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A View From The Attic

Week of January 17, 2010


Fremont County Historical Society

by Evelyn Birkby

Blizzards

Two boys with scoop shovels just went by on the road in front of our house looking for people who will hire them to scoop their driveways or their sidewalks. When our sons were young they were always delighted when it snowed. They would put on their warmest clothes, grab their shovels and off they would go to do what they could to help get people out of their snowed in homes and earn a bit of money along the way.

A blizzard-prone winter like the one we are experiencing makes me wonder how people coped with heavy snowfall back in the early days when Iowa was first settled. Some really severe winters are on record from those early days. The winter of 1857-58 was one of the severest winters ever known in this climate. It began much earlier than usual, and continued far into the spring. There were thirty-two snow storms in all, and the snow fell to the depth of six feet and two inches.

Drifts were reported from eight to twelve feet deep. Business was almost entirely suspended everywhere, and the streets were so blocked that no animals could pull wagons through the snow to make their deliveries-- milkmen, bakers and butchers, even the mail persons. Snow shoes were necessary if anyone went anywhere out doors.

Settlers in Iowa originally coined the word blizzard, coming from the word blitzartig, meaning "lightning-like." Pioneers and settlers were astounded by the severity of the winters in the Midwest. They were not used to the wind sweeping across the prairie picking up speed as it went. The most pressing problems for new settlers were shortages of wood and coal for heating homes. People learned quickly to stockpile firewood and other supplies in the winter. As needed, horse carts and stage coaches were equipped with ski-like runners.

Home owners and merchants were responsible for clearing their own streets. As a result, wintertime travel in the early 1800s was still mostly by foot.

One of the first mentions of snow plows use comes from Milwaukee in 1862. The plow was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets.

The blizzard of 1888 sent three days of snow, wind and freezing temperatures. Two-and-a-half to four feet of snow fell, and drifts were reported to cover entire first stories of buildings. Carts and carriages in the streets were abandoned and buried by snow as drivers realized the futility of trying to get them out. Schools, city railroads and public offices were closed Tragically, over 400 people lost their lives in this storm.

The discomforts and perils of the old-fashioned blizzards are largely things of the past. Settlement and windbreaks check the storm's sweep in many localities. More importantly, however, is the effective protection against the weather provided by better built homes, more adequate clothing, and improved communications which give warnings of a storm's approach. The country blizzards of today, although still a menace to farmers and stockman, have lost much of their deadliness.

(This Attic was researched through the computer's Google.)