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
1952 South Dakota Blizzard Story