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.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Winter of 1948-1949

A long season of deep snow and cold temperatures


I wasn't born until 1951, so I didn't experience the winter of 1948-49, but I've heard stories about it all my life.

My parents, along with my brother Dwight who was a toddler, were living on a ranch some ten miles south of Johnstown, Nebraska. The first major snowstorm hit in November of 1948. More snow followed, but around Christmas, it warmed up a little. My parents were able to get to town in the Jeep for supplies. They didn't get back to town again until sometime in late February.

Earl Monahan's Sandhill Horizons (pp.280-284, published in 1987 by Earl H. Monahan) also notes the break in the weather that allowed them to open the roads and get to town around Christmas. At the holidays, the snow was about a foot deep at the Monahan ranch, out in the Sandhills northeast of Hyannis, NE.

On Sunday, January 2, 1949, the Blizzard of  '49 moved in. By the next morning, the temperature was -4°F. and it was snowing hard with a howling wind that created white-out conditions. The blizzard continued through Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday, January 5, the sun finally shone again. There were huge drifts, and the wind was stirring the loose snow into a ground blizzard. The effort to locate and feed the cattle in the deep snow began.

Monahan wrote that when the wind died down, they had a few days of moderate weather. Then the weather went bad again -- starting on January 8th,  frequent snowstorms and extremely cold temperatures prevailed until the wintry assault finally slackened in mid-February. The February 7, 1949, edition of Time magazine reported that Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota had 18 snowstorms in 27 days following the initial blizzard in early January.

The Monahan Ranch owned a TD-9 crawler, and it was a tremendous help in feeding the cattle during those long weeks of deep snow. They were able to plow their way to the herds, but the crawler had to be brought home and kept inside every night so it would start again. (The diesel gelled if it got too cold.)

Credit: Blizzard image from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

Operation Snowbound and Operation Haylift


Loup County is located in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska, east of the Monahan Ranch and just south of Rock County where I grew up. My Loup County (NE) centennial book contains the following description of that terrible winter.
The Blizzard of 1949 hit Loup County like a rocket and all was at a standstill. Cars and trucks were immobilized by drifts ten to thirty feet high. In the surrounding countryside, cattle were frozen stiff in standing position. Farmers and ranchers were isolated. When the airports were finally cleared, the Army flew supplies and troops for "Operation Snowbound," a month long program to help suffering familes, ranchers, and farmers. Mom remembers planes dropped food and medical supplies to the Loup County residents that were snowbound in the Sandhills[, s]ome of whom never made it to town until spring.

Source: Story of the J.U. & Delpha Predmore family on page 123, Loup County - Taylor, Neb. Centennial 1993-1983. Published by the Loup County Centennial Committee, no publishing date cited.

When I was a college student in Missouri, I was introduced to a friend's father. Jim Gentry was a heavy equipment operator, who had helped construct the Alaska Highway during World War II. As soon as he heard that I was from Nebraska, he began talking about the Blizzard of 1949.

I don't know the story of how Jim got the job for Operation Snowbound, but in early 1949, he was sent to northeastern Nebraska to drive a snowplow and open the roads to snowbound farms. He worked from dawn to dark every day, and the farm families fed him and gave him a bed, wherever he was. Thirty years later, he still marveled at the experience.

Operation Haylift was carried out by the Army Air Corp. Airmen dropped bales of alfalfa hay out of airplanes to starving herds of sheep and cattle. Many had not been fed for weeks. A terrible number of livestock and wild animals perished from hunger, thirst, exposure, and injury. Some ranchers lost 50% of their herds or even more.

I found several aerial images of the snow-covered prairies in 1949 at the Life photo archive. An image search for "Blizzard of 1949" brings up many interesting snapshots and websites. There's also an excellent video on YouTube: "The Blizzard of 1949: A Nebraska Story".

The entire north-central area of the United States, as far west as Utah, Nevada, and Montana, had a bad winter that year. However, Nebraska was one of the hardest-hit states, and so it has more than its fair share of the snow photographs and stories from the Winter of 1948-1949.

Related articles on Prairie Bluestem:
Blizzard of 1949 Stories
Ready for Winter
Winter Memories
1952 South Dakota Blizzard Story

9 comments:

RunAwayImagination said...

My dad grew up in Gordon, which is just west of the Sandhills. Folks there recalled how the snow would drift so deeply that people were trapped in their houses, so neighbors had to dig each other out. It's one of the many reasons my dad decided to move to Washington, DC after graduating from Chadron College in 1939. Thus I'm a native Northern Virginian instead of a native Nebraskan.

GardenofDaisies said...

Yikes! Glad I wasn't around then. Makes me think of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "The Long Winter"

Genevieve said...

Hi, Runaway. Anywhere the wind was slowed down, it dropped the snow it was carrying, and many times, it was beside a building.

Gayle, you may know that Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Long Winter" of 1879–1880 was set in South Dakota. You probably remember in Laura's book that the trains could not even get through!

They can get some bad winters in SD, and SD certainly shared in the bad winter of 1948-49!

During the winter of 1948-49 in Nebraska, train service came to a standstill, and at Ashby, NE, a locomotive got stuck in the snow. There are other stories of trains being stranded at stations. Train crews used dynamite in some places to blast the snowdrifts off the rails!

Anonymous said...

I was fairly young but vividly remember walking up a drift and over the top of our two story home in the Panhandle. It made great sledding. I had an Aunt trapped in a basement apartment for two days until neighbors could dig her out, her door was under that huge drift.

Every stockgrower in the state had stories of loss and hardship. The old timers still measure each storm against the Blizzard of '49.

It's curious that news coverage of the current storms is completely devoid of information about the impact on livestock.

A Friend in Nevada

Genevieve said...

I wondered if I was exaggerating the interruption of train service in my comment above, but I don't believe I am. The Union Pacific website says that their main line across Nebraska and Wyoming was closed by snow for 7 weeks in 1949 due to the blizzards. The Burlington and other railroad lines experienced frequent, sometimes long, stoppages in service when tracks were blocked by fallen poles and trees as well as deep snow and high snowdrifts. In reading more about the topic, I've learned that numerous trains got stuck in the snow, sometimes derailing. The passengers who were stranded in train stations should have counted themselves lucky!

Genevieve said...

Friend, it seems to me that storm deaths of livestock are rarely reported except by local newspapers and radio. I don't think that urban reporters and urban audiences have much interest in farm news. Every generation is farther and farther away from the soil.

nebraska gal said...

I was in grade school when the blizzard of 49 hit did not go to school for 2 weeks and when we could we walked to school across a pasture did not follow any road.
I know my dad scouped snow by hand
so he could feed cattle we had a lot of big big drifts between the house and barn
I have family at Gordon and they had it really bad then to.
glad we do not have storms like that anymore

Genevieve said...

Nebraska Gal, I hope I don't ever experience such a bad winter!

Can you imagine how your father felt when he looked at those drifts and knew he had to dig through them by hand? People worked terribly hard. I read in my Loup County book about a man who worked so hard trying to feed cattle in a distant pasture that he became severely exhausted. He nearly didn't make it back home.

Anonymous said...

watch or goto nebraska public television. John sibbit has a comment about it between ashby and hyannis they finnally got the train tracks open and the first train thru went thru a bunch of his cattle, becasue the cattle had nowhere else to go. the tracks being the only open ground for miles. Left a lot of cattle mangled. John told his hired help, Pistol Miller, get out your knife, we can't leave them to suffer. As I remember the show, It was a pretty emotional scene.

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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.