Not the first, and it won’t be the last…remembering blizzards of the past

Deanna Nelson-Licking and Carrie Stadheim | for Tri-State Livestock News
April 1965. Betty Cordell | Courtesy photo
April 1965. Betty Cordell | Courtesy photo

The blizzards of December 2022 have been likened to some of the bad blizzards and winters of the past century.

Lowell Faris

Lowell Faris grew up and still lives near Bowman, North Dakota. He was born in 1945.

“I don’t remember much of the winter of 1949 but I do remember we lived in a two room shack, and standing in the window watching a caterpillar coming in to shove snow,” he said. “This last one was tough but I think the blizzards in 1978-79 were worse. It was the whole winter long. In 1952 was one of the worst blizzards we ever had. We had no way to fight it, no 4-wheel drive tractors, mostly teams of horses. We were blocked in for two or three weeks. We had no mail for two weeks. They brought our mail with a little airplane. They would buzz the house once so you could run out side and pick up the mail sack they dropped on the second pass. We milked cows and couldn’t get the cream to town. A SnowCat (a two tracked machine with a single ski on the front) would come once a week and bring back our empty cans and take back the full ones.”

He remembered hearing about a bachelor neighbor in the early 50s who was snowed in for six weeks and finally ran completely out of groceries. He harnessed his team and took the bobsled to town -around twelve miles – and stocked back up, getting back home after dark.

Faris said the 1965 blizzard was very bad and a lot of cattle were lost and drifted in the storm. Another tough one hit at the end of the next decade. “In 1979 we had a 4-day blizzard, I had just started to calve and there wasn’t much I could do, I called a neighbor who had a pay loader to come help me and he told me he would get there when he could. I don’t know if they were worse, but now we have bigger equipment. Back then we had no way to fight them, just had to wait until the snow melted.”

Cattle sheltering beside buildings in 1910 in Wheeler County, Nebraska. similar photos were posted on social media from the December blizzards of 2022. History Nebraksa | Courtesy photo
The winter of 1949 left huge drifts, here residents of Custer County, Nebraska are attempting to dig out a vehicle. Photo courtesy History Nebraska

John Lemke

John Lemke has lived near Dupree, South Dakota since his birth in 1947. “I tell folks I didn’t go too far in life, only about four and a half miles.”

He recalls several bad blizzards in his lifetime.

In March of 1956 we had a bad storm, the draws filled up with snow and the cattle suffocated, there was a tremendous death loss.

He remembers that in 1978 the drifts were high enough to walk onto the roof of trailer houses. I remember when it got really bad, Dad would tie a rope from the house to the barn, the blizzard would blind you so bad you didn’t know the direction you were going. At least with horses they have the natural instinct, they will get you home. It used to be a 2-foot drift would cripple you but now with 120 horsepower tractors and snowblowers it doesn’t slow you down as much. If we still had the same equipment as they did in 1949, we would really be snowed in.”

Lemke said that since it’s been a long time since the really bad winters and storms a lot of folks and cattle have never experienced weather like we have had this past month. “Cattle have a natural instinct to handle a storm but most cows today haven’t experienced a storm like this.”

Mike Maher

Mike Maher from the Isabel, South Dakota area, said he’s not sure he’s seen two storms that severe within two weeks in a row before.

In the past, the warnings were shorter, but there was usually a little time to prepare. “We would go out and feed square bales. The tractor had no comfort cover, so you got cold,” he said.

These days, in a blizzard situation, Maher feeds his closer cattle through the storm if possible, and tries to feed the cattle further away extra so they can get by for a couple of days.

Maher, like his dad before him, dad uses natural protection to keep the cattle safe.

As far as advice to younger ranchers, Maher says: “Stay tuned to your local weather station. You want to be prepared. Feed a little extra and go with the flow. You figure things out as time goes by.”

Alvin Cordell

Alvin Cordell of the Camp Crook, South Dakota area, which is located in western Harding County, recalls bad storms he’s worked through.

“A neighbor once told me, if you’re going to live in this country, you can’t have a very good memory, because if you do, you wouldn’t want to live here,” said Cordell.

He said he’s seen storms come and go that dropped more snow (especially in the spring) than the December ’22 blizzards, but as far as the cold and snow together, “it was probably as bad as some of the worst ones we’ve had.”

One of the first bad winters he recalls was ’64-’65, which started on Nov. 13. “It went on through March,” he said. It was a long, snowy winter. “On Dec. 16, we had a blizzard like the one we just had. It got down to 35 below, and it stayed cold for quite a while. It went on and one. We never got rid of our snow until spring,” he said. That blizzard lasted about 36 hours, and brought cold enough temperatures that the daytime high was 25 below.

Alvin’s dad fed with a team of horses. When the road got bad enough he couldn’t get to school, his dad took him and his siblings to a neighbors across the river with the team and bobsled. They would ride to school and back again with the neighbor.

The winter of ’68-’69 was tough, too – starting about the first of December, and winding down with a bad storm the end of April.

Cordell believes that was the last winter his family fed cattle with a team – mostly loose hay that was pitched on and then pitched off again.

Next, ’77-’79 and ’78-’79 were hard winters. The November ’77 blizzard was the longest one he can recall. “It blowed here 50 mph or more for five days straight. It never let up a bit for five days. He remembers a trucker getting stranded hauling building materials to Sky Ranch – a home for wayward boys. “He sat there for five days in that truck. He had enough fuel to idle for about four days, and he was able to stay warm. I remember hearing the story of when the state plow finally came through, they said he had an apple left in his lunch box that he gave to the trucker. I guess it was gone in about two bites.”

Another long lasting storm in February of 1978 brought with it big livestock losses, he recalls.

The Cordells have good natural protection and usually get through storms with minimal livestock losses, he said. He remembers neighbors experiencing horrific losses of sheep in that storm. He recalls seeing sheep eating wood off stockade and also sheep with patches of wool missing caused by other sheep probably eating wool off them.

The winter of ’78-’79 started with a cold rain on Nov. 9. He doesn’t remember a killer blizzard, but tremendous amounts of snow.

Around April 20, 1984, a big storm hit. Cordell had been shearing sheep with a crew in Montana. They were supposed to shear 1,700 head at a neighbor’s but the sheep – recently brought north from Texas – were buried in a draw and died.

Another neighbor lost a large number of sheep that drifted over a cutbank into an open dam.

Cordell couldn’t get to his own sheep with his 2-wheel drive tractor in the thick of the storm, but he was able to get square bales of hay to them, with a snowmobile and sled.

“I’m sure it helped,” he said. He remembers going on a feeding trip on the snowmobile with his 70-year-old dad on the back. When he got back home, his dad was no longer on the snowmobile. Since Cordell had had to follow the fence in order to find the sheep and find his way home again, he once again followed the fence back toward the sheep and found his dad walking up the fenceline toward home.

The following year, ’85-’86 was the worst winter in the ‘80s.

“That’s the Christmas Day blizzard. We had a bad blizzard on Christmas Day. We had gone over to my in-laws.” Cordell said the wind was so strong, it blew over his dad and brothers’ hayrack with his brother sitting on it. “It flipped it over and landed on him. It buggered him up pretty bad. He broke his pelvis.”

Then when it was time to get home, Cordell’s other brother in law had asked the local aerial hunter and legendary pilot Alvin Hodge to take him home, and Hodge obliged.

Cordell asked if he might also get a ride home. “You could hardly see anything. When I crawled in that airplane, it had gotten worse. I was kind of wishing I hadn’t said anything about getting home. You had to know him and what he’d do for a neighbor in need,” said Cordell.

Cordell was amazed at his friend’s ability to navigate in the blinding snow. “You could see the tops of the trees of Box Elder Creek. He stayed just above the trees, I suppose we traveled 15 miles. Then he turned of and headed across country.” It took Cordell a moment to figure out how the pilot was finding his way, but then he realized the REA poles were serving as landmarks. “he followed them right to the hills. There’s kind of a rimrock that runs around those hills. When he got up to that rimrock, he cut that plane and tucked it down below that rimrock. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a cigarette and lit the cigarette. I’ll never forget that. I thought to myself, this is just an everyday deal for him.”

The April 6th storm in 1997 was probably the coldest spring storm he remembers.

“For two nights in a row it got down to 10 below.”

April of ’06 and May of ’08 brought storms. The second one was probably “the most welcome storm” he recalls because the previous year had been so dry.

The worst month of winter was probably March of ’09. “That’s the worst month of winter I remember in my lifetime. We got four storms here in March and most of them were in the second half of March.”

Will the December blizzards of ’22 help get grass started? “It will help some. Every operation is different and the landscape on every ranch is different.” The drifts ought to at least run water to fill dams and dugouts, he said.

“They’ve come a long way with their ability to forecast these storms,” he said. “We knew several days ahead of time what to expect. We got ready for it.”

April 1965. Betty Cordell | Courtesy photo
April 1965. Betty Cordell | Courtesy photo
April, 1965. Betty Cordell | Courtesy photo
April, 1965. Betty Cordell | Courtesy photo
These pairs stayed in the trees in the draw they are coming from during this last sprung storm. The wet, heavy snow that came with this storm was belly deep. Many ranchers took a heavy loss during this storm if their cattle didn’t find shelter from the wind. Cordell family | Courtesy photo
Downed power line in May, 2009 near Camp Crook, SD. “Freezing rain was the start of this May storm, but quickly turned to a sticky snow that stuck to everything especially post, wire, electric poles/line. The buildup of ice on the north side of post and poles was up to twelve inches thick. The electic lines and fence wire was coated 4 inches in diameter. This in turn took down miles and miles of elctric lines throughout Carter County, Montana and Harding and Perkins Counties in South Dakota. There’s a phenomena that happens when the ice build on electrics lines such as this. At some point the lines being to pop up and down. When this begins, the weight of the ice and snapping of the lines can cause either the poles to break or the wire snap.” – Ronda Cordell. Cordell family | Courtesy photo
1979. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
1979. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
2009. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
2009. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
Feeding in the spring of 2009. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
Feeding in the spring of 2009. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
April 2006. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
April 2006. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
April 6, 2009. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo
April 6, 2009. Alvin Cordell | Courtesy photo