Julius was lost in reverie as he recalled details about his father’s harrowing story about the terrible storm that swept over a little country school near Valley, Nebraska and the rest of the vicinity, in 1888. The “Great Blizzard of ’88” is a big part of the oral history of the Great Plains of North America. Julius is one of the old gentlemen I visit with at the assisted living center where my father used to live.
The subject of the great snowstorm came to Julius’ mind when a group of old residents were arguing over the origin of the word “blizzard”. Julius is quite proud of his German ancestry, so he claims the term is related to the word “blitzartig” which translates roughly to “lightning like”. We might think of the World War Two term “Blitzkrieg” or sudden, violent attack. He can be quite headstrong, so nobody challenges Julius when he enters the conversation.
Actual survivors of the 1888 storm are no longer alive, and the numbers of their offspring are becoming fewer. The stories continue, as they have for as long as I can remember hearing them since my own youth.
The January storm was the first of two severe blizzards to hit the United States that year. The second one took place in March and affected the New England States most severely. The January storm is the one that is most popular in folklore.
The earlier blizzard happened during an especially mild, warm spell on January 12, 1888. The event became known as the “Children’s Blizzard”. We need to remember that weather forecasting was primitive at best. Certainly, there were no weather radars nor satellites orbiting the planet. Simple barometers were uncommon in the land of simple farms in rugged territory. Nebraska, in the late 1800s was quite primitive.
The people who had already lived in the upper Great Plains for more than a decade had first-hand knowledge of earlier snow storms. There had been the “Buffalo Hunters’ Storm of 1872 that claimed the lives of tourist bison hunters who were killed from Texas to Nebraska. The Easter snow of April 1873 is infamous for the deaths of several ranchers and thousands of head of cattle in the open prairie.
Only two years before the 1888 event, in the “Blizzard of ’86”, one story tells about a young Clark County, Kansas woman who strayed from her family on a half-mile trip. She was found afterwards, within inches from the front door of her brother’s house, frozen to death.
Yet, people continued to arrive in Nebraska and neighboring areas. Most were ignorant about the earlier storms and believed that what they had heard were merely tall tales and not recollections of truly horrific weather events. Some of the newest residents were young school teachers. So when the first signs of snow appeared, some of those teachers dismissed their pupils early, believing the children would be safely home before any bad weather hit.
Anton was nine years old and was a pupil at a small school that was built out of sod. Julius said Anton’s teacher was a heroine because she saved everyone’s life that day. Soon, after the beginning of the storms approach into Valley County, very strong winds blew the roof off of the school building. Temperatures that were later estimated to be approximately minus 40 Fahrenheit instantly chilled the inside of the school.
There was no place in the building that was safe, so the 19-year-old teacher tied everyone together with rope then led her pupils, hand in hand, through the raging, white-out conditions to the nearest farm nearly a mile from the school. Julius says that the young Anton, his classmates, and the teacher barely made it to the farm house. Once there, everyone had to wait several days until outside help could arrive.
Anton and his friends were some of the more fortunate children that day. Another unlucky group hung onto their lives not far from my town, near Pierce, Nebraska. In that instance, the young teacher and three of her pupils became disoriented while attempting to walk to the teacher’s boarding room for safety. The small group dug into a haystack to get out of the storm. Unfortunately, the three kids froze to death but the teacher did live through the ordeal, she lost both feet to amputation, though.
Stories about death and near death abound in the folklore regarding the Great Blizzard of 1888 from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan, Canada. The stories are told by elderly people who were the children of the children who lived through the horrific blizzard. Although there are no accurate official records about the victims, the most accepted accounts estimate that over 200 people were killed in the great storm. Most of the deaths were school children, the rest were their parents, and many were the school teachers.
Julius and the rest of the old men at the assisted living center say they still remember the warnings of their parents about the deadly nature of Nebraska blizzards. When the sky begins to get cloudy, the men tune their radios to weather forecasts.