One to remember: Memories of the 1952 blizzard
The morning of January 21, 1952, was fairly warm and balmy, as 9-year-old Glen Hollenbeck saddled up his good pony, Dave, with lunch pail in hand, and rode off to join his schoolmates at the Churchside Country School, a mile east of his ranch home. The area had received what seemed like relentless snow storms in the previous month of December, (some 40 inches of snow in December storms alone), so some nice weather was well received as ranchers and farmers were busy recovering and restocking supplies from the almost six weeks of paralyzing weather events. People, livestock and feed supplies were all stressed.
Most roads had been blocked from Dec. 5 until after Christmas in 1951. Relentless snowstorms during the previous weeks had left the country buried in snow, so hard that people and livestock could walk on top of the snow. Of course, weather predictions were quite primitive. At that time, rural electricity was just being implemented, telephone service was deficient, and four-wheel-drive vehicles and tractors were unheard of. WNAX radio station out of Yankton was the main source of receiving news and weather forecasts, and was of a major assistance in multiple ways to the scores of people affected by the storm.
Glen recalls, “We were outside playing over the noon hour. It was really nice out, but was getting dark, almost like evening, and it was eerily still. Someone came to the school and said that WNAX was reporting a bad storm coming and told our teacher, Rose Diez, that she should dismiss the kids. I went to the little barn and got on my pony and headed home, but barely got started when the storm hit. The snow was blinding me and I was cold, lost, and scared, but remembered my dad telling me that if I ever got lost, to give my horse his head and he would take me home. I let go of the reins and buried my face on the horse’s neck to try to shield my face. It seemed like an eternity, but suddenly the horse stopped and I could see something red…it was our barn! The horse and my dad’s advice literally saved my life. Memories of that storm haunt me to this day.”
Much has been written about the Blizzard of 1888, dubbed “The Children’s Blizzard” due to the many school children that were caught and perished in that storm, but the tri-state area witnessed a similar scenario during the Blizzard of ’52, and area elders that witnessed both the historic Blizzard of ’49 and a memorable 1966 storm, claim the Blizzard of ’52 was the worst. Beginning in South Central Nebraska, the storm increased in width and hit South Central South Dakota Monday afternoon, January 21, and continued all day Tuesday and into Wednesday with a wind velocity of 50 to 60 miles per hour, blocking roads and trapping motorists. The storm spread over the State into North Dakota. From Sturgis to Aberdeen, there was no visibility. It struck the Rosebud country so suddenly that many pupils and teachers were marooned at school houses or nearby homes; occupants of stalled cars sought shelter in nearby homes or remained stranded in their cars for the duration. Thousands of head of livestock, poultry, and wildlife perished, and unfortunately several lives were lost, including children. The death toll included little Virginia Spinar, and Kenneth Maxwell, a delivery truck driver, both in the Winner area. Near Murdo, what is deemed as one of the worst disasters in that area, was the death of Pete, Cecil, and young Flora and Helen Judd, all as a result of that storm. Others around the state lost lives, including Thor Fosheim, a Moenville rancher, and Bernice Hoffman of Mitchell. Scores of people suffered frozen limbs and amputations were necessary. Many stories resulted from folks stranded in vehicles, in stranger’s homes, school houses. Three men, Harry Bettcher, Harry Freeman, and Bertie Clark spent 17 hours in a stalled maintainer.
Duane Holden, an area rancher, was a student along with his brother, Merle, at the Vobr School. When word came of the expected storm, the teacher, Ethel Steele, sent the children to the Boyd O’Bryan farm home, about a quarter mile south of the schoolhouse, where they stayed three days. While reminiscing about the experience with Boyd’s son, Dick O’Bryan, Duane said, “I told Dick I would never forget seeing his mother making pancakes for all of us kids. After we stayed there three days and the storm had let up, my brother and I walked home, which was about a mile. The County came with cats and bulldozers and cleared trails through pastures and across fields…forget the roads.” Holden further recalled, “My mother (Selma Holden) was teaching the Rosebud School which was about a mile east of our farm home. My dad went to get her in a pickup when the storm hit, but got stuck in the driveway. He then started walking home and ran into a windmill, so knew where he was. He went south of the windmill to a fence and followed the fence home. It was a barbed-wire fence, so by the time he got home he had worn the palm out of the leather mit he was wearing. We had no phone so he had no way of knowing if my mother or us kids were safe. My Uncle Joe, who lived a quarter of a mile away, had a phone, and O’Bryan’s had one. My mother stayed at the school house for three days until after the storm, when a Mr. Likens, who lived a quarter mile from the school, came and walked her to his place. My dad took the team and wagon and picked his way through the fields to their place and got my mother.”
Holden commented on the importance of horses after the storm, as they were invaluable for feeding livestock as well as transportation, as what few tractors were available were basically useless. He mentioned that Pat London of Colome, a well known auctioneer and horse trader, had a pen full of killer horses and sold every one of them to area farmers after the blizzard.
Not only are there harrowing stories involving the country schools during the Blizzard of ’52, but there are those from everyone living where the blizzard struck. Livestock losses were immense and there was a shortage of feed with difficulty getting it to the hungry critters. It was estimated that half of the cattle that lived through the storm had frozen feet.
Forrest Huddle, who ranched in Southwest Tripp County, lost over 100 head of cows and had many more with frozen feet and other ailments due to the storm. Huddle also had an airplane and as soon as possible, along with other area pilots, helped both the Valentine and Winner airports with multiple missions. One such mission was carried out by Chalms Wilson, as described in the following account:
Lila Ann Miller (now Lila Heying Kellogg who resides near Rapid City) recounts, “After graduating from high school in Winner and attending Spearfish Teachers College, I was assigned my first teaching job at the Lone Star School, a country school West of Hamill, South Dakota, When the Blizzard of ’52 hit, parents of students started to come for them about 2:30 in the afternoon. The school had no phone. The Covey children’s brother came and took them and me to their home (the Ernest Covey farm home), which was about one-fourth mile north of the school. I stayed in their home for quite a few days, as the roads were closed for some time. The phone at the Coveys’ home still worked so after a week or so later I called my parents, who lived near Colome, and told them I would sure like to come home. My parents (Alfred and Lucy Miller) were still not dug out yet, but my father hired a friend, Chalmace (Chalms) Wilson of Winner, to fly up and get me. Chalmace had a small plane with skis and was flying mercy missions dropping food, medicine and supplies to stranded families. When I received a call that was ready to come get me, I was instructed to meet his plane in a field north of the Covey farmhouse, which I did. Once I got in, on the way home, he told me, ‘You’ll be home in just a few minutes.’ Because we had no phone at home, he said he would buzz our house and I was to toss out my luggage, as the nearby field was too rough to land on, and then I was instructed, ‘On the second time around, you jump out.’ WHAT? Might the tail hit me? ‘No, I will lift it up, don’t worry.’ Lord help me, I did jump out into a snow drift up to my armpits. I waved my arms to let him know I was OK, and soon my dad came to get me. The only regret I have is that I did not have a camera. I am 85 years old now, and that is my story.”
Garnet Sargent, who lived on a ranch southwest of Clearfield, described difficulties endured throughout December of 1951, stating that the roads were blocked from December 5 until well after Christmas, and journaled, “We turned the cows out to eat around the stacks. On January 21st, 1952, the cows came on the run into the trees and Kenny (her husband) said, ‘My Gosh! The wind must be changing!’ I said I would go and fill up the barrel with fuel. I got a five gallon can and snow hit so fast and hard that it filled up the funnel and the fuel would not go in. Our brother-in-law, Ed Eckerman, was going to Winner to sell some old cows but the truck got buried in snow. The cattle were in the truck for four days, after the three days of blizzard. Clyde Sargent left Eckermans’ to head to town but he also got stuck. He held onto the fence and made it back to Eckermans’ and was so exhausted he couldn’t talk at all. He said if he had stopped he would have frozen to death. After the storm died down, Kenny rode his horse to Clearfield when the mail finally got through. Nils Boe, the Governor, flew over and said the snow plow was between Clearfield and Keya Paha and it was stuck. The army came and plowed it out.”
Shirley Luedke Tate, a Hidden Timber ranch wife, now residing in Winner, was a high school student at Mission when the storm hit. “I stayed with one of my friends in town, as high school kids always managed to stay with a friend. After the storm was finally over, I remember walking down Main Street. The snow was so high and hard that you could walk on top of it, and at times we were above the roof tops of the stores.”
Babe Haskell had just moved to a Clearfield area farm with her husband, Wes, and baby, Marcia, prior to that winter. “We were snowed in for days. Maintainers were helpless so finally caterpillars attempted to open the roads, however, when there was a trail opened, the snow was so high on each side you could not see…just like a tunnel. My poor husband was from southern Kansas, near the Oklahoma border. I’m surprised he stayed after that winter,” she said.
According to the secretary of the South Dakota State Historical Society, dated May 1, 1952, the total snowfall for Pierre was 63 inches for the winter of 1951-52. This is the greatest snowfall that has ever officially been reported at Pierre, and the largest amount recorded in the state, and according to those experiencing the wrath of this storm, it was certainly a blizzard to remember.
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