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The Children's Blizzard, Part 1: The Blizzard Club

Snow drifting in Iowa.
Jim Schaap
Snow drifting in Iowa.

For many years after the Great Blizzard of 1888, a group of survivors held annual reunions calling themselves The Blizzard Club. For years, the stories were told again and again.

A teacher by named McKinley taught in a tiny country school, where he told the children, that January afternoon, that they simply could not risk the danger the massive storm presented. They had to stay overnight. No one came by to free them or bring them bread. To keep the schoolhouse warm, he burned their desks.

A teacher in Schuyler determined her students' best chance for survival would be to go home. They started out, tied together by a rope they found in a closet. Out they went, the troops from some Custer County school. But the going got very tough. Every few minutes they would turn their backs on the storm's incessant wind just to shake the ice from their faces and once again gather breath enough to go on. Their teacher kept them going by making a game out of the danger: "About face," she'd yell, and the whole gang would salute and turn again. They made it.

The moderate temperatures that morning prompted many ranchers to turn the cattle out of their barns and send them into what was left in the cornfields. Many of those cattle died in the blizzard, but others, finding some kind of shelter somewhere, showed up later, sometimes weeks or even months later.

An older boy, no longer in school, went out to the barn to check on the cattle. When he tried to return, he lost his way, then stumbled over a plow. Because he knew exactly where that plow had been left, he found his way back to the house. Needless to say, he might have perished had not that plow got in his way.

The Shenck family didn't leave their house for four days because the entire house was totally covered in snow.

A man named Ben Freeman had created a makeshift telephone by stringing a wire between his place and that of his brother. They called it a "thump box," eight inches square with a hole cut in the end and fastened to the wall in both places. Family members would "thump" the copper plates of the box and actually speak to each other, handy, her niece claimed, in the middle of the storm.

A woman named Mrs. Calkins became alarmed when her husband did not return from the barn, so alarmed, in fact, that she left her baby inside the house, pulled on her own coat and hat and mittens, and went out to try to find him. Not long after she left, he returned and found her missing. He spent the entire night looking for her, returning now and then to the house to put in fuel and look after their baby. The storm broke in the night, but not until he looked once again for her did he find her body, only a few rods from the house.

A handful of young guys got separated when the wagon they were using to haul lumber back from the woods along the Niobrara got hung up in a massive drift. One of the boys, the youngest, stumbled on alone until he just happened to reach the farm place of a family he certainly didn't know. The three- and four-foot drifts had thoroughly depleted whatever strength he had, so he told his blessed hosts that surely the others must have frozen to death somewhere in the storm. Just so happened that the host worked for the railroad. The next day, at work, he mentioned that several boys had died. The agent told the Omaha newspaper, as well as the boys' parents. Not long after that, the boys sure enough showed up at home.

Frank Burwell felt the agonizing desire to just fall asleep in all that cold and snow. He'd crossed the river to get to his place, then stepped in a pool of water from an artesian well; his feet were frozen. He'd thought he could find a little sod shack but couldn't, missed it completely, just as he'd earlier missed his brother's place. He started following a fence, then came to the very last post. That's when he began to think it might be easier to just allow himself to sleep and thereby welcome death. But he knew he wasn't gone, so he struggled on. When finally he crawled, on hands and knees, up to the back door, he was, his brother remembered, more dead than alive. "We cut off his shoes and clothing and worked over him all night," his brother said. "He lost some of his toes, but otherwise he made it all right."

The Blizzard Club told a thousand stories of a storm that they wanted never forgotten. More to come.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.