The Children’s Blizzard, by David Laskin
(p.51) Chapter Two: Trials
God inflicted ten plagues on the Egyptians to punish them for refusing to free the Israelites, but with the settlers of the North American prairie, He limited himself to three: fire, grasshoppers, and weather. The stories that the pioneers made of their lives were essentially about how they coped with the hardships these plagues left behind.
A prairie fire swept through the Schweizer settlement just days after the families settled in Dakota. They stood on the treeless land and watched the flames travel with unbelievable speed over the dry autumn grass. Clouds of smoke blotted out the sun. The heat was unbearable. The Kaufmanns and their neighbors in Rosefield Township escaped, but others lost everything, the trunks they had hauled from the Ukraine, the lumber they had purchased in Yankton, the sod houses they had sweated to build.
One pioneer boy remembered the prairie fires of his childhood as “a strange glare against the window” that would haunt his sleep on summer nights. (p.52) “Upon looking out, I saw a great wave of fire, a moving wall of flame, pass by our house and going on to the south.” When the fires passed, the boy wrote, the prairie was a black expanse “dotted with ashpiles, which in many cases, as though they were tombstones, marked the graves of all the settlers’ material possessions.”
Fire destroyed utterly, and sometimes killed. But if anything, the settlers hated the swarms of grasshoppers, the now extinct Rocky Mountain locust species Melanoplus spretus, even more than fire, because the insects were alive and conscious and seemingly perverse in their intentions. All summer long the crops would grow beautifully, filling the farmers’ hearts with hope, and then on a sultry windy afternoon, a mass of locusts would descend from the sky, and in hours, they would strip the fields bare.
“Tragic, abominable injustice,” Hamlin Garland railed when grasshoppers cleaned out his parents in the early 1880s. A single swarm, according to early settlers, could be a mile high and a hundred miles across, one hundred billion bugs moving east at the rate of five miles an hour, like an immense atmospheric stain. The air became so thick with insects that “the light took on a gray flickering look,” according to one pioneer.
“They drifted over in such clouds as to blacken the whole heavens,” another prairie settler wrote of the locusts that descended again and again in the 1870s, “and with such a buzzing, roaring noise that it could be heard a long time before they came over us. When they settled down, the corn and vegetables would be so completely covered, as to be black with them, one over another.”
“The corn was their first choice. When they had stripped it of every particle of foliage, which they would in a night, they would stick so thick on the stumps of stalks that there would be no room to stick the point of a finger. As we walked along, they would rise from the ground in such clouds and swarms that we had to fight our way through them. It was a time when nobody needed to be admonished to keep his mouth shut.”
This is exactly what the Schweizers experienced during their first (p.53) two summers in Dakota. Some potatoes and a few bushels of wheat were all Johann Kaufmann was able to salvage in the summer of 1875, and the next summer was worse. The insects waited until August of 1876, just weeks away from the grain harvest, and then descended on the fields in ravenous clouds.
The day after the swarm landed, the wind shifted to the south and blew without cease for the next two weeks, effectively pinning the grasshoppers in place. By the time the cursed insects left, the crop was utterly destroyed. The loss of the second crop was devastating to the struggling families. Many considered returning to the Ukraine, but they knew it was impossible. “They had burned their bridges behind them,” one of their children wrote, “and were now destined to live or die on the frontier.”
The Rollags endured the same devastation on their homesteads in southwestern Minnesota. “One day we thought it was raining,” recalled Gro, “but instead of drops of water rattling on the roof boards, it was grasshoppers. We looked at our little garden and potato patch and it wasn’t long before everything was taken slick and clean all around us. We had 60 acres of wheat sowed, but we only harvested 13 bushels more than we seeded.”
Gro’s brother Osten told his grandchildren that after devouring “every green living thing in their path,” the hoppers would attempt to gnaw the wooden handles of the farm tools. Others watched helplessly as they went after fences, curtains, furniture, clothing. After losing all their crop in the plague years of the mid-1870s, the Rollag men were forced to get jobs laying track for the Great Northern Railroad, in order to earn enough money to feed their families.
They hated taking orders from gang bosses, they hated being taunted by Irish workers for their Norwegian accents, they hated being away from their families and fields. Like the Schweizers, they thought about leaving, but they were too poor to move. Weather, the third of the prairie plagues, was in fact the root cause of all the other miseries. Fire, grasshoppers, bad harvests, disease, (p.54) the deaths of children, whatever went wrong in their lives, ultimately came from bad weather.
None of them, even the families who had relocated from other parts of the country, were accustomed to the pace and the scale of prairie weather. The ceaseless wind, the epic lightning storms, the abrupt irrevocable droughts. The sky was so immense, the atmosphere so volatile, that it only heightened the monotonous absences of the earth: absence of trees, landmarks, features, variety.
But when a blizzard struck, the very absence was erased. “When the fierce winds swept the blinding snow over hill and valley, everything looked alike, and it was almost impossible to find your way,” Norwegian immigrant Lars Stavig said of his new home in Day County, Dakota Territory. “Many a brave pioneer who came out here with great hopes and plans for a long, prosperous and happy life, in his own home with his family, was cut down in the prime of life. This cruel, treacherous enemy, the blizzard, spared no one.”
A blizzard sent everything visible streaming sideways before their eyes; no sound could be heard but the rush of wind, and sometimes at the edge of the mind, a howl rising in the distance, then lost again in the blast. In a blizzard, the essential conditions of their lives, their solitude, their exposure, the distances between their houses, the featurelessness of the landscape, the difficulty of communication, turned against them.
Only a few steps away from shelter, death was waiting, though plenty of settlers died inside, too, when the cold was too much for the piles of coal, twisted hay, dried animal droppings, or bones that they burned for fuel. If limitless space was the ultimate blessing of the prairie, a blizzard was the ultimate curse. It was the disaster that epitomized all the others.
And so every pioneer narrative from the prairie includes a reckoning of the worst blizzards. Rarely do they embellish or blur the facts with emotion. The assumption is that the reader will know what it feels like. But still, there is the compulsion to set down the essentials, where they and family members were when the storm (p.55) hit, how they got home or why they didn’t, what they burned to stay alive, how long the storm lasted, when and where the victims were found. Survivors’ stories.
The first bad blizzard came on January 7, 1873, and blew without cease for three days. Tilla Dahl, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who had settled in Minnesota’s Blue Earth County, remembers that her mother was out visiting neighbors when the storm struck. Tilla’s father, Niels Dahl, concluded his wife was lost and decided he must go out in search of her.
Before he left, he filled the cookstove with wood, drew up three chairs a safe distance from the fire, and instructed his three daughters, Tilla, four, Caroline, six, and Nellie, eighteen months, to sit in the chairs, fold their hands in their laps, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer until he returned. Under no circumstances were they to leave the chairs. Astonishingly, the children obeyed, and Niels found them just where he had left them, when he returned safely with his frightened wife. Tilla wrote that at some point during the storm the temperature fell to 40 below zero.
Seventy people died in Minnesota during that January blizzard, some from families so poor that the bereaved could not attend the funerals because they didn’t have enough clothing to venture out. The Minnesota legislature appropriated five thousand dollars for relief of storm victims, but the funds were not even sufficient to pay the doctors who cared for the frostbite victims.
Another three-day blizzard arrived two months later, in early March, after a thaw had melted some of the snow and muddied the fields. The wind came so suddenly that it sucked up mud from the fields and spat it into the blowing snow. On the Henjum farm between Wells and Blue Earth, Minnesota, drifts quickly covered the stables and shacks where the family kept their animals, and the chickens froze to death.
When their fuel ran out, the Henjums stayed warm by cutting the tops off the saplings they had planted as a windbreak, and feeding the green sticks into their stove. But it (p.56) wasn’t all grim horror. Between the granary and the pigpen the wind spun a fantastic delicate white mountain. “The snow had whirled and piled up into a mountain 62 feet high, actual measurement,” recalled the Henjums’ daughter. “The mountain was a beautiful sight, reaching to a thin point at its uppermost peak.”
The next blizzard, which followed a few weeks later, in April, is still talked about in Yankton, South Dakota, because it came when George Armstrong Custer was quartered in town. Lieutenant Colonel Custer had been assigned to frontier duty in the Dakotas early in 1873, and he traveled west with a company of eight hundred officers and enlisted men from the Seventh Regiment of the United States Cavalry, along with his devoted wife, Elizabeth, and forty government laundresses.
Ill when the blizzard hit, Custer weathered the storm in the comparative comfort of a cabin attended by Elizabeth, while scores of his men wandered lost in the blast after their tents blew over. Winds at Yankton blew at an average velocity of 39 miles an hour for nearly a hundred hours, and for the entire twenty-four hours of April 15, the average wind speed exceeded 52 miles per hour.
Townspeople rallied round and eventually gathered in the missing soldiers and laundresses, including one who had a newborn baby. Custer later officially commended the good people of Yankton for saving “the lives of a great number belonging to this command, besides saving the government the value of public animals amounting to many thousands of dollars.” Three years later, he was dead at the fiasco of Little Bighorn.
General Adolphus W. Greely, who was head of the nation’s weather forecasting service from 1887 to 1891, wrote in his 1888 book American Weather that “shortly after this storm, the use of the word [blizzard] became tolerably frequent in the northwestern parts of the United States, to indicate such cold anti-cyclone storms as are attended by drifting snow.”
They called the winter of 1880-81 the Snow Winter, because the snowstorms started early and never let up. A three-day blizzard (p.57) took the settlers of the Upper Midwest by surprise on October 15, and after that, snowstorms came at regular intervals through the winter and into the spring. In some places, snow from that first October storm was still on the ground come May.
Mary Paulson King, a child of immigrant Norwegian parents in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, remembers opening the door on the morning of October 15 to a wall of snow that “just fell in the house.” Her father had to get up on a chair and make a hole in the snow in order to crawl out. After that, the blizzards broke in waves, “almost one continued blizzard,” according to a Dakota pioneer.
Children sledded from the peaks of their roofs all winter. Soddies and one-story shacks were entirely buried in snow, but even substantial two-story homes had snow up over their second-floor windows. No one was prepared for deep snow so early in the season, and farmers all over the region were caught with crops to harvest and fuel supplies low.
Like most, Johann and Anna Kaufmann had not yet milled their grain or dug out their potatoes, when the first blizzard of the Snow Winter arrived. At first they were sure that the snow would melt and there would be time to haul the grain to the mill before winter really set in; but as the weeks passed and new storms kept piling the snow higher, they realized they were trapped with no prospect of grinding the wheat harvest into flour for bread.
What made it harder was now there were three children to feed. At last, after losing the three babies, one in the Ukraine, one on the voyage to America, and the third during that first bitter year in Dakota, Anna and Johann had three healthy sons. Johann, their oldest, was nine, old enough to help his father with the animals, and maybe hold the plow come spring. Heinrich was three, and their baby, Elias, would turn one that coming May.
By Christmas, starvation loomed again, just as it had those first two winters. Anna heard that some families were boiling their un-milled wheat kernels into a kind of mush, but she knew she could not keep her children alive on that diet. Without flour, they would (p.58) never survive the winter.
Finally, when it was clear that the weather would not break, six Schweizer farmers decided to make the twenty-mile trip to the nearest mill together: Each farmer took a wagon loaded with grain sacks and a team of horses, and each team broke trail for half a mile or so until the animals were exhausted; then that team would drop to the rear and the next in line would break through the drifts for the next half mile. It was a long grueling trip, but the men returned with flour, and Anna was able to bake bread for her family.
The snow was so deep by January 1881, that train service was almost entirely suspended in the region. The railroads hired scores of men to dig out the tracks, but it was wasted effort. “As soon as they had finished shoveling a stretch of line,” wrote Osten Rollag, “a new snowstorm arrived, filling up the line and rendering their work useless.”
The blizzard of February 2, “a terrible storm with thunder and lightning and very soft snow,” according to Osten, halted rail traffic to Sioux Falls completely. The trains did not run again until June 15, four and a half months later. As the Snow Winter wore on, the suffering of isolated farm families became acute. Without train service, there was no food to be had in towns, and the deep drifts made it impossible to haul wagonloads across the prairie.
Families who had neglected to get their milling done before the October 15 storm were reduced to grinding wheat in coffee mills, a tedious procedure that required almost continuous grinding to supply enough flour for a family. Many ground the seed grain intended for spring planting and lived on that, or tried to.
Mary Paulson King recalled that her Norwegian parents became so desperate for coffee that they improvised a substitute called “knup.” First they would cook potatoes, then mash them and mix in flour and graham. This mush was rolled out to the thickness of a piecrust, cut into tiny morsels about the size of coffee beans, and browned in the oven. Then the toasted bits were ground in the coffee mill and brewed into knup.
The Rollags improvised coffee by (p.59) scorching kernels of rye and wheat. “This they called coffee,” wrote Osten, “but ‘hu-tu-tu’ what coffee!”
Civic disaster requires a hero. Minnesotans found or created one in a young storm survivor they christened “Minnesota’s Frozen Son.” Michael J. Dowling was fifteen when he came within an inch of freezing to death in one of the blizzards that winter. Dowling’s frostbite was so advanced that he lost both legs below the knees, his left arm below the elbow, and all the fingers and most of the thumb on his right hand.
But Dowling was a fighter. He lived on to became a teacher, newspaper editor, and eventually speaker of the house of the Minnesota State Legislature. “It is what one has above the shoulders that counts,” he always told fellow amputees.
When the snow finally melted in the late spring of 1881, huge sections of the prairie were flooded. Children remember parents rowing boats to town over their corn and wheat fields. Most of the town of Yankton, in what is now South Dakota, was washed away when the Missouri River overflowed its banks, and downriver, the town of Vermillion was also wiped out.
Laura Ingalls Wilder made the Snow Winter the subject of her novel, The Long Winter. Every detail in the book matches up exactly with the memoirs of pioneers: the grinding of wheat in coffee mills, the endless hours of twisting prairie hay for fuel, the eerie gray twilight of the snowed-in houses, the agony of waiting and hoping that the trains would get through, the steady creep of starvation when they failed to yet again.
By midwinter, Laura and her sisters had learned to scan the northwest horizon for the cloud, the single sooty cloud, that presaged another storm. Even the rare sunny days only heightened their anxiety. “No one knew how soon the blizzard would come again,” wrote Wilder. “At any moment, the cloud might rise and come faster than any horses could run.”
Before the storms shut down her country school, Laura and two of her friends gathered to chat during recess. Like the prairie memoirists, Wilder was matter of fact about the vulnerability of (p.60) these children. The Little House Books were made into a syrupy television series in the 1970s and 1980s, but the books themselves are spare and unsentimental. Wilder took it for granted that schoolgirls, don’t flinch when the conversation turns to death by exposure:
“What would you do if you were caught in a blizzard, Mary?” Minnie Johnson was asking. “I guess I would just keep on walking. You wouldn’t freeze if you kept on walking,” Mary answered. “But you’d tire yourself out. You’d get so tired you’d die,” said Minnie.
“Well, what would you do?” Mary Power asked her. “I’d dig into a snowbank and let the snow cover me up. I don’t think you’d freeze to death in a snowbank. Would you, Laura?” “I don’t know,” Laura said. “Well, what would you do, Laura, if you got caught in a blizzard?” Minnie insisted. “I wouldn’t get caught,” Laura answered.
Only the worst winters got named. After the Snow Winter of 1880–81, the next one worthy of christening was the winter of 1886–87: the Winter of Blue Snow. A beautiful name for a terrible season. It was the winter that killed the cattle kingdom that had flourished for nearly a decade on the western prairie. Or rather finished it off, for the seeds of devastation were sown the summer before.
The weather turned unusually hot and dry early that year, and by the Fourth of July, the grass was parched and brown and stubby. The young Teddy Roosevelt, traveling through the north part of Dakota Territory on the way to his ranches near Medora, told a newspaper reporter in mid-July that, “Between the drouth, the (p.61) grasshoppers, and the late frosts, ice forming as late as June 10, there is not a green thing in all the region.”
The drought was bad in the south as well, so all summer long, more and more cattle were shipped or herded from Texas and Kansas and Oklahoma onto the northern plains. Dakota and Montana were seriously overgrazed when the summer fires started. Even by American standards, the transformation of the short-grass western prairie from Native American buffalo hunting ground, to an internationally financed beef industry, had happened extraordinarily quickly.
The Teton Sioux tribes retreated to Wyoming reservations in 1878, and immediately afterward, Texas ranching operations began expanding northward, running the notoriously rugged and ornery Texas longhorns, by the thousands, onto the plains of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
The “empire of grass” was the largest unfenced pasture in the world, free, seemingly endless, unbelievably productive. And potentially hugely profitable. Foreign investors, many of them “swells” from titled families in England and Scotland, and blue-blooded merchant princes from the East Coast cities, pumped in millions.
Books like General James S. Brisbin’s The Beef Bonanza: or How to Get Rich on the Plains, promised staggering surefire returns. The number of cattle run on the plains increased exponentially, especially once the buffalo herds were reduced to bands of stragglers in the mid-1880s. Suddenly ranchers had names like Teddy Roosevelt, Randolph Churchill, and Antoine de Vallombrosa, the Marquis de Mores.
Polo ponies were stabled next to working ranch horses; castles and chateaux rose on the range; chefs and valets were imported from Europe. The biggest spreads were larger than Eastern states. Everything in the Cattle Kingdom was on an enormous scale, the land, the herds, the flow of capital, the dreams, the disasters. When the inevitable bust came, it was an epic bust.
The prairie fires of the hot, dry summer of 1886 lit the fuse. Huge swaths of short brittle grass went up in flames during July (p.62) and August. “The fires have devastated a large amount of grazing,” reported an eastern Montana newspaper on August 1, “and, as is usual, the very best of that.” Going into the winter, the cattle were stressed and stringy, when they should have been sleek and fat.
Even a mild winter would have taken a toll, but the winter of 1886-87 was not a kind one. The bitter weather started before Thanksgiving. A storm blew through on November 22 and continued for days. Then, in early December, temperatures moderated for almost two weeks, thawing the drifts to a heavy slush. But when this warm spell ended, the temperature did not rise above freezing again for months.
An impenetrable crust formed on top of the refrozen slush. Cattle, desperate for food, cut their muzzles on the shards of ice that covered the sparse grass. Steers bled to death when the crust gave way beneath them, and the ice sliced open their legs. By January, the winter storms were coming in earnest. Every five days or so, the cycle repeated: two days of blizzard, three days of glittering blowing chill, then a few hours of smoky calm, and then another blizzard.
The worst storm came on January 28, 1887, with seventy-two hours of fiercely blowing snow and arctic temperatures. The storm left millions of cattle dying or dead on the range. Cattle had drifted hundreds of miles before they froze to death, or died of exhaustion or suffocated from the ice plugging their nostrils. Some herds were never found; some were found in riverbeds or ravines, heaped up like slag; some were so badly frostbitten that ranchers were reduced to salvaging their hides.
Come spring, when the snow finally melted, flooded rivers carried the carcasses of thousands of cattle that had frozen to death during the winter, raging torrents choked with dead animals wedged between ice floes. Teddy Roosevelt’s ranch foreman, Bill Merrifield, reported that “the first day I rode out, I never saw a live animal.”
Contemporary reports put the death toll at ten to twelve million head of cattle, losses of 80 percent in some regions. (p.63) “About seventy-five percent of the ‘she’ stuff died,” rancher Charles H. Rowe from Mandan, North Dakota, wrote in his diary. “Anything that would live through that winter would live through Hell.”
“Well, we have had a perfect smashup all through the cattle country of the northwest,” Roosevelt wrote to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, when he finally traveled out to Dakota to assess the situation for himself. “The losses are crippling. For the first time, I have been utterly unable to enjoy a visit to my ranch.”
The relentless blizzards and freezes of the Winter of Blue Snow proved that the “open range” system, running cattle on the western prairie without supplemental food or winter shelter, was just another foolish American dream, like the fantasy that rain follows the plow. Scores of the big ranches went under. Blue-blooded investors pulled out or declared bankruptcy, and lots of ordinary ranchers with a few dozen head were clamoring to sell, cut, and run. Roosevelt hung on for a few years, though with much smaller herds. He never recouped his initial investment of $85,000.
The next winter, the winter of 1887–88, was another bad one, especially in the wheat and rye and potato country east of the 100th meridian, where families like the Kaufmanns and the Rollags were finally beginning to get on their feet. “Two months of zero weather,” was the way H. G. Purcell, a schoolboy in the eastern part of Dakota Territory, remembered the start of that winter.
In Jerauld County, farther west, the storms began in November, and intensified as the winter advanced, with the snow getting deeper and the cold more intense, week after week, through December and early January. George W. Kingsbury, author of the first comprehensive history of the Dakotas, published in 1915, pronounced that winter “unusually rigorous,” with frequent heavy snows that “blockaded” the railroads and drifts that “rendered the [wagon roads] almost impassable.”
“There must have been considerable (p.64) suffering in the newer settlements,” wrote Kingsbury, “where the recent settlers had not prepared for a season of such extreme severity, and these newer settlements were in large number, for Dakota had gained many thousands in population during the season preceding.” Kingsbury need not have been so tentative. Nobody, not even the legendary oldest settler, was ever really prepared for the extreme severity of these seasons.
The coldest weather came, as it usually does, in December, and hung on through January. Just before the New Year, a flow of arctic air pooled over the Upper Midwest and settled in like fog in a river valley. The Minnesota State Weather observer at Pine River Dam recorded a minimum temperature of 46 below on December 29; observers at Pokegama Falls and Leech Lake Dam were unable to take temperature readings that day, because the mercury inside their government-issued thermometers froze solid.
It’s hard to find vocabulary for weather this cold. The senses become first sharp, and then dulled. Objects etch themselves with hyperclarity on the dense air, but it’s hard to keep your eyes open to look at them steadily. When you first step outside from a heated space, the blast of 46-below-zero air clears the mind like a ringing slap. After a breath or two, ice builds up on the hairs lining your nasal passages and the clear film bathing your eyeballs thickens.
If the wind is calm, and if your body, head, and hands are covered, you feel preternaturally alert and focused. At first. A dozen paces from the door, your throat begins to feel raw, your lips dry and crack, tears sting the corners of your eyes. The cold becomes at once a knife and, paradoxically, a flame, cutting and scorching exposed skin.
Temperatures in the prairie states fell even lower in January. A run of record-breaking cold commenced on the eighth, and continued but for a single day’s hiatus until the twenty-second. “This is an exceptionally long period for such extreme cold weather to prevail, even in this climate,” noted William W. Payne, the Carleton College astronomy professor who founded and ran the Minnesota (p.65) State Weather Service, “and at most stations it is unparalleled by any previous record.”
On Wednesday, January 11, the citizens of Aberdeen, in Dakota Territory, marveled at the beautiful display of sun dogs blazing in the pale blue sky, three brightly colored spots following the sun. Though beautiful to behold, the longtime residents knew that this did not augur anything good. Local lore had it that sun dogs are a sign of approaching cold: the brighter the dogs, the colder the weather. Supposedly, when Indians saw sun dogs in the sky, they piled more wood on the fire and sealed the skin tight over the tepee door. It was 20 below zero at dawn in most of Dakota that morning. How much colder could it get?
Two solid weeks of iron weather, except for one day, January 12. “That morning was the most beautiful morning I had ever seen,” wrote Josephine Buchmillar Leber, the daughter of German immigrants, recalling that Thursday morning in Turner County, Dakota, when she was twelve years old and begging her father to let her set out for school. “Sun shone bright. It had snowed the night before. The snow flakes layed [sic] loosely on drifts, just like loose feathers, and as I remember it seemed the sun shining on the snow, caused a golden reflection on the snow.”
Another settler remarked on the “almost mysteriously velvety” quality of the air that morning. People came out of their houses and sod huts to gaze, blinking in awe, at the eerie “copper” color of the morning sky.
Thomas Pirnie, a youth in Buffalo County in central South Dakota, remembered that when he awoke at daybreak on the twelfth, “the air was like that of an April morning, with just a breath of breeze coming out of the southwest. I happened to be the first one of our family to go out. I quickly returned inside and called out so all could hear me, ‘Oh come folks and see what a (p.66) beautiful morning it is. It is 32 above. We’re going to have a January thaw.’ Cousin Hugh and myself took a shovel and a pan of chicken feed to the barn, expecting to soon dig our way into the sod barn, of which only the roof pole were visible above the great snowdrifts that almost filled the deep ravine.”
Everyone who wrote about January 12 noticed something different about the quality of that morning, the strange color and texture of the sky, the preternatural balminess, the haze, the fog, the softness of the south wind, the thrilling smell of thaw, the “great waves” of snow on the prairie that gleamed in the winter sun.
The one aspect they all agreed on was the sudden, welcome rise of temperature. Even allowing for the distortions of memory, which are especially acute with weather, there is an urgency and vividness to these accounts. These are the mental snapshots of the moments before, the last kind hours. Historian N. J. Dunham lingers over these hours of deceptive mildness in his History of Jerauld County.
On the morning of Thursday, the 12th of January, the wind had fallen and become quite warm. The snow was melting a little. Great banks of fog fifteen to twenty miles wide rested across the prairies from the vicinity of the Black Hills eastward into Minnesota. Between these banks of fog were stretches of country from thirty to forty miles in width where the sun shone brightly.
One of these fog banks ran east and west along the C & N. W. Ry. [Chicago and North-Western Railway], through the central part of Beadle, Hand and Hyde counties. Over all of Jerauld county, the morning was warm and bright. Farmers took advantage of the pleasant weather to go to town or to go to fetch hay from the prairie. All felt a relief from the rigorous wintry weather that had preceded.
In Jerauld county, at that time were 1025 children of school age. (p.67) Owing to the balmy conditions of the air, probably a greater percentage of those children went to school that day than on any previous day for weeks.
All through the region, from the Black Hills to the homesteads of eastern Minnesota, a kind of undeclared civic holiday was being celebrated, a celebration of ordinary daily life. From nearly every home, someone set out for town on foot or by horse to replenish supplies. Farmers turned their animals out of their barns to stretch their legs, drink at watering holes, browse the piles of hay the farmers had forked together in the fall.
For the first time in weeks, people could be outside without being in pain. That was reason enough to celebrate. Many were convinced it was the January thaw, the start of a week or more of mild weather, though a few weatherwise old-timers and farmers with a sixth sense about the atmosphere sniffed the suddenly balmy air suspiciously. Almost a 40-degree rise in twenty-four hours—it didn’t sit right somehow.
Certainly not to John Buchmillar, who decided to keep his daughter Josephine home from school that morning, despite her hot tears and wails of protest. “I feel there is something in the air,” Josephine overheard her father tell a neighbor solemnly at about eleven o’clock that morning.
Maria Albrecht also had a bad feeling that morning. The day dawned dull and cloudy over the Schweizer farms in Rosefield Township, and there was fresh snow on the ground from snow showers that had blown through the previous day. Like everyone else in the region, Maria noticed the unaccustomed mildness, but something about the look of the sky bothered her. She couldn’t name it or explain it, but there it was.
From the moment she had gotten up, she could barely keep from crying. And so, while her husband Johann was out in the barn tending to the animals, and her children were getting their breakfast in the dim morning light, Maria made up her mind. The boys would not be going to school (p.68) that day. And anyway, it was her husband’s forty-first birthday. That was reason enough to keep the boys home.
Of all the neighborhood families, the Albrechts lived farthest from the one-room schoolhouse, the English school, as they called it, that the Schweizers had built a few years ago at the “middle fence” (the midpoint) of the western side of section 26.
For the Kaufmann boys, the walk was nothing, half a mile and they were there. And the Grabers, with their crowd of children, practically had the school in their yard. Seven children Peter and Susanna Graber had had since they married in 1875, with seven others from Peter’s first marriage. Fourteen young Grabers, while Maria and Johann only had five, Johann, the boy who had been born on board the City of Richmond, who was now thirteen; nine-year-old Peter; Anna, six; and two little ones, Jacob and Julius.
Even Anna Kaufmann, who had endured so many losses, now had more children than Maria, six living children. Her Johann still attended school, even though he was a young man of sixteen. His brother Heinrich, ten, and Elias, seven, walked to school with him when the weather wasn’t too bad. And there were three other Kaufmanns still at home, six-year-old Julius, three-year-old Jonathan, and Emma, who had celebrated her first birthday on New Year’s Eve 1887, just twelve days before.
The Albrechts, with fewer children than the other families, had agreed to house and feed the schoolteacher, Mr. James P. Cotton. It was a difficult arrangement, because Mr. Cotton spoke no German, and the Albrecht parents spoke little English. Maria put up with it, because having the teacher around made her feel a little easier about sending the boys off across the prairie.
But not that morning. This was not a day for them to leave the house, she was sure of it. There was a quarrel as the two older boys were getting ready for school. Maria insisted they stay home. Johann insisted just as adamantly that they must attend, Mr. Cotton had expressly told them not to miss that day.
Maria called her husband in from the (p.69) barn to lay down the law. But Johann Sr., who was used to these disputes, took the boys’ side. What would it hurt if they went to school on such a warm morning, if that’s what they wanted to do? Johann shrugged off his wife’s pleas and went back to work. The fact that it was his forty-first birthday would not stop him from putting in a full day of work, especially on such a promising winter day.
So thirteen-year-old Johann set off across the field alone. Peter, to please his mother, stayed home, though it made him miserable to miss a day of school. Years later, Peter recalled that he spent the morning sitting by the window, staring glumly in the direction of the school. “My mother, who was observing me, sighed and said, ‘My child, my heart is going to break. I wish your brother were here with you.’ My father was busy working outside.”
The Allens were asleep in their house on Main Street when the weather changed, so they never knew at what hour the winter westerlies flickered and finally died out altogether, and the south wind rose in their stead. When they stirred on the morning of the twelfth, the temperature in Groton was pushing 20 degrees, positively balmy compared to the 20-below-zero reading of the previous day.
You notice a rise in temperature like that when you wake up in the dark in a house with no fire. But the three Allen boys, the teenagers, William and Hugh, and their eight-year-old half brother, Walter, were comparatively lucky. Being town boys, they didn’t have to go out to the barn to feed the stock, or chop through the ice on a frozen trough before they got their own breakfast.
The boys could get up and dress and eat breakfast in the daylight. And for once, it looked like a nice day. Unlike some boys, who had to be prodded and badgered out the door every morning, Walter Allen was always eager to get to school because he had a special job to do. In the Groton school, each row (p.70) of desks was under the supervision of a “row monitor,” who was in charge of the coats and overshoes for all the children in that row.
As monitor of his row, Walter commanded the front seat, and whenever school was dismissed or recess called, he got to jump up before the other children, rush to the vestibule where the coats, caps, scarves, mittens, and overshoes were stowed, gather them up, and distribute them to the children in his row. (This strict segregation of children and clothing was enforced in order to keep the odor of wet wool, felt, and leather out of the classroom.)
Walter was extremely proud that he had already mastered the tricky business of matching kids and clothes, and even mentioned this accomplishment in his diary. So that Thursday morning, while W.C. Allen ducked out the door and went to his law office next door, to attend to the multifarious affairs of running a boom town on the Dakota prairie, and W.C.’s two older sons, Hugh and Will, strolled down main street to their jobs at the Groton newspaper (reduced to one now), Walter Allen set out alone for school with all the brisk determination that an ambitious eight-year-old can muster.
At some point during their first few years in Minnesota, the Rollags had quietly altered their names to make them sound more American. Gro became Grace, Osten became Austin, Gro and Ole’s oldest child, Peder, born in November 1874, just five months after they claimed their homestead, became Peter. Carl, Grace and Ole’s second son, born two and a half years later in the same sod house as Peter, became Charley.
Though the boys went to English school, and quickly learned to speak English with barely a trace of Norwegian accent, they continued to speak Norwegian at home. Thanks to their grandmother, Kari, they also had plenty of Norwegian books to read, indeed, Kari saw to it that they read Norwegian even before they started at the English school, which she didn’t think very (p.71) highly of anyway.
Kari also insisted that the children be confirmed in Norwegian, since she was dubious whether being confirmed in English would really “take.” Kari was one of those grandmothers who leave an indelible impression on her grandchildren. On winter evenings, she mesmerized the boys with stories of the first years on the prairie, when green-eyed wolves trailed after her whenever she ventured out after dark, and Indians turned up at her door begging for food, and snakes slithered out of the sod house walls in the early spring, coiling themselves on the roof and basking in the sun.
Grace and Ole had finally replaced their soddie with a frame house after the Snow Winter. It had taken them seven years. Kari was sixty-five years old in the winter of 1887-88, her daughter Grace, thirty-six. Grace and Ole had had seven children by then, though only six were alive since they had lost a daughter, Anna Marie, at fourteen months in October 1885.
Peter and Charley, the two oldest, were now thirteen and ten, both handsome boys, Peter blond and thin with close-set eyes, a narrow face, and long, delicate fingers for a farm boy, Charley dark-haired and clean-featured and bigger-boned than his brother.
For some reason, the boys did not go to school on the morning of January 12. Forty years later, when she wrote her “Recollections from the Old Days” in Norwegian, Grace recorded everything about that day, except why the boys were not in school. Possibly the English school had already closed for the season. Or possibly Grace and Ole kept the boys home to work on the farm, since it was the first day in weeks that they could get the cattle out to the springs, and bring in the hay they had cut and stacked in the fall.
By midday, both parents and the two boys had been working outside for hours. Working fast. For Grace and Ole had been in this country long enough now to know that such weather would not last long. Not in January.
(p.72) The Shattucks lived in Holt County, Nebraska, for two years after leaving Seward behind, but they never really got used to it. For one thing, the people were different, Irish most of them, with names like O’Hara and Murphy and O’Donnel. A wild-eyed dreamer named John J. O’Neill, a captain of an African-American infantry unit in the Civil War, and later the ringleader of the doomed Fenian invasion of Canada, had planted an Irish Catholic colony here on the Protestant prairie and named the principal town for himself: O’Neill, Nebraska.
Even Emmet, the little railroad town north of Etta Shattuck’s school, was named for an Irishman, bold Robert Emmet, the darling of Ireland, an early martyr in the struggle against England. The soil was different in Holt County, too, or what passed for soil. Sandy and porous, it hardly held what little rain fell. The prairie grass was shorter than that in Seward, the farms farther apart, and poor and wind-bitten. Brown most of the year except in a good spring, brown and crusted white most of the winter.
Considering the thin soil and the sparse summer rain, it’s not surprising that Ben Shattuck failed to make a go of his Holt County farm. The second summer, he didn’t even plant a crop. The only money the family could look forward to was the twenty-five dollars a month that Etta brought in from teaching school, and that wasn’t enough to support the seven of them.
So before the cold weather set in, Ben and Sarah Shattuck packed up and moved with their younger children back to Seward. Etta stayed on alone to teach her country school, district 141, the Bright Hope school district. She boarded with a local family and walked to the schoolhouse every morning.
Etta could stand outside the schoolhouse and count the features on one hand. A couple of sod houses and barns silhouetted against the low horizon; a rounded pile of dry prairie grass by each house; and way off to the east, the bare limbs of willows and cottonwoods outlining the bed of the Elkhorn River.
Between school and the river, the frozen grass and snow extended flat as paper; to the west the ground undulated (p.73) just perceptibly, as it rose to meet the Sand Hills. That was the Bright Hope school district. Usually seven or eight scholars showed up, never more than ten, most with Irish names.
The families were large, but only one child or two from each family attended school, because that’s how many pairs of shoes they had. Their parents referred to it as the Maring school, because a farmer named Maring owned the land it was on, owned the entire section, all 640 acres. Ten acres or so he had in corn, another ten in oats for the livestock, a few acres of sorghum so they could make syrup and have something sweet to put on their corn bread. The rest was unbroken grazing land.
Dreams of growing grain, maybe even a garden of vegetables, died hard and slowly in these parts, and Maring always talked wistfully about putting in more corn. But in most years, there just wasn’t enough rain. Hay was the big thing in Holt County. They cut it in July or August and loaded it in the train cars at Emmet, in fact the native hay was the reason the Elkhorn Valley Branch of the Chicago and North-Western Railway stopped at Emmet.
Prairie coal or poor man’s coal, they called it, and in the absence of real coal or wood or buffalo bones, it kept them warm through the winter, though the farmers and their wives and children cursed the endless task of twisting it and feeding it, hank after hank, into the hay burners on top of their stoves.
Ten days into January, Etta decided to close school. The weather had turned so frigid that the parents worried their children would get frostbite or chilblains, or even freeze to death on their way to school. Families couldn’t afford to lose a child to injury or death: Out on the frontier, working children made the difference between surviving and going under. Keeping children safe was more important than educating them.
So Etta let it be known that the term was over. The school would open again in spring, but Etta wouldn’t be there to teach it. She was going back to live with her family in Seward. She, too, had had enough of Holt County.
(p.74) Before she left, Etta had one piece of business to attend to. In order to get paid for her last month of teaching, she had to have an order signed by the school district superintendent, which she would then present to the district treasurer.
It seems absurd that in a district with ten students she had to go through the formality of obtaining a signed paper attesting that she had fulfilled her contractual agreement to teach “in a faithful and efficient manner…to keep the school-house in good repair, to provide the necessary fuel and supplies,” etc., but rules were rules, even out on the frozen prairie. Without a signed order, the treasurer could not pay her.
So on the morning of January 12, 1888, Etta Shattuck set out on foot for the house of J. M. Parkins to get the order signed. The next day, Friday the thirteenth, with her wages in her pocketbook, she would walk to O’Neill and get on a train and go back to her parents in Seward.
Etta, like her father, was a devout Methodist. Her conversion experience had come at the age of seventeen, just before the Shattucks left Seward, and her pastor at the Seward Methodist Episcopal church affirmed that her faith was “sublime.” When she was alone, Etta was in the habit of singing hymns and praying silently, or even out loud, when the spirit moved her, so it’s likely that she was lost in song or prayer as she walked out to J. M. Parkins’s house that warm, breezy morning.
Later, when the newspapers scrounged for every crumb they could find, it was reported that the father of the family with whom Etta boarded shouted after her when the wind suddenly shifted and the dark cloud raced out of the northwest. The dark cloud that heralded the blizzard. He shouted for a long time, he said, hoping against hope that Etta would hear him and turn around. He shouted as loud as he could into the rising wind and the suddenly seething air, but he didn’t dare venture out after her.
End of Chapter Two