EDITED BY John C. Parish
Copyright 1923 by the State Historical Society of Iowa
(Transcribed by Debbie Clough Gerischer)
The Winter of Eighty-One
Imagine winter coming on the fifteenth of October without
any warning—coming to stay too, and ushered in by a blizzard that lasted two
days. Northwestern Iowa has seen much severe weather, but for snow fall and
unrelenting cold the winter of 18801881 has had few rivals. A pioneer of O'Brien
County, Thomas Barry, relates the following story of that memorable winter. Roads were blocked almost all the time.
Just as soon as a path was broken, fresh snow and wind would wipe out the trail.
Many a morning I was forced to shovel my way out of my dwelling. The only time a
person ventured from home was for an occasional trip, usually on foot, to the
nearest town or to a neighbor's to borrow or to lend. My wife— whose father was
a railroad surgeon in Massachusetts—was very proficient in aiding the sick and
she was often called upon to lend a hand in caring for needy neighbors.
On October 15,1880, the morning after we finished threshing, my wife and I
struck off for Sheldon, twelve miles away, to get some flour at the mill and to
do our winter trading. The air was frosty, the sun hidden, and the sky looked
like a big, gray dome settling down over the prairie. From the near-by
cornfields we could hear the thump, thump of the ears against the throw-boards
of the huskers' wagons. There being no native timber, we were denied the reds
and the golds of woodland October: the brown prairie stretched away in every
direction as far as the eye could see. Out in the stubble the prairie chickens
called, tumble weeds went hurrying on ahead of us, and rabbits bounded away from
the road as we passed. Young cottonwoods, set around the farm yards for
windbreaks, had lost their tender leaves, so that painted houses the
straw-thatched barns and unpeeped between the naked branches.
"Lots of birds flying to-day," my wife remarked, as we jogged along,
planning our day's program. The heavens were filled with wild ducks and geese
flying swift southward. To make haste we shopped separately, and so were not
together when the snow began to fall at two o'clock. The air was so warm that we
thought the storm was only a squall, and completed our preparations to return
home about five. In the meantime the wind had risen. The snow that had already
fallen was picked up and driven through the air with such terrific force that
our horses refused to face the gale. Thinking of the children at home we urged
them on, but they would not budge. Not until then did we fully realize that a
blizzard was upon us, all that we would be forced to remain in town until it was
I could hear the wind moan around the rude hotel all night. The windows
rattled in their loose frames so that we could not sleep. "God will care for our
children," murmured my wife, while my thoughts strayed also to our unprotected
stock, for as yet no one was prepared for winter. The blizzard raged fiercely
that night and all the next day, but the second morning dawned calm and clear.
Equipped with a large scoopshovel, we began our homeward trip. After leaving the
streets of Sheldon, which were somewhat protected by buildings, we hit what we
thought ought to be the county line. Our horses, rested and headed toward home,
were anxious enough to get on, but the low, heavy wagon was clumsy in the deep
Before we had gone very far the horses floundered and the wagon stuck in a
big drift. For a little while I sat there, overcome by the scene surrounding us.
Our friendly, brown landscape of two days ago was transformed into a still,
cold, sparkling, white pall that stretched to the horizon in every direction.
Cornfields were entirely submerged, straw piles had lost their identity and
become mere mounds of snow, while the struggling, man-made groves only served to
catch the drifting snow. I had often seen the prairie covered with snow but the
feeling of awe and reverence for that spectacle, as I sat there not knowing the
fate of all dearest to me, held me spellbound. My wife felt so too, I think, for
instead of urging me to begin shoveling out of the drift, she said, "My, how
much I'd give for the folks back East to see this sight."
As we plowed and shoveled our way on, while the sun rose high and then
began to descend, our fear for those at home became more haunting. Fortunately,
the blizzard was not followed by the usual intense cold, but nevertheless our
fingers were numb with cold and our backs ached from the shoveling. Our team
became more and more exhausted with the heavy pulling and lack of food.
Finally, as the sun was sending its last red darts over the white prairie,
we came in sight of our place. We knew it was our home not by any familiar
object, but by its position from the road. Nothing was to be seen but the tops
of our tallest trees. Everything was as still as death, lying under that heavy
blanket of snow. In the middle of the yard there was a drift as high as the
house. It was the work of only a few minutes to round that drift and reach the
door inside we found the children all safe, but crying bit terry because they
were sure we must be dead.
Our oldest boy, a lad of eleven, had kept the little sisters comfortable.
When the blizzard began he had cut the tethers of the cattle that were tied in
an open shed, and let them forage with the rest. Under a mound of snow, from
which arose a tiny line of steam, we found all our pigs—about forth in number.
Only two were dead. Chickens and turkeys went under straw stacks and stayed in
holes rooted out by the hogs.
The day after we got home I walked to a German neighbor's house a mile away
to inquire about my calves. He had seen nothing of mine but had lost two cows. "
Don't walk no more, Tom; day go dead," he said. Another neighbor who came to my
house to borrow flour had seen my calves going with the storm, and I finally
found them all safe, near a row of young willows, their backs humped up and
their heads stuck in the snow.
Nearly all my stock was saved, but I had no feed. What corn we had husked
before the blizzard I stored in the loft of my dwelling for seed. My boy and I
gathered a little in sacks for the cattle, but the snow kept piling up so high
that at last we had to abandon the fields. Then I fed oats. It snowed about
twice a week all winter.
A mover who was going from O'Brien County into Sioux stopped to feed
himself and team. He had husked most of his corn, and had no stock. Since the
snow had become so deep, it was difficult for his horses to pull loads, so in
order to make better time he stored some of his corn in my empty crib.
As the winter wore on, my oats ran out. Only my seed corn remained and it
would not go far. The pigs squealed with hunger. " Save that seed corn," said my
wife, "feed them the corn from the crib and when the owner comes back give him
the pigs, but don't let them starve." I went then and fed another man's corn to
During that terrible snow-bound winter we had no wood or coal for fuel. But
the prairie slew came to our rescue. Early in the fall we had stacked, some slew
grass in the yard, and this, twisted tightly, served for fuel the entire winter.
It required a good deal of time and energy to twist enough prairie hay to keep
us warm, even for a day. Children soon learned the art and worked faithfully at
the irksome task. It was a common sight to see piles of twisted grass near the
doors of prairie homes. My children, usually healthy, took sick in
mid-winter with a high fever. When our home remedies failed I walked seven miles
to Hospers with butter and eggs to exchange for medicine—we had no money. I
struck off in the mowing through the snow. Spurred on by anxiety for the
children, I was utterly exhausted when I reached the store. The storekeeper—who
was druggist too—allowed me four cents a dozen for the eggs and four cents a
pound for the butter. He tried to jolly me, saying that I must be out of tobacco
to walk so far, but I told him the symptoms of the sick children, secured some
medicine, and started for home just as it was beginning to snow.
For an hour I trudged along. Thicker and thicker came the blinding snow. I
could not see. The tall grass which stuck up through the snow was my only guide.
The dog that was with me seemed bewildered, following so closely he impeded my
progress I became numb with cold as the flying snow sifted into my clothes.
After a time I gave up trying to find landmarks and depended upon the mercy of
God to lead me to some shelter. I kept walking and finally, toward morning,
struck a grove which fortunately proved to be my own. I threw myself down to
rest and became so stiff I was scarcely able to move for three days. The
children were a little better, but my wife, who had exhausted her strength
caring for them and keeping tile house warm during my absence, became ill. Since
no one was able to bring in the slew grass, we were forced to carry down our
seed corn and burn it.
Those of us whose cattle were spared supplied our less fortunate neighbors
with milk. The milk, frozen solid even in the house, was thawed enough to remove
it from the container, then it was wrapped in cloth or paper and sent where it
There was only one social function in the county that winter so far as I
know. Mrs. Bert McMillan, near Sheldon, had a rag bee. Three bob sled loads
attended the party, making a long detour to follow a broken trail. About two
o'clock it began snowing; the party immediately broke up; and the three bobs,
keeping in a line, set out for home. They got lost and about ten o'clock came to
Whitmore's place, where they spent the night. It was fully a week before some of
the party reached home.
Toward evening, on fair days, I often rounded the big drift in my yard and
reached a clearing to the south; then, facing the east, I would gaze over the
soft, white prairie to where the gray sky closed down on our deserted world and
wonder what was going on back East. I thought of the anxiety of our kin, the
companionship of old friends, and tried to imagine what was occupying the minds
of politicians and legislators while we fought for mere existence. How quiet
that prairie was; only a slight clicking from the frozen twigs of the
cottonwoods broke the stillness. The wind
seemed to be resting, regenerating its forces, waiting only for the stimulus of
fresh snow, when it would again rage mercilessly and, after lashing us to
shelter, would howl and moan while it pelted the snow against our dwellings and
forced it in through every crevice. We marked off each day on our calendar and,
like everything else, that winter came to an end. Spring sunshine and spring
duties met a hearty welcome We crept out from our shelter like the badgers on
the prairie, shook off our winter coma, greeted distant neighbors, and were
thankful we survived.
When the snow melted our roofs went in with the weight. The corn which had
been left in the fields had become soft and sour; neither cattle nor chickens
would eat it. When my mover returned for his corn I told him what had been done
with it and offered him the pigs. He smiled and said: "I don't want any of your
hogs, but lend me your breaking plow and I'll call it square."
JOSEPHINE BARRY DONOVAN