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.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

1952 South Dakota Blizzard Story

Historic snowstorms, survival, and death



I've heard many stories about the bad winter of 1948-1949 in Nebraska, when some snowdrifts reached second story windows and shed rooftops. My parents told of being snowed in for weeks at a time.

However, I am not at all familiar with the Blizzard of 1952 in South Dakota. The South Dakota Office of Emergency Management (OEM) compares that weather event to the infamous Schoolchildren's Blizzard of 1888:

Jan 1952 Blizzard -- This blizzard had many similarities to the one of 1888. The temperature dropped from 40°F to -8°F in a short period of time. The wet, driving snow clung to everything. Cattle were blinded and suffocated as snow covered their mouths and noses. Young country school children lost their way home and died of hypothermia. A few ranchers died when they tried to gather their livestock. Snow piled up to a point that people could walk along tops of REA power lines. In some isolated areas, people were snowed in for 4 months off and on throughout the winter. Planes were used to deliver mail, groceries, fuel, and feed for livestock. Snowtrack vehicles were used to transport doctors to isolated farm areas.

Source: South Dakota OEM Listing of Past Natural Hazards, Occurrences, and Disasters


We were living south of Johnstown, Nebraska, in Brown County in 1952, just 30 miles or so from the Nebraska and South Dakota state line. Surely, we had a significant snowstorm, but I've never heard any stories about it.

Just north of us in south central South Dakota, the blizzard was so intense that Mrs. Walter Hellmann wrote a little book about it: Blizzard Strikes the Rosebud, 1952, Winter of Disaster. The book is said to contain many photographs of the massive snowdrifts as well as the stories of the area residents.

An excerpt from Mrs. Hellman's book has been reprinted on a Longcor family history webpage. (Scroll down to "Ducks for Company in a Grain Bin", slightly past half-way down the page.)

The excerpt is the story of Clarence Longcor, who left home to purchase supplies at noon and was trapped on the road by the storm. He was unable to return home or to go forward, so he finally decided to follow the fences to a neighbor's house. He didn't find the house, but he came to a grain bin where he spent a very cold night with some ducks, afraid to sleep because he might freeze to death. This happened in the Millboro, South Dakota, area, just north of the Nebraska state line, northwest of Springview, Nebraska, and southwest of Colome, South Dakota.

When reading storm stories like this, one should remember that weather forecasts were not nearly as accurate 60 years ago as they are today.

"Young country school children lost their way home and died of hypothermia," the South Dakota OEM says in the storm description above. It's very sad that school children lost their lives trying to get home in a 1952 blizzard. I can't find any additional information about it, but surely the South Dakota OEM is a reputable source.

In northern Nebraska in the 1950s and 1960s, our teachers always had us bring cans of soup to keep at our country school. We were ready to wait out a blizzard at the schoolhouse if we had to do so. I didn't realize that this emergency preparedness was probably in response to the 1952 tragedy of South Dakota school children as well as the terrible loss of life in the Schoolchildren's Blizzard of 1888.

Related post: Blizzard of 1949 Stories

7 comments:

ptg said...

Anyone that has been through a Big Blizzard will always be keenly interested in how other folks survived one. I can recall my Grandfather telling about getting his mail dropped from an airplane in the '50's.

I can't imagine digging out of a big blizzard without power equipment. It took a huge Caterpillar to get my road cleared after this one.

The etymology of the odd word itself is mysterious.

Genevieve said...

At the peak of one of the more intense blizzards that I remember, there were cracks of thunder along with the howling wind.

Brenda said...

This past weekend I was speaking to my father (age 85) about life growing up. He mentioned his family's social life -- primarily going to the home of friends and family to celebrate birthdays and get in some card playing. At any rate he mentioned that gathering together was so enjoyed so thoroughly that people didn't want to head home, even to beat a blizzard! I'm certain that the event you describe must have been severe since Dad said they also used to hitch up the horses and travel to and from church during light snow storms.

Anyway, as always, I enjoy your posts and always walk away with history made live!

Genevieve said...

Hi, Brenda. In the 1920s and 1930s when your father was growing up, I wonder how common it was for rural folks to have a telephone to talk to the neighbors or a radio to hear the news. In northern Nebraska or southern South Dakota, I'm not sure there would have been a radio station in some areas.

marvin said...

i lived through those blizzards,very few phones,and all we had for radio stations was wnax in yankton,s.d.which is 160 miles away,by the way i live south of winner,s.d.snow drifts were 20ft.high,my dads cattle lived through those blizzard years,but one neighbor lost over 100 head.

Genevieve said...

Marvin, there weren't many radio stations, even in the 50s and 60s. We listened to WNAX to get a weather report, and we lived 30 miles south of Bassett, Nebraska. We also listened to KRVN which was the Lexington, NE, station. My parents watched the barometer constantly and observed what the wind was doing.

Gecko46 said...

With reference to telephones and radio back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, where I grew up on a ranch some 16 miles from Philip, SD, we did have a telephone, which was one of 22 (!) that shared the same line. Each subscriber had a distinctive ring: ours was a long and three shorts. You had to pick up the receiver, then turn the crank. Everyone heard everyone else's rings, so you could listen in if you were so inclined. Over time, service improved, and by 1960 we actually had dial phones, which were a big deal.

As for radio, someone mentioned WNAX in Yankton. I remember listening to to it at night (A.M radio was best at night). We also got WCCO from Minneapolis, KSL in Salt Lake City, as well as stations from Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Del Rio, TX. And KOMA, Oklahoma City, was the station of choice for pop music among the high school crowd. But only at night. Daytime radio was much, much more limited. KOTA in Rapid City was about all we did get during daylight Hours.

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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)

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