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.
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.”
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.
Photo: Chicago and Northwestern tracks near Harrison, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications [NET] http://www.netnebraska.org/node/801376 )
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 (http://www.crh.noaa.gov/lbf/?n=blizzard49 ) 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.”
Photo: Chadron, Nebraska was buried under 41 inches of snow on January 4, 1949. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications [NET] http://www.netnebraska.org/node/801376 )
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 (http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/life_30.html ):
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. http://www.nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/2002-Snowbound.pdf 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.