The great blizzard which struck the northern plains on January 12, 1888 has acquired almost legendary status. Over a thousand people are said to have perished, about 100 of them in Nebraska. The blizzard came to be known as the “School Children’s Blizzard” because of the many children and teachers caught in little one-room schoolhouses scattered across the plains. But Adams County was spared, no citizen of the county is known to have died in the storm.
The morning of that fateful day was unseasonably warm and clear. Children had walked to school wearing light-weight clothing and carrying only their lunch. They would later reminisce about playing outside at noon in their shirtsleeves. While the residents of Adams County went about their daily activities unaware, a massive Canadian cold front was descending on them at a speed of 45 miles per hour. The front’s leading edge was a wall of blowing dirt, snow, and ice particles. The temperature behind the front fell by twenty to thirty degrees. By nightfall the temperature was well below zero–in some places by as much as twenty degrees below. Anyone caught out in that mass of howling winds, blinding snow and subzero temperature was in severe trouble.
H. O’Gara collected stories of the blizzard and in 1947 they were printed in a book titled In All Its Fury. The following stories, which illustrate the blizzard’s impact on the rural residents of this area, were excerpted from that book.
Lulu McGaw Cunningham lived on a farm four miles northeast of Hastings and attended school district 15. “During the noon hour, while we were enjoying our lunch, we heard a loud roaring that sounded like a train passing nearby. In a few minutes we knew what caused the noise for the blizzard struck the building and tore a shutter from one of the windows. The wind whirled dirty snow and ice against the panes, completely covering them so that we could not see out anywhere and it became very dark. The storm came with the force of a cyclone.
The temperature began to go down and by two o’clock it had fallen to about twenty below. The wind continued to blow, drifting and blocking the country roads. Our teacher said that unless our fathers came for us we would stay right there all night, as we had plenty of coal in the bin. But very soon our father’s did begin to come, one rode a horse, another had a top buggy, another a sled. My father drove a team of horses hitched to a double-box wagon. We sat in the bottom covered with blankets while father stood in front to drive. It was very hard on us, as we had to face the bitter, cold wind. Ice formed on the horses’ faces and father frosted his ear and face. A willow hedge fence was the only guide he had to keep the horses in the road. We were half an hour driving the short distance home.”
Josephine Bergeron Donnelly, daughter of Jule & Eleanor Bergeron, and a first cousin of Leona Bassett Kline, lived nine miles southeast of Hastings and attended school district 48 in Clay County. “Our teacher was a young man of nineteen and he boarded at our house. His name was Bert Stevens of Ohiowa. There were forty-five children in the school that day and he did not let one leave unless called for. The school board had delivered coal the day before and so he could keep a good fire all night.
About four in the morning the storm began to slacken and some of the parents came to see how we were getting along. Then Mr. Stevens took four dinner-pails over to our house to get food for the little ones. Mother filled all the pails and gave him milk for them too. People all over the country praised him for his kindness and wise care of the children.
When my father came to guide the three of us home he brought warm wraps along. The morning had been just like a spring day and we were lightly dressed. It took us an hour and a half to walk that one mile, for the wind blew so hard and the snow was so fine that we could not see our way. Fortunately we had a wire fence to follow. The snow was so fine and blown with such force that it went right through all our clothing and mother found it on our cold skin.
The next morning the weather was bitter but the sunshine was bright and there was no wind. The snow had drifted into high banks and was packed so hard that horses walked across it without breaking the crust.”
In 1988, Sister Frances Kline retold the story her mother had told her about the blizzard of 1888. “Father had rode a horse to Trumbull and went on the train to Aurora for some business. The two older boys, Tony and George went to country school. In the morning it was all right. Some time around noon this terrible blizzard came up. The two boys and the neighbor boy walked a half mile or so and the neighbors there said they would keep them all night because they had a mile to walk yet. And an older boy, I forget his name, he came by and told Mother where the boys were. Father got back on the train, he had tied his horse out in the yard some place and the people around there saw it and they put the horse in a barn. So Dad got on the horse and rode home from Trumbull. He had to face the wind. Mother said his clothes were just wet”.
Surprisingly a storm of this magnitude received very little mention in the two 1888 Adams County newspapers for which copies still survive On January 18th the weekly Hastings Gazette-Journal, carried stories of death and heroism from other areas of the state, but nothing about the storm’s local impact. On January 25th its Inland column mentioned livestock driven south by the storm and not yet found. That column also penned “We noticed a prairie schooner wending its weary way westward and we thought as we saw them shoveling through snow drifts that the lot of a homesteader is a hard one in midwinter.”
That same issue also carried a notice to local county superintendents from the State School Superintendent saying “Owing to the fact that numerous cases of freezing teachers and pupils of the public schools of this state during the late storm have been reported” it was requested each county report the number of children and teachers that perished, and the number who had limbs amputated from freezing
On January 12, 1943 a Hastings Daily Tribune writer quoted from a now lost issue of the Hastings Gazette-Journal.: “Once the storm struck it was apparent that Hastings was in for a bad time. School teachers quickly bundled their pupils up and sent them home in squads. Citizens hitched up carriages and helped deliver the children to their homes. Street cars were driven off the streets, stores closed early and all public meetings were cancelled. A committee from the county board of supervisors which had set out on an inspection trip to the county poor farm got caught there and had to spend the night at the institution, which probably gave them a better insight into the way the place operated.”
All trains from the east were held up at Lincoln, and the first one did not pull into Hastings until 1:30 p.m. on the 13th. The Hastings Tribune quoted a Gazette Journal writer who extended himself in describing the storm as “a desperate, howling, demoniac conglomeration of atmospherical wrath and fury.”
The Blizzard of 1888 was not notable because of its unusually low temperatures, nor its heavy snowfall, nor its exceptionally high winds. Rather it was a combination of a rapidly moving storm, a sudden drop in temperature from a balmy winter day to well below zero, gale force winds, and blinding snow which caused such hardship and claimed many lives.
Why did Adams County escape the loss of life and limb suffered in other areas of the state? Perhaps the storm was less severe here, although later accounts reported the same swift moving storm that brought howling winds and blinding snow, and the extreme temperature drop to twenty degrees below zero
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Adams County had a much denser rural population than many other counties. The number of farmsteads in 1888 is estimated to have been about 3,700 or over six farmsteads per square mile. Adams County people lost in the blizzard were more likely to stumble upon a farmstead than those in more sparsely populated areas. Also by 1888, wire fencing, which served as a life line to many people during the blizzard, was heavily used in Adams County. These two factors probably explain why Adams County lost no lives during the Great Blizzard of 1888.
It is difficult to compare the blizzards of a century or more ago with today because of the changes in technology. In 1888 people were caught unaware by the swiftly approaching storm. Today radio and television warn us well in advance of changing weather conditions. The pioneers had constructed their buildings as quickly and cheaply as possible. Wind and snow blew through the cracks, and the entire roof structure often blew off sod buildings. Our well built, well insulated buildings protect us against winter’s fury. The pioneers had no telephones to communicate with loved ones, causing some to venture out into the teeth of the storm because their family would be worried. Today’s heavy equipment clears the roads quickly; the pioneers had only the muscles of men and beasts, and the sun when it came out, to clear snow.
If the hardships and heartbreak of our Nebraska pioneer ancestors have any influence on us beyond the retelling of interesting stories, like this one, it may be that we inherited a strength and determination not found everywhere.
May 1988 interview of Sister Frances Kline.
Hastings Daily Tribune
Hastings Gazette Journal