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:
The March 1, 1965 snowstorm that was timed perfectly (in my view, anyway) to strand lots of farm kids in town for a night:
The 1919 Blizzard that blocked the railroad tracks east of town:
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 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 29 – Partly cloudy and colder. Sure am surprised at snow banks on our yard.
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.