January 12, 1888

“Do you have your mittens, girls?” she asked as she tied the freshly-ironed hair ribbons onto our daughters’ braids.

“Don’t need them, mom!”

“Take them anyway.” The girls pulled their strung-together mittens through the sleeves of their jackets.

“It feels like spring, but your hands might get cold on the walk to school.” Margaret handed them their lunch pails and kissed them good-bye. “Learn good! Lizzie, take Amy’s hand!”

“Bye dad!” they called as they passed the barn where I was milking the cows.

Once the girls were on their way, my wife would set to work on her Thursday bread dough and put it to rise before she went about her chores. We had a small dairy farm not far from the Kansas border, old Pawnee territory.

It had been still dark when I went out to the barn.  I’d reached for my hat, then left it on  the peg by the door. The air was fresh, above freezing, promising a fine morning, not like January at all.  Sam’l, my boy, and I decided to take advantage of the day to wash the barn floor. We were about finished when, just before dinner, around 1 o’clock, the temperature dropped real fast, and the sky grayed up. We’d spread straw on the floor and it was near dry, but my feet were soaked. I hadn’t thought to wear my overboots. I wanted my hat and jacket, but I’d left them behind.

Pretty soon when we looked out there warn’t no difference between ground and sky. Sam’l and I hurried and strung a rope between the barn and house so’s we wouldn’t lose our way. The temperature had gone below freezing, just that fast. By the time me and Sam’l reached the back door with those lines, the snow was already more’n a foot deep and we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. I grabbed my hat and coat. My feet felt frostbit, but I couldn’t do nothin’ about it right then, tho’ they was burnin’ something awful. “Margaret!” I yelled from the porch. “There’s hell’s own storm kickin’ up. I need your help in the barn!” As always, she was ready to help, but working over that ironin’ board and then the cookstove, she didn’t know how cold it was. She couldn’t even’a felt it blowin’ in the chinks of the house. She grabbed her coat and hat, tied a scarf down over her ears, pulled on her gloves and boots and came out. We held onto the guidelines and got to the barn. Six inches fell between the time I’d left the barn and returned to it. Not five minutes.

“My god, John. The girls!”

“They’ll be all right at the school house. There’s a stove. They won’t be comin’ home yet.”

“No, I guess not.” I could see she was terrified, but there was nothing to do.

The wind howled. The the cattle were comfortable and fed. We separated the cream from the milk, and poured the milk and cream into their canisters as quickly as we could.  With the storm we didn’t see how we’d make the trip to the creamery in Pawnee. It’d have to wait. It might be a loss, might not. Margaret only churned butter for the family.

The temperature kept dropping. My feet were on fire, but  there was work that had to be done and soon. Until they went numb, I wasn’t worried.

“I think I froze my feet, Mother,” I said to Margaret.

“Go back to the house and put them in cold water. See if you can bring the life back. Maybe they are just chilled real bad.”

“They don’t  hurt no more.”

“I’ll finish here,” she said giving me a worried look. “Go tend to your feet, John. Sam’l, help your dad back to the house then come back and help me finish up here. Sam’l, there’s a pie in the oven. I imagine it’s ruined, but take it out anyway. Maybe we can salvage something.”

I didn’t want her alone out there, but I soon saw I couldn’t walk by myself.

Sam’l helped me along the ropes to the kitchen door. It warn’t more’n sixty feet, but it took us a long time against the wind.  I pulled out a kitchen chair. The table was laid for dinner. Margaret had moved the food off the stove or we’d have had a real mess.

“Don’t forget your mother’s pie, Sam’l.”

“I got it,” he said, pulling out the pie she’d made from canned peaches. The top was black and the crust around the sides, but I reckoned it’d be good enough for us later. “Let me get a basin for you, dad,” said Sam’l filling the wash pan with cold water. I unlaced my boots. My wool socks were frozen to my feet. I hadn’t put on my heavy woolen socks or been careful about water this morning. My wet socks had froze to my feet. “Here, dad.” Sam’l set the basin in front of me and I knew I’d just have to stick in my whole foot and let the water thaw the socks. Then I’d see the damage to my feet. The pain when I submerged my feet was awful and I forgot everything. A howling gust of wind hit the north corner of the house and shook the windows.

“Go get your mother.”

Sam’l was gone a long while, and when he came back, tears streamed down his face.

“I can’t find her, dad. The lines broke in the snow. It’s solid white out there. The wind’s so fierce I can’t even move agin’ it.”

We prayed she’d stayed in the barn but we both knew she hadn’t. It would’ve been her to come back to see to my feet.

“Do you want me to go see about the girls, dad?”

I shook my head. “How, son, would you do that? It’s a mile to town.” My feet burned like the furies of hell.

Sam’l and I had plenty of wood and we made it through that night listening to the howling wind and stoking the stove. We ate some of the burned pie and Margaret’s green beans, tasting nothing. I hoped against hope that when morning came the storm would have passed and we’d find Margaret in the barn. In any case, Margaret was somewhere out there and my little girls, too. The storm hit not too long before they’d’ve been about to come home. This warn’t right. The men safe in a warm house; the girls and women out there. Where? I imagined my little girls caught by the storm on their way home, maybe dead, maybe dyin’. At least dyin’ from freezing, well, for death it ain’t that bad.

Late the next day wind finally stopped. It was dark as night downstairs. The snow had drifted to the tops of the windows and blocked the doors.  Sam’l said he’d go out the upstairs window, dig us out and look for his ma. My feet were wrapped and by now in terrible pain, but I made it up the stairs behind him so I could toss him the snow shovel we always kept on the back porch. Sam’l opened his sisters’ bedroom window and jumped. I heard a soft “poof” when he hit the snow. “OK, dad!” he called up. I dropped the shovel into a drift near Sam’l. Looking over the plains, I saw the sun breaking through the clouds. The whole world was white. The telegraph poles that had marched across the landscape were pulled down by the storm, their wires strung across the drifts.

Well there it is. The snow was more than five feet deep; as deep as my Margaret was tall. The drifts could be twice that. It took Sam’l all the rest of that day just to dig down to the back door so we could get out. The next day, he dug a path to the barn door. It’d blowed open in the storm, but the cows had huddled against each other, against a wall. Once he reached the barn, of course, we knew. But the cows were hungry and needed milking just the same. Sam’l helped me out to the barn and I commenced milking. Them cows was lowin’ and carryin’ on, poor things. We couldn’t do nothin’ with that milk but throw it out. The milk in the canisters was good and we figured to offer it to people worse off than us. The day was short and when Sam’l couldn’t dig any more, I put soup on, the soup Margaret had made the day before.  All I could think of was how Margaret had made all this for us thinking to sit down for dinner, an ordinary day, but it warn’t no ordinary day. It was a deadly day.

It wasn’t til the second day after the storm that Sam’l could look for her. After we finished the milking, I pulled a chair out to the porch to watch. I could stand, but not for long. The poor boy wiped his eyes on the back of his mittens from time to time. We knew the end of the story already. Sam’l was just shoveling for the details. He found her, finally, where she’d fallen near the far corner of the barn. She’d found the rope all right, but didn’t know the blizzard had grabbed it and stuck it fast to a drift it was buildin’ beside the barn.  She’d grabbed that untethered rope thinking it would save her. Sam’l found her at the end of it. I shuddered thinking how she could’ve taken it back to the barn where it was still tied. She didn’t, thinking, probably, she was near the back door of the house. I could almost hear her screaming for help, wondering why we didn’t come. I wondered if she lived to see that she held the end of the rope. I felt my heart break. I knew I’d not be the same man ever as long as I lived, but we go on.

Young Andrew, the schoolmarm’s brother, came from town in a sled behind his work horses to tell us that all the schoolchildren had froze to death. When the roof blew off their schoolhouse, the schoolmarm tried to get them to safety in her house only 30 yards from the school, but no one could see in that white world. Bein’ so small they had no chance.  There was to be a service for all the children at the Presbyterian church and a burial in the cemetery. I asked Andrew where were my girls. He said at the church.

Sam’l went with Andrew to make the rounds of the nearby farms to give the news and offer help. When they came back that evening they brought my girls, both wrapped in blankets, in the back of the sled. “Sam’l said you’d want to bury them here with Margaret,” he held his hat in his hand, “I’m sure sorry Mr. Pedersen. There’s more’n fifty dead so far. They’re buildin’ coffins and I’ll bring you three tomorrow.” The young man’s kindness was almost unbearable, and it was then I thought to ask about his sister. Wrapped up in my own sadness, I forgot about others. It’s normal, but only in rememberin’ others can we pull ourselves out of sorrow.  “She’s frozen bad. The doc says she’ll lose both feet. I don’t know how she’ll bear knowing about the children, but we haven’t told her. Sam’l says you froze your toes. I’ll send the doc out to have a look at them.”

The next day, the doc came out and cut off all the toes on my right foot and two on my left. After a while, I could help Sam’l with the chores and later, pretty much everything about the place, but my balance warn’t no good. There was a lot of stories goin’ around after the storm and we heard of a family of kids up north a bit who were caught on their way home from school who were smart enough to dig into a haystack until the storm passed. They all made it.

We dug a little cemetery under a big old oak tree for Margaret and the girls. We laid the girls in the coffins just as they were, wrapped up in the blankets. I couldn’t bear to see their faces just as Margaret had kissed them with their Christmas ribbons and all. Margaret we wrapped in a buffalo robe given us as a wedding present by her dad. I put her New Testament in with her and my wedding ring so she would know I was with her.

Sam’l and I tried to keep the farm goin’ but our hearts warn’t in it, so we sold it to a young Swede farmer and his wife come out from Iowa. I hope things go better for them. We moved into town. I ain’t been good for much with my feet, but Sam’l did all right working in the creamery. He saved up his money and married the Bergren girl over in Pawnee and they started up a farm, but a couple years into their marriage, the farm was hit by hail as big as oranges. It broke all the windows in their house, crushed the roof, killed all their cattle and their little boy. ‘course his wife couldn’t take it and Sam’l found her in the barn, a shotgun pointed at her face, her brains splattered on the wall. I han’t seen Sam’l in fifteen years. This in’t no place for people.

chad

 

19 thoughts on “January 12, 1888

  1. I’ve heard that the weather in Nebraska — and other states like Wyoming and Montana really IS like that. Regardless, that was a really find post and a great read,

    • It really IS like that. I was in Nebraska in June of 1988. Drove through the Black Hills down to Chadron through the worst storm of my LIFE. Pitch black, night, pouring rain, mountain roads, deer eyes reflecting headlights otherwise NOTHING. Got down the mountain and the roads were flooded. The next day saw dead cows on both sides of the highway — hit by softball sized hail that all but destroyed the town of Crawford. Most awful was another storm came THAT night and hit the same place. Everyone said that would be the end of Crawford, but it wasn’t.

    • Thanks Maggie. I keep working on it. I think it’s a decent little story, maybe! 🙂

  2. I’m sitting here freezing after reading your moving tale. To think it could be true makes it worse. Beautifully told. Thank you Martha.

    • Thank you — I’m really into it. It’s still in progress. It’s kind of haunted me all day.

  3. Wow Martha. That is the way it is where we live. People die just steps away from their homes or cars. When it’s whiteout, we are told to not venture out at all. Stay put, but most people think they can make it but don’t. Quite a story! Well written, my friend.

    • Thank you — I realized just now that I got the idea for this story when I was 8 years old. It was 54 years waiting to be told. I remember as a kid riding in the car across Wyoming with my parents and the whiteouts would come. We just stopped and waited until they were over, sometimes hours. Those were mostly ground blizzards, though. Now on the highway they have big barriers with lights and sirens to tell people not to attempt to drive. I remember stories from my family about storms like this in Montana when they were kids, but in Nebraska, I never saw one, maybe because we lived near the river in an area with lots of hills and bluffs. I remember learning about this and having a hard time sleeping.

  4. I was told a story very similar to this but he said her mother heard notices and his father with a rope when out by the road and found a horse drawn school bus with children stuck. I had a school bus stuck near my property about 11 years ago. You just never know.

    • Wow. My grandmother drove a horse-drawn school bus in Montana in the 20s. But on this this one day in 1888 253 people died, most of them kids, and in a relatively small area. It must have been terrifying.

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