The Blizzard of the Century

Readers of this blog and people who have attended book tour events have heard bits and pieces of my family history. My forebears are Scandinavian in origin. My great grandfather on my father’s side came here from Denmark. I believe he had been in the army but bailed on that in the face of some upcoming conflict in the 1880s or 90s. Grandpa Anderson, my maternal grandfather, left Sweden with a price on his head having shot a deer that ended up dying inside the king’s game preserve. (I believe there’s a good possibility the deer was shot inside the game preserve, too, but I’m repeating the story the way it was told.)

Snip Fransen, a great uncle on my father’s side, said that since our mother was Swedish and our father Danish, that made all of us kids Norwegian. I’m pretty sure that’s not true, either. Grandpa Anderson came to the US at age nineteen but didn’t become a citizen until he was in his late seventies. His lack of US citizenship didn’t come to light until my mother, Evie, wanted to take him to Sweden to visit his surviving brothers. He ended up making the trip to Sweden, all right—nobody argued with Evie—but he did so on a Swedish passport.

Naturally, upon arriving in the States, both sets of families ended up settling in the upper Midwest where the weather was close to what they were used to back home in their respective old countries. Both of my parents were born and raised in northeastern South Dakota. That’s also where my two older sisters and I were born, with me being called “the third one of the first batch.” The four younger kids, the second batch, were all born in Arizona.

When talking about my love of Arizona, I often relate the story of my parent’s move from South Dakota to Arizona in 1949. After being bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis for months, our dad was told he needed to move to a high dry climate. Evie, whose favorite subject in school had always been Geography, opened her rag-tag old Geography book to a map of Arizona, pointed to Bisbee in the lower righthand corner of the page and said, “That’s high and dry. We’re moving there.” And we did. See above—Nobody Argued with Evie!

My parents told stories about how we left the farm in South Dakota on the 28th of January 1949, when the temperature was 28 degrees below zero. Those two matching 28s somehow stuck in my head. I remember their saying that they had to use a team of horses to pull our car and heavily loaded trailer out to the county road. I remember their mentioning that we spent several days snowbound in Enid, Oklahoma. I have no conscious memory of any of that. My first memory is actually from some six weeks later when, during the middle of March, we moved into the house on Yuma Trail. On that day I remember hanging on two of the uprights in the fence, staring up at the clear blue sky, and feeling the glorious sun all over my body.

But this past week, that bit a family history took a big jolt. At some point while Bill was running the remote, he landed on a YouTube video entitled “The Snowstorm of the Century—the Blizzard of 1949. Here’s the link in case you’re interested: The Snowstorm of the Century

The program was produced by the University of Wyoming, and the whole thing is filmed in black and white which is a little like stepping back in time. The blizzard was actually a whole series of unrelenting snowstorms that blew down from Canada. The first storm came in January. A far more serious one arrived with almost no advance warning in early February. Remember, there were no satellites or doppler radar back then. Local weather forecasters did what they could with their conditions, but no one had any real access to the big picture.

The second cold front plunged through the upper Midwest—North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska—crippling transportation by stalling cross country railroad trains and highway traffic in snowbanks that wouldn’t be cleared for the next six weeks because the snow just kept coming, one storm front after another.

Knowing how my folks traveled they were probably caught in Oklahoma by the southernmost edge of that second storm and were incredibly fortunate that they had gotten that far when it hit. Had they been farther north, we most likely would have been snowbound for far longer than five days.

I watched the entire program with a kind of weird fascination, realizing that our moving family had dodged a deadly bullet. The snowstorms came through one after another accompanied by fierce winds. The snow was fine enough that it could blow into houses through keyholes and create inside snowdrifts. Thousands of head of livestock perished. The snow was so fine that it filled up the animals’ nostrils and suffocated them, leaving them frozen solid while still standing. My father had just sold the farm and unloaded all of his livestock. That would have been a terrible loss for us, and I’m sure it was for the purchasers.

The snow was so deep that it collapsed barns and houses. Most of the houses were totally devoid of insulation. Some people ended up burning their furniture when they ran out of wood to supply heat. Thousands of people were left stranded on stalled passenger trains and motor vehicles. Naturally food was scarce and feeding all those people was a daunting task. By the time snowplows were deployed to free trapped trains and vehicles, the snow was frozen rock hard. The last of the snowdrifts that year didn’t melt in some places until late September.

The film was rife with stories of neighbor helping neighbor. Eventually the armed forces were called in to help clear roads and deliver hay and feed to starving people, livestock, and wildlife. In some places, Air Force planes delivered hay bales by dropping them like bombs.

And while all this was happening—while homes and lives and livelihoods were being disrupted or destroyed—our family was in sunny Arizona embarking on our new lives. Our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived through that frigid winter and took their losses, but we didn’t. We missed it almost entirely.

I was four years old at the time. I have no conscious memory of life on the farm, but clearly on that sunny March day in 1949, my soul remembered how cold it had been. That day marks the beginning of my long love affair with Arizona. I believe my love of place—of landscape and weather and surroundings—leaks into all my Arizona books.

I’ve often wondered about the origin of that, but now, having seen The Blizzard of the Century, I think I understand why that is. Between warm and frigid cold, in my opinion, warm is better.

24 thoughts on “The Blizzard of the Century

  1. My family drove across country when I was about the same age you were, we left Michigan in June after school ended for the older kids-no driving in snow for my mom. My dad actually left in January to test out California and his new job. My older brother took a leave from the army to help with the move so my dad wouldn’t miss work. He drove one station wagon with the boys, my two other brothers and my mom drove the girls, my sister, my maternal grandmother and me.
    I don’t have many memories from living in Michigan or the trip but remember my mom telling the older kids that she would not be buying them shoes as we were moving.
    I took that as we didn’t need shoes in California, so when the sign on the road was read out loud by both my mom and grandma, “Welcome to California” my shoes went out the car window. Luckily for me that one of the boys in the station wagon behind us saw my shoes and stopped to pick them up.
    When we got of the car at the gas station to use the restroom I had the surprise of my life when my feet hit the asphalt, boy was it hot!
    My brother laughing handed me my shoes.
    We moved close to the coast and it took almost a year for my parents to convince me to wear shoes at least to preschool and church.
    But as soon as I was in my seat, my shoes would come off.
    Another thing I remember about the trip was, looking out for Indians, one of my brothers had me convinced that we would be attacked (too much tv and John Wayne movies). I spent a good amount of the trip through New Mexico and Arizona hiding behind the back seat till my Grandma finally convinced me it was a joke and Indians were very nice people.

    • My daughter was 2 years old and clothing aversive when my 5-yr-old son calmly reported from the back seat, “Diana just threw her shoes and socks out the window.” Fortunately, it was a local road and I could backtrack and find them. She still hasn’t been allowed to live that one down!

    • Our Irish Wolfhound, Bony, made a similar discovery when we were moving kids and dogs from Seattle to Tucson in August. We stopped for gas in Yuma, and he couldn’t get back into the car fast enough

  2. Your story reminded me of The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The town of De Smet, SD experienced a series of blizzards where the trains could not get through for months. Food and heating supplies would become very scarce and they barely survived.

  3. Have you ever gone back to visit the old place? It’s likely under corporate ownership now and producing oil. My wife Leslee, of Yacobson and Guunderson stock, was born in North Dakota and the family moved to Seattle during WW II. We’ve been in Tucson for 30+years and attended one of your talks at Mostly Books (who, BTW, turned us on to Beau and Joanna.)

  4. It is such a pleasure enjoying your column each Friday. Ty. It was eons ago that you and I met in Lake Havasu, AZ. Always a treasured memory. ((()))

  5. My grandparents left South Dakota for Denver in the 1920’s to try to alleviate my young Swedish grand mother’s severe arthritis (but high and dry didn’t help since it was still cold). In 1941 — on Pearl Harbor day, the whole family arrived in Southern CA with four kids and although the weather didn’t help her arthritis at all, they stayed there. Seeing the ocean for the first time, eating an avocado and oranges right off the tree!

  6. I remember a couple of big snow storms when I was growing up in Iowa in the 40’s and 50’s. We had no advance warning, but didn’t suffer as had fuel and kerosene lamps in the house. The animals were all in their sheds and lived thru it. We had a short driveway and the main road was paved. We were only two miles from town. The best part was missing school.

  7. Having lived in Nebraska now for almost 50 years, I’ve heard and read many stories about that winter of 1949. It’s really unbelievable how difficult it was for people in that time. One mailman used a Piper Cub airplane with its wings removed to deliver the mail, for instance.
    I was born (in Tacoma) in 1949, and a week after I was born, there was the big earthquake of 1949 iu the Puget Sound area. I was all of 8 day old, so have no memory of that event, except my mother saying that she stood in a doorway, cuddling me in her harms, and watching the land move back and forth, up and down.
    One other element to the Blizzard story: as a United Methodist pastor for over 40 years, and living in Nebraska, I have become convinced that Hell is not hot and burning; Hell is frozen and cold. Shoveling snow for all eternity is far more scary to me than shoveling coal!

  8. There was a blizzard!! that hit Lordsburg, NM in the late 40’s. I had always heard it referred to as the Blizzard of ’48. But ’48 or ’49? Who knows? Anyway, that snowstorm was a definite transportation stopper. Southern Pacific RR ran through town and US Hwys 70 & 80 converged or diverged (depending on the direction traveled). There were far more travelers needing shelter in that Burg of approx 3000 than there were hotels/motels to accommodate them. So? Solution was provided when nearly, if not all, of the residents opened their homes. There are likely still old-timers there that recall that time.

  9. I was in the Boston area for the Blizzard of ’78, which was pretty dramatic, and left me with funny stories to tell, and some minor heroic stories about my ex-husband’s father. That experience pales in comparison to what hit the Midwest in 1949. I look forward to watching the documentary. My parents were teenagers in NJ that year, so they were not affected and we had no midwestern relatives at that time.

    My first conscious memory was also a memory about moving house. I was a month or so shy of my 3rd birthday when we moved from the Marine base in NC to my dad’s new private sector job in Missouri. We arrived at our new home to find that while it had been vacant, a mama dog had settled under the porch with her puppies. I can’t remember the interior of the house, but the porch and the dogs are still a clear picture.

    Your grandfather’s passport/citizenship story reminds me of my mother’s journey to citizenship. She was born on Jamaica when it was still a British territory, as it was when she arrived in the USA in 1947, with a British passport. By the time she started her naturalization process, Jamaica had gained its independence. Immigration officials were unsure which country she was a citizen of, and it delayed the process. Mom’s swearing-in was the one and only occasion that my parents allowed us to miss school for anything other than illness.

  10. There were changes at the website server last week, and if you receive the blog by email, the comment link may not work. If you wish to comment, log in by going to jajance.com/blog. That’s what I had to do to write this.

  11. Grew up in the Chicago area. Went to Arizona for the first time on a college tour in 1961. When the bus was moving into the Phoenix area, and I smelled the trees, looked at the beautiful landscape, saw some adobe homes and magnificent Spanish architecture, I said to myself, “That’s it. I’m moving here.” And eventually did. Now I’m back in Olympia, WA for family reasons. Ugh… Sigh…I love your books, Ms. Jance.

  12. My father grew up in Michigan, right on Lake Michigan, and lived through many blizzards, but by 1949, the year I was born, he and my mother (who grew up in New Orleans) were in New York City- Certainly we have had blizzards here in NYC, occasionally giving us a snow day to miss school, but I don’t remember the kinds of snow drifts that would cover houses and barns- The weather people who appear on our local T.V. stations seem to love the drama of predicting snow- A foot of snow causes dire warnings that would be laughed at in Madison, Wisconsin where I attended college-Neverthe less, there was a blizzard about 15 years ago that caught the city unprepared and resulted in several deaths due to ambulances not being able to get through to rescue peole with medical emergencies, including a mother in labor with fetal distress- The baby died-
    People rightly blamed Mayor Bloomberg who neglected boroughs outside of Manhattan- His response was to declare on T.V. with great arrogance that we should not expect him to get to every community- I watched that and said, “Who the HELL does he think he’s talking to??!!” After the city wide outrage in response to that attitude, he made sure to plan better for the next snowstorm-

  13. Thank you for this post. I clearly remember the 1949 blizzards when I was ten years old. At our Owyhee County Idaho, ranch with Daddy trying to save all the cattle, we hunkered down and tried to stay warm. Roads were closed – the only possible form of transportation were tractors. I watched with fascination as snow accumulating on the power lines caused them to break and – viola – less than a year after the ranch was first electrified, again we had no electricity!!! our only contact with the outside world was our battery powered RCA radio.

  14. Based on a real event and oral histories of survivors, The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin is the story of an epic winter storm that hit the Upper Midwest on January 12, 1888. Laskin unfolds this blizzard of unprecedented suddenness and ferocity by focusing on half a dozen pioneer families – most of them immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. https://davidlaskin.com/product/the-childrens-blizzard

  15. My heating oil cost has doubled and just found out electricity rates are going sky high in January. Trying to forget the future I re-read “Improbable Cause” yesterday. It is an early Beau book where a dentist is killed in his office and Beau catches the murderer in the elephant exhibit at the zoo. I think I’ll re-read another book today to keep my mind off what is going on.

  16. Just found out I have cancer lot of times on my hands because I get tied easily I live in az and someone told me about you just got one from the library Tombstone Courage
    I have read all of Sidney Shelton’s yours seem just as good, keep me reading.

  17. I lived the Blizzard of ’49 and can even remember some of it. I had just turned 4 in December. We were living at a day school on Pine Ridge Reservation where my dad was the principal. School and community folks fed the National Guard in the cafeteria of the school. Mother went daily to help cook. Our house was very near the school and one afternoon I set out to see her at the school. The sun was out but the wind was blowing so hard that it took my breath away. I turned right around and went back to the house. The snow drifts were so high they covered the fence around the house, but the wind had swept clean the area by our front door. I remember seeing pictures of a 16 foot drift at the front entrance to the school. I have seen the documentary and share the awe of the breadth of the storm(s).

  18. I was 15 months old living in Nebraska. My late mother had a book that is still on my shelf entitled “Blizzard”. There are some amazing photos in that book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.