It was a howling blizzard with below freezing temperatures and white-out conditions. My grandmother, crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, and her two youngest children, one of whom was my dad, lived miles from any neighbors. Dried corn cobs used for fuel for the stove to warm their modest one-room house were gone. The wind howled and showed no signs of letting up. She could not, as an invalid, manage herself to go the barn for more corn cobs. Grandma refused to allow my father, still a small boy, to go out in the blinding white-out blizzard for fear that he would get lost and freeze to death. So, she decided to burn her precious books to keep warm. (from a family story passed down to me.)
The last few weeks in the Bay Area we have experienced unseasonably cold weather. We are bundled in warm jackets, scarves, gloves and hats to keep out the cold wind. And we complain to friends and colleagues and even strangers at the store or in the elevator, exclaiming “It’s so cold!” Yet, our cold weather is nothing like the below zero temperatures with deep snow drifts that other parts of the country have experienced this winter.
It is a minor inconvenience compared to the family story above or the incredible winters our ancestors experienced on the prairie.
I have been reading Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, which describes the incredible winters suffered by Laura Ingalls¹ and her family with the other South Dakota homesteaders in 1881.²
Home construction didn’t help
Construction of sod houses had been abandoned on the South Dakota prairie in favor of cheap goods shipped by rail. Americans seem to always prefer the latest and easiest approach even if it is not the most effective. Shacks with board and batten construction with a layer of tar paper for insulation offered little protection from the wind and snow blowing in through the nail holes. The only heat source was a single wood stove.
Blizzard followed blizzard. The snow banks piled twenty-five feet high. The last train with supplies came to De Smet, South Dakota in early January, 1881. A hundred people were trapped in town, hoping for a lull or a thaw which never happened. The Ingalls family also expected a barrel shipment by train of winter clothing and a Christmas turkey. It never arrived.
Desperation, no heat or food
They ran out of coal to burn in the stove and began burning hay producing a little warmth. “There was no meat, no butter, no fruit, no coffee or tea. Sugar ran out and the cow went dry.”³ The Ingalls family began grinding seed wheat saved for next year’s crop. The entire town was barely surviving and starvation loomed. Seed wheat was running out. Two men, one of whom was Laura’s future husband, Almanzo Wilder, volunteered to drive twelve miles south with a horse and sled to find the farmer rumored to have wheat left from last spring’s crop. They managed to find the farmer, negotiate for the wheat and return to De Smet before the next blizzard struck. They saved a hundred townspeople from starvation.
Finally, the first of April the weather warmed after four months of no fresh supplies of food or fuel. The first trains that arrived in May carried farm machinery and telegraph poles. People threated to riot, but they did find a freight car with provisions, They broke the car open and rationed out precious supplies. The Ingalls’s Christmas barrel finally arrived in late spring with the long-anticipated turkey still frozen.
The sacrifices made by homesteaders and pioneers are almost unfathomable for us. It must have been a very painful sacrifice for my grandmother to burn her books. She was a school teacher who placed a high value on education. She had collected her treasured books over a life-time. But she felt she had no choice. Spending days in a dark underground dugout is unimaginable for us. Yet the experience of characters in my novel, Sarah’s Secret, Sam and the widow Peggy and her daughter during a frightful white out blizzard in Kansas was common among our pioneer ancestors.
The Ingalls family took in a young couple and baby without a home into their small crowded home. It meant stretching the dwindling supply of food to nine mouths. Laura was scathing when she wrote in her journal how thoughtless and rude the husband of this family was in grabbing more than his share of the sparse food before his own wife or anyone from the host Ingalls family. Charles Ingalls may have felt obligated and certainly felt they couldn’t put them out into the blizzard. It was a generous sacrifice by his family.
These stories are a good reminder for me. I can no longer complain about the cold, windy weather. I am grateful for food, a warm secure home and our modern conveniences. Are you?
¹Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House Series”
²The stories reported below are from Fraser’s book.
³Fraser, p. 110-111.