From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Winter Memories

Winter weather on the ranch



When the temperatures drop and we get some snow, my thoughts always go back to bad snow storms on the ranch of my childhood.

We had a spell of cold, hard winters in Nebraska during the 1950s and 1960s. I mention those years because I remember them, but there were some bad winters during the 1940s, too, including the infamous Blizzard of 1949.

I remember that night temperatures often dropped to 20° below zero (or even colder) during cold spells. During the day, it might warm up to zero. I remember one instance of night temperatures close to 40° below. Extremely cold temperatures made things that should have worked turn sluggish and break easily. The diesel fuel in the tractors always wanted to turn to jelly.

Feeding the Cattle



The cattle had to be fed every day, despite cold temperatures, wind, or snow. In a blizzard, my dad, the hired man, my brother, and my mom, too, often worked the whole day just to get the cattle fed.

Before winter began, the haystacks were moved to a stack-yard in the corner of each meadow that was closest to the ranch buildings. The nearest haystacks were saved for the very worst days.

To get a haystack for feeding, the "underslung", a wide trailer with a tilting bed, was pulled to the stackyard and parked beside a haystack. Then, the haystack (usually five tons or so in weight) was winched onto the underslung. All of this was made far more difficult by snow and extreme cold.

Then the loaded underslung was pulled with the tractor to the area where the cattle would be fed. We pastured the cattle close to the ranch buildings during the winter to make it easier to feed them. We had nice shelterbelts, and the cattle gathered close to them during bad weather. They always knew when a storm was coming.

Being unable to feed the cattle would have been such a horrible thing I can't imagine it. However, about ten years ago, the South Dakota blizzards were so terrible that ranchers couldn't feed their cattle despite tremendous, heartbreaking efforts. Some people lost most of their herds.

Blizzards and Lots of Snow


We judged the severity of a blizzard by how far we could see. If we could see the road that led from our mailbox to our house, we had half-a-mile visibility and it wasn't terrible yet. When we lost sight of that road and could only see the fence of the milkcow pasture -- or maybe not even that far -- the storm was very dangerous. Once we even heard loud claps of thunder during a raging blizzard.

My mother tried to keep a six-week stock of groceries during the winter. When she was able to go to town, she replenished her supplies thoroughly because she didn't know when she'd be able to shop again. Even when the county snow plows cleared the roads, they might quickly drift shut again if the weather turned bad.

When the roads were impassable, our mail delivery was suspended. The rural mail carrier brought the mailbags to our rural store/post office where the mail was sorted. I suppose he delivered mail to the boxes along the highway, but he left the mail for the boxes on gravel roads at the post office. If you needed mail service before the county snow plow came through, you had to plow your own way to the post office.

It's hard to imagine all that now from Kentucky, where we have only a few inches of snow every winter.

(UPDATED to add links and headings and polish up the text a little. I think I'm done with it now.)

1 comment:

Genevieve said...

My cousin Alta who lives in northwest Tennessee sent the following comment by e-mail:

"Your blog talking about winter memories sure did bring back memories of the western Nebraska snow storms and cold weather. People just looked at me when I used to tell them some of the stories here so I gave up.

"The winter before we moved down here, l978, we had over 30 days of below zero at night and never above zero in the daytime. We lived in Hay Springs, and both were retired, and as you know Hay Springs was a very small town.

"We sat in the house and played cards, worked puzzles, and watched TV until Jim got up one morning and said, 'The first time the roads are clear and the sun is shining we are going to Tn. and find us a place to move. No way I am going to spend another winter like this.'

"That was a wise decision, and we have never been sorry we made that choice."

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

Thanks for reading.