Recalling the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard of 1888, ca. 1930s

Transcript of From November 1887 through January 1888, ice storms, frigid temperatures, and a December snowfall measuring up to 40 inches battered the Midwest. The morning of January 12 dawned with unseasonably mild temperatures and lulled many settlers into venturing out without their coats. By mid-afternoon, a storm had exploded, accompanied by rapidly falling temperatures, 60-mile-an-hour winds, and heavy snow with drifts of fifteen feet. One weather station recorded the temperature at 44°F at 2 p.m., −11°F at 9 p.m. and an overnight low of −42°F.

A farmer in Valley Springs, South Dakota, described the blizzard’s arrival: "About 3:30, we heard a hideous roar. . . . At first we thought that it was the Omaha train which had been blocked and was trying to open the track. . . . the storm came as if it had slid out of sack. A hurricane-like wind blew, so that the snow drifted high in the air, and it became terribly cold. Within a few minutes, it was as dark as a cellar, and one could not see one’s hand in front of one’s face."[1]

Many parents had sent children to school that day. Known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard, the storm caused the deaths of hundreds of people, including 213 children who never made it home from their one-room schoolhouses.

In the 1930s, the WPA Federal Writers’ Project interviewed survivors of the storm. Here, O. W. Meier, who was fifteen at the time of the blizzard, recalls the journey home from his school in Nebraska with his two younger brothers.

My brothers and I could not walk thru the deep snow in the road, so we took down the rows of corn stalks to keep from losing ourselves ’till we reached our pasture fence. Walter was too short to wade the deep snow in the field, so Henry and I dragged him over the top. For nearly a mile we followed the fence ’till we reached the corral and pens. In the howling storm, we could hear the pigs squeal as they were freezing in the mud and snow. . . . The roaring wind and stifling snow blinded us so that we had to feel thru the yard to the door of our house.

The lamp was lighted. Mother was walking the floor, wringing her hands and calling for her boys. Pa was shaking the ice and snow from his coat and boots. He had gone out to meet us but was forced back by the storm. We stayed in the house all that night. It was so cold that many people froze.[2]

Although the epicenter of the storm was in present-day South Dakota, the frigid temperatures were a nationwide phenomenon. Sub-zero temperatures reached all the way to Texas and Georgia, people could ice skate in San Francisco, and water mains froze in Los Angeles.

Excerpt

O.W. Meier Relates Experience He Had in the Blizzard of 1888.[3]

"The two Strelow boys, Robert and George, with John Conrad, my two brothers, and I, put out into the storm for our homes. We had not gone a rod when we found ourselves in a heap, in a heavy drift of snow. We took hold of each others’ hands, pulled ourselves out, got into the road, and the cold north wind blew us down the road a half mile south, where the Strelow boys and John Conrad had to go west a mile or more. When they reached a bridge in a ravine, the little fellows sheltered a while under the bridge, a wooden culvert, but Robert, the oldest, insisted that they push on thru the blinding storm for their homes. In the darkness they stumbled in, and by degrees their parents thawed them out, bathed their frozen hands, noses, ears and cheeks, while the boys cried in pain.

"My brothers and I could not walk thru the deep snow in the road, so we took down the rows of corn stalks to keep from losing ourselves ’till we reached our pasture fence. Walter was too short to wade the deep snow in the field, so Henry and I dragged him over the top. For nearly a mile we followed the fence ’till we reached the corral and pens. In the howling storm, we could hear the pigs squeal as they were freezing in the mud and snow. Sister Ida had opened the gate and let the cows in from the field to the sheds, just as the cold wind struck and froze her skirts stiff around her like hoops. The barn and stables were drifted over when we reached there. The roaring wind and stifling snow blinded us so that we had to feel thru the yard to the door of our house.

"The lamp was lighted. Mother was walking the floor, wringing her hands and calling for her boys. Pa was shaking the ice and snow from his coat and boots. He had gone out to meet us but was forced back by the storm. We stayed in the house all that night. It was so cold that many people froze."


[1] Account of Austin Rollag, quoted in Alyssa Ford, "125 Years Ago, Deadly ‘Children’s Blizzard’ Blasted Minnesota," MinnPost, January 11, 2013. Accessed May 19, 2014. http://www.minnpost.com/minnesota-history/2013/01/125-years-ago-deadly-children-s-blizzard-blasted-minnesota.

[2] "O. W. Meier Relates Experience He Had in the Blizzard of 1888," Folklore Project, Life Histories, 1936–39, US Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Accessed May 30, 2014. http://www.loc.gov/item/wpalh001092/.

[3] "O. W. Meier Relates Experience He Had in the Blizzard of 1888," Folklore Project, Life Histories, 1936–39, US Work Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Accessed May 30, 2014. http://www.loc.gov/item/wpalh001092/. Typos in the WPA Federal Writers’ Project transcript have been silently corrected.