Pioneer Potluck: Blizzard of 1949 in Northern Colorado

  • By Grannie Annie
  • Tuesday, January 5, 2016 3:18pm
  • LifeFood

All of Wyoming.

January 2, 1949 through three to four weeks and later

On a farm east of Fort Collins, Colorado

66 Years ago this month


Dad came in from his Sunday morning milking old Bessie and told us we were not going to Sunday School and Church as it looked like it was going to snow. Dad was a great weatherman. He looked at all the clouds accumulating, the direction of the wind and checked on the “Terr-momentor” (us kids called the thermometer!) He was seldom wrong and when he saw his neighbors or Grandpa Cogswell, there was great discussion about what kind of weather was coming up. No radio, no TV, no computers. Grandpa added his knees were aching and so we must be getting some much needed moisture. It was a good thing, they would add.

The skies began to darken. A cold wind picked up, within two hours the temperature dropped. Then it started to snow, so that was a good thing in our house, Mom would be cooking and us kids gathered around Dad lounging on the couch, something he very seldom did.

Every so often Dad would get up and look out the big window in the living room, make some comment about this snow is going to be a doozy. But we sure need the moisture. The wind started a low moaning howl. It gradually picked up. The snow was blowing and swirling around the house. Small drifts began to appear. The pitch of the wind was louder and disturbing.

Worried and telling Mom “this is a blizzard” Dad put on his heavy coat and warm wool hat, said he was going to check on the milk cow and put some of the cattle and his horse in the barn. He also told brother Johnny “Get dressed warm you have to help me get them in the barn.” They were gone a long time. They finally came back in the house “half froze.” They had put ALL his prized cattle and his horse in the barn as the snow was drifting in the corrals and he wanted his animals safe. The rest of the cattle had to stay in the corrals. The barn was packed full. They cut holes in the hay loft and pushed hay down on top of the animals. They ate off each others back. My brother remembers the vast amount of steam the animals generated.

The last thing they did was string up some twine or rope from the barn to the house, so Dad would not get disorientated in the total white out when he went out to check them. The wind howled and whistled. We heard Dad get up and down all night checking how high the snow drifts were and if maybe it had stopped snowing. No, it had not.

Three days later, the wind let up a little and my brother and Dad hauled hay bales up the snow drifts to the hay loft so the animals could be fed. It was at this point I began to understand the dire position we were in.

If Dad left the animals in the barn for a long amount of time, they would get pneumonia, was a big worry of his. We had been without electricity for three days — we were lucky, some people had no electric for months.

Just as you would get used to the quietness of no howling wind it would pickup again and be just as loud or louder. More blowing snow stacking the snow drifts higher and higher, packing up against our house and over the roof.

Farms and ranches were cut off from any kind of communications. The Air Force and Army organized planes and you marked a very large “X” in the snow to assert your need for hay being dropped by the Air Force Cargo planes to the starving livestock. Medical supplies and food were also dropped if you needed them I do not remember how this was communicated, but I do know we had hay dropped for the cattle. The telephones did not work. We were without water as the cistern had not been replenished with water from the “water wagon” before the storm hit. Mom filtered melted snow in milk filters so we would have water.

I do not know how we kept warm and I do not remember how Mom cooked meals for us. The third week, she got out to the mutton roast in the bottom of the freezer. Dad, by NO means was going to ever eat it, he told her as he handed it to her that summer, from some very generous sheep farmer. Well, he ate it! So did all of us. That is the very last time I have every eaten “sheep.” Dad too! We relied on the vast amount of canned food in the basement that Mom had labored over in the fall.

In the beginning the “road crew” would clear the roads, only to have them drift back in a matter of hours. So that ended in failure as another storm hit and the roads drifted back in again.

To quote from the Wyoming History:

“Snow drift were so packed by the continuing accumulation and driving winds that some likened the density to that of concrete. Sometimes dynamite was used to clear the way

Astonishing sites like homes and business heaped to their roofs with snow and drifts reaching to the lower blades of windmills were common. Automobiles were buried, sadly sometimes with people in them. Cattle froze to death while still standing, forming grotesque sculptures. Wildlife amble through the towns, dazed and starving looking for food. Some were chased down by also starving dogs.

Like the Dust Bowl storms with their ominous walls of black dirt clouds, the 1949 blizzard raged white snow for nearly two months. The winds seldom stopped their incessant howl. When if was over, the last of the monumental drifts left in its wake, eventually melted – in July.”

My brother stated that about the third day of the storm, a neighbor, quarter mile north, came to the door and desperately in need to get to Fort Collins for medication for a new baby — this is where my memory bank differs — thought the neighbors wife was going to have a baby) So Dad and a couple of neighbors got their tractors with loaders and dug out a mile and half to Highway #14. They went around the drifts, through fields and yards to get to the highway. Brother John said that Dad and the neighbors with tractors waited at the school until the man with the medication came back and they returned by replowing the trenches they had plowed out, to get safely back home.

We made igloos and tunnels in the hard drift that were so hard and compact you could drive over them. Mom warned us we could climb on the roofs but do not touch the electric lines!

Bob lived in Sinclair, Wyoming. The blizzard piled up over the houses and the working men from the Sinclair Refinery, since it was a company town, came out and cleared the chimneys of all the houses so no one would die of carbon monoxide. The big rotary snow plows came through plowing out the roads that continued to Rawlins. He was warned never to fall off the big wall of plowed snow drift onto the roads, as he would not be able to get back up on the top of the snow drift. He would be stuck on the road. They tunneled into their houses.

Marian Thayer Johnson said she remembers walking on top of fences. Most of them had to be rebuilt. She remembers her Grandpa Homer and Grandma Eva Thayer lived in Harmony, Colorado and they worried about Grandpa going out in the storm to feed his chickens. Telephone party lines were out of service.

Mary Becker Donnel related that her Dad and brother walked a long way home from where they were visiting to tend to their livestock. Mary and her Mom and sister stayed at the neighbors. They had no way of knowing if her Dad and brother made it to the home place. Mary and her Mom and sister walked home a day later, relieved that they were safe at home.

Sadly Dad lost some cattle and horses as did his neighbors and friends across the state. It was months before the snow drift disappeared and even longer for the dirt that accumulated in the drift to leveled out. This storm and its devastation was a topic conversation for years. It reached a lot of people as it blew into Wyoming leaving snow drifts and stories to tell as well.

I repeat this story, based on lots of jagged memory and not a lot of basic real fact, as my Dad told it to who ever would listen, over and over for years.

Thank you Mary Becker Donnel, Marian Thayer Johnson, brother John McClure and my Bob Ricks for helping retell this story.

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