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.