Fremont County, Iowa

Blizzard of January 1888
by Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of January 25, 2010

Since we are writing about historic snowstorms, we must include the storm in 1888 that some call the greatest blizzard of all times. It is also known as "The Children's Blizzard" because of the large number of children who died. This event has special interest to southwest Iowa because the blizzard came this far although was not as devastating, and because of a personal story from one of our own.

January 12, 1888, started out as a warm, pleasant day. Farmers and ranchers were delighted to get their livestock out to pasture, children were playing outside and walking to school dressed in light sweaters. Mothers were doing the wash and hanging the clothes out in the sunshine.

The first signs of the storm started late morning in Montana. It moved south and a little east just as the jet stream carries storms today. It came across the Dakotas and into Nebraska and western Iowa and was tracked as far east as central Iowa. It eventually impacted Mexico with cold temperatures.

It reached Iowa in late afternoon. Children were home from school. Most men had returned from work or had finished the farm chores so fatalities were fewer here. Further north where the storm arrived earlier, the stories are legend of teachers who saved students in drafty school houses by burning the desks and anything wood to survive. Children that tried to walk home often never made it.

Stella Culley, long-time resident of Sidney, was born in 1879 near Red Cloud, Nebraska, so was nine years old at the time of the blizzard. Her father had purchased an unimproved farm and was in the process of building it up. His herd of purebred Herefords, one of the first in that part of the state, were important to his venture.

After dinner Stella's father took the cattle to the stock field. Suddenly the storm approached--a huge black cloud full of wind and snow shards, sharp pieces of ice and snow. Stella and her mother heard Mr. Culley shouting for them to open the gate into the barn yard. The mother told her daughter to go out and swing open the gate for her father.

Stella ran out into the mild air without pausing to put on a wrap. By the time she opened the gate, she could hear the terrible roar of the wind. The cattle, in a panic, ran through the gate. Now, thoroughly frightened herself, Stella ran toward the house just as the storm hit. Before she could get inside her fingers were freezing. The temperature that had been 40 degrees earlier was now 9 below zero. The wind was reported at over 45 miles per hour.

As Stella's father shut the gate he was blown up against the chicken house. He struggled to his feet only to be shoved down again. Completely exhausted, he fell a third time. The family believed that providence was the reason his last fall brought him against the kitchen door. Hearing the noise, Stella and her mother pulled him into the warmth of the house.

The storm abated by the next day, leaving a deep cold and widespread grief. Over 235 people were reported dead and more unknown died out on the prairies.

This story is in the book, "The Children's Blizzard," by David Laskin, loaned to me by Jerry Birkby, and available in our local libraries. 

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