

Most of us will remember that that cozy Hatchery/Farm Supply business was owned by Rudy Rosicky.  Rudy got into the feed and produce business in September of 1925, and in 1934 he added a hatchery.  Owing to failing health, in September 1958 Rudy sold the business to one of his employees, Milo Faiman.  However, once relieved of the pressures of commerce, Rudy Rosicky recovered his health and bought back the business in December, 1959.  Rudy died in 1980, but at some point he must have transferred the business back to Milo Faiman and Milo’s brother-in-law, Hubert Selhorst.

To construct the Post Office building, the lean-to on the south side of the Hatchery/Farm Supply building had to be removed.  And at some point the rest of the building must have been demolished as well. I can’t tell from the pictures whether that happened immediately. Perhaps someone remembers the sequence of events.

We have several winners!  John Waters hit the buzzer first, followed quickly by Mark Molacek, who reminded me about the Milo Faiman/Hubert Selhorst connection.  (Mark’s dad Milo probably did business with these guys, and I suspect that Mark could share plenty of stories).  Robert Prazak and Ken and Betty Kudrna also guessed correctly. Congratulations to those you with good, long memories!

And many thanks to Sharon and Larry Steinberger, who shared the photos from the collection of her father, Morris Odvarka.  Morris Odvarka was Clarkson’s postmaster from October 1954 until his retirement in October 1977.

Keep those cards and letters coming!

Posted in 1970s | 5 Comments

Our Forefathers were Thespians

After last week’s grim discussion of slaughter and butchery, I thought it would be a good idea to post a story in a lighter “vein,” so to speak.  Rummaging around in The Vault, I found a clipping reprinted from the Colfax County Press issue of April 14, 1965.  It lists the cast members of a comedy performed in the Opera House by local men, many of them members of the Lions Club or Commercial Club, to provide some home grown entertainment and to raise money for local projects.

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 1

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 2

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 3

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 4


Richard Neuhaus found a publicity photo for the “Bad Day at Owl Hoot Gulch” production.  It depicts a holdup in front of the Lone Star Bar.  From left to right, the actors were Carl Waters, Elden J Manak, and Harold Neuhaus.

Waters Manak Neuhaus 1965

There were at least 4 of these plays performed for the amusement of theatergoers.  One production, on November 12, 1954 was set in the Alaska gold fields.  The businessmen purchased the script and may have also had some help staging and directing the play from a professional fund-raising company.  Later, in the 1960s, three more plays were staged, all written and directed by the endlessly creative Clarkson High School English and drama teacher, Gary Weibye.  The first, described in the Press story above, dealt with shenanigans in the Old West.  The next Weibye play, “A Bad Day in Sherwood Forest,” was a parody of the Robin Hood legend and featured Dick Urbanek in his breakout role as Maid Marian. The third (and last?) was written up in the Columbus Daily Telegram of April 6, 1967:

 Clarkson Lions to present play

“Big Noise in Moonshine Hollow” or “At the Still in the Night” will be presented by the Clarkson Lions Club on the Clarkson Opera House stage April 9 and 10, beginning at 8 p.m.  The author, Gary Weibye of the high school faculty, claims that the show is a melodrama of sorts “something of a social- economic political lampoon aimed at all ages and all creeds.”  Art Nosal is narrator of the spectacular.  Buster Miller, as stage manager, has been scouring the area for barrels, jugs, corn cob pipes, a black sedan for a rub-out scene and hundreds of rounds of ammunition along with the weapons to fire therein. “The roaring twenties was a noisy time to be around,” he stated. The cast of local men consider themselves as semi-professionals as they have appeared in “Bad Day at Owl Hoot Gulch” in 1965 and “Bad Day at Sherwood Forest” in 1966, both written and directed by Weibye, English and dramatics teacher at Clarkson high school. The proceeds go for local projects.

The common elements to all these comedies were low humor, outrageous puns, double entendre, and men in drag.  As near as I can tell, the most important criteria for landing a role as a woman in these all-male plays (outside of a good-natured sense of humor) were to be burly, swarthy, and/or hairy. The “drag queens” hammed it up with relish, and were wildly popular.  Sashaying around the stage, their antics could be counted on to draw the biggest guffaws, catcalls, and wolf whistles from the audience.

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of the actual performances of the Weibye plays of the 1960s, but a few snapshots from the first production on November 12, 1954 have survived.

Minstrel Show 2 11-12-54Minstrel Show 11-12-54

Standing:  John Tomasek, unidentified, Alan Roether (as Bull Moose), Bob Odvarka, Lumir “Vrby” Vrbicky, and Joe Lauda

Seated:  Dan Teply, Marcel Brabec (as Klondike Kate), Frank Toman, Joe Toman, and Vince Prazak

How many of you were in the audience for these plays?  They were a laff riot, no?  I don’t suppose that anyone filmed these hilarious shows from the 1950s and 1960s, but I wonder if more photographs, or better yet, the scripts for these plays survive.  Wouldn’t it be fun to stage one of these comedies again in the newly restored Clarkson Opera House?  Look through your attic and let me know what you find.


Posted in 1950s, 1960s | 2 Comments

The Only Thing We Threw Away was the Squeal

Earlier this year we visited the National Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  One of their temporary exhibits was a collection of fascinating black and white photographs taken by Igor Grossman, a pharmacist who lived in a rural Slovak village in the 1950s and 1960s.  To quote from the museum’s description of the exhibit, Grossman “… realized that the life ways and customs he experienced were part of an old world that was rapidly being replaced with a modern, communist one. He took up his camera to document those customs before they were gone. Grossman’s photographs capture the landscapes, people, and traditions of Slovak mountain villages, portraying the moment of transition between the old world and the new. As written in the introduction to Grossman’s book, Images Gone With Time, Grossman’s photographs are the land of our memories of home. They are a record of our existence, a guarantee of our survival.”

There were many priceless, timeless photographs in the exhibit, but the one that stopped me in my tracks was a picture of a grinning man hoisting a shot glass (kalíšek) of some liquid (slivovice?).  He was apparently toasting the successful dispatching of a hog, and would soon begin the considerable effort of butchering it.

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_13a

Although we all go to grocery stores or butcher shops to get our pork chops these days, there are a few of us who can still remember the time when farmers butchered their own hogs, using their own or borrowed tools.  In the late fall or early winter, when temperatures were suitably cool and the hogs had gotten suitably fat, a candidate for slaughter was selected from the hog pen.  The animal would be killed, cleaned, and butchered in a laborious, day-long process.  Sometimes this would be done by a single family, but because it was a relatively specialized, once-a-year activity, often several neighbors or families might come together in a group effort, sharing the tools and the physical labor.

There are a lot of body parts to a pig, and the Czechs, being a frugal race, have managed to find a use for most of them.  Many years ago, my father-in-law and I were discussing the details of hog butchering and all the consumer products that could be made from them, and he capped the conversation with the remark – “The only part of a pig that we threw away was the squeal.”

That statement is worth examining, because it is nearly true.  I can remember only the last time that my parents butchered a hog at our farm, when I was still a small child.  After that, they let the town butcher take care of business.  So the details are sketchy in my mind (my memories have been verified by my older brothers).  But it went something like this (those of you who are squeamish may want to skip this part, and, in fact, the rest of the story):

Step 1.  Dad chased us away and we waited in the house or behind a nearby shed while he killed the hog, probably with a hammer blow to the head.

Step 2.  A chain was attached to the hog, perhaps through the back legs, and by means of a pulley the heavy carcass was lifted upside down over a large wooden trough (see the photograph above).

Step 3.  A vein in the hog’s neck was opened with a knife and the blood was drained into a stainless steel or porcelain dish pan for later use.

Step 4.  The hog was lowered into the trough and immersed in scalding hot water.  After a few moments, Dad began to scrape the hog’s skin in order to remove all the hair from the carcass.  Brother Larry says that there was a specialized tool to do the scraping/hair removal; it was a wooden handle with a circular metal disk on both ends, one maybe 4” in diameter on one end and 2” on the other.

Step 5.  The hog was elevated again, rinsed off, and a long cut was made in the abdomen to remove the internal organs.  This is the point at which the dogs and cats became interested.

Step 6.  By means of very sharp knives and bone saws, the hog was dismembered into its constituent parts and sent to the house, piece by piece, for further processing and packaging.

The painting below by the renowned Czech artist Josef Lada illustrates much of the process.  In the Czech Republic, pig slaughtering was a special event, accompanied in some cases by ceremonies, gift-giving, and other festivities.

Lada pig slaughter

Truth be told, I didn’t witness any of Steps 1-5 except from a safe distance, but I think the sequence of the general events is correct.  Once the pork was brought inside the house, there was more activity with sharp knives, saws, and hot liquids.  The larger pieces of meat were turned into pork roasts, pork chops, etc. and were packaged in waxed paper and frozen.  The smaller pieces of meat (scraps) were ground up and cooked along with some spices and pieces of cartilage from the ears and made into the quintessential Czech sausage – jitrnice.


I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how to make jitrnice – you all have your favorite recipe.  But in the Old Country at least, this sausage is a delectable blend of cooked meat from the head, wattles, and hips, boiled lung, spleen, and stomach, raw liver, cooked liver, white bread, onions, and spices (black pepper, allspice, garlic, ginger, marjoram, and salt).  If you want to make some yourself, you can find the correct proportions here:

It begins with cooking the hog’s head…

If you can’t be troubled to retrieve all the body parts called for in the Old Country recipe above, the book Favorite Czech Recipes For Today’s Kitchens (blue-covered edition) compiled by the Clarkson Woman’s Club has a good recipe that limits the “variety meats” to pork tongue, heart, liver, hocks, and head.

After the meat and spice mixture was put together, it was stuffed into casings (the polite word for thoroughly washed small intestines).  I couldn’t find a picture that looked exactly like the sausage stuffer that we used, but it looked something like this:

Sausage Stuffer

The sausage mixture was put into the cannister, the gear mechanism/plunger was affixed to the top, and great lengths of wet hog casings were slid over the tube at the bottom of the cannister (white plastic in this picture, thin aluminum in ours).  The operator slowly cranked the handle which moved the plunger downwards and squeezed the sausage mixture out of the tube and into the casings.  Voila!

Next comes sausage made from the reserved pig blood – jelita.


Actually, this was one of the first items of business when butchering a hog, because you had to keep stirring the warm blood to keep it from clotting.  Then the blood was mixed with a variety of ingredients similar to those for jitrnice and stuffed into casings.  Every family/butcher had their own recipe, but most of them included barley. A good mixture was about 1 pound of barley for each quart of blood.  Again, my brother Larry confirms that the pig’s blood was brought into the house ASAP but our parents never stuffed jelita into casings.  They would put it into a pan, like a big cake pan, add barley and spices, then kept stirring it.  It ended up looking like a very dark chocolate cake that our dad would cut and eat like a brownie. (As odd as this may sound, blood sausages and blood puddings are common all over the world.  Take a look at the black sausages at breakfast buffets in the British Isles, for example).

Moving down the line, we come to one of my personal favorites – sulc.  Sulc (aka sulz, head cheese, or souse) is a gelatinous treat made from pigs feet, and often pig snouts and skin as well.  The feet are cooked with salt, pepper, bay leaf, carrots and onion.  The bones are removed, a bit of vinegar is added, and, when refrigerated, the mixture congeals into a meat gelatin.


Others prefer to use the feet to make marinované vepřově nožičky (pickled pigs feet).

Hungry yet?  At some point, late in the proceedings, the large chunks of lard that had been cut away from the meat were put into a huge pot and slowly melted down (rendered) on the stove.  The skin and connective tissue that remained in the molten fat were fished out with a strainer, drained, run through the sausage stuffer to press more lard out, crumbled up, and eaten warm with fresh bread – škvarky.  Škvarky (similar to what is known in other cultures as cracklings, pork rinds, or chicharrones) are crispy, greasy, and delicious – the ultimate guilty pleasure food.  For the uninitiated, they MUST be eaten warm in order to prevent the cold lard from sticking to the roof of your mouth.  Some insist that the bread must be rye bread, with a sprinkling of caraway seeds, but I am not so particular.  I only remember eating cracklings fresh, late in the day of butchering.  The excess pressed-out cracklings were thrown into the trees for the dogs and cats to eat.

CracklingsCracklings 2







The molten hog lard was then poured into jars for use in cooking (how can a pie or any flavorful bread or pastry be made without lard?).  Usually there was more lard than a family could consume, so the rest was used to make homemade soap.  The recipe from homemade soap is simplicity itself – into the hot, liquid lard an appropriate quantity of lye (sodium hydroxide) crystals was stirred.  The lye saponified the fat, turning it into hot, liquid soap.  Then Mom or Dad would pour the liquid soap into a cardboard box, to a depth of 3 inches or so.  The soap would cool and solidify into a solid white sheet that could easily be cut into soap bars with a knife.  This was harsh, strong stuff – in our house, it was used in conjunction with a washboard to get the most stubborn dirt from work clothes – overalls and socks.  Again, we were kept a safe distance away during the rendering and soap-making so that we would not be burned by the hot, caustic liquid.

Let’s see – have we accounted for all the body parts?  Liver, ears, feet, snout, spleen, small intestines…  Oh yes, the brain.  In those days, as now, brains were scrambled.  With eggs and, for the gourmet, with mushrooms.  Don’t ask me how it tastes.  But the Clarkson Woman’s Club Favorite Czech Recipes book has an easy Scrambled Eggs with Brains recipe for the busy modern housewife.  In fact, the cookbook has recipes for all the food items mentioned in this story.

So let us pay homage to the humble swine.  Maligned in the Bible (read the story of the Prodigal Son), this versatile species turns garbage and corn husks into delicious protein with a multitude of uses.  Ask your friends – what other animal provides us with škvarky, jitrnice, jelita, and sulc?  With fat to make both delicate pastries and soap for scrubbing the dirtiest overalls?  A noble animal that provides not only the sausage meat, but also the casing to put it in.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | 3 Comments