Sunday, August 23, 2009

Beadle County and the Deadly Blizzard of 1888

     The most brutal blizzard Beadle county, South Dakota, and most of the rest of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Minnesota has ever seen, raged into the area on Thursday, January 12, 1888. Blizzards are nothing new to the area, but several factors combined to make this one of the most deadly winter storms in history.
     First, there was a temperature increase of nearly 20 degrees between the day before, and the day of, the storm. At 19 degrees above zero, Beadle county residents must have considered the day a balmy one, with the weeks of sub-zero temperatures they had previously endured. However, a brutal drop in temperature was yet to come before the day was over. Adding to the danger, wind speed just before noon was 24 mph; in less than two hours, the wind would increase to a roaring 60 mph, with higher gusts.
     With the warmer weather, more people were out tending to their business, and more children were sent to school. The timing of the storm’s arrival could not have been worse; workers were in the middle of their work day; farmers in the middle of their chores, and school children in the middle of their studies. Had this storm hit in the middle of the night, countless lives would have been spared. In addition, the significantly warmer temperatures of the morning meant that many of these people were not adequately dressed for what was to come.
      The storm roared in with such suddenness that people did not have time to protect themselves, nor to make any preparations in advance. The storm came with such ferocity that one three year old, identified only as Timmy, thought “God’s thrashin’ machine is coming to pieces!” The tiny shards of ice and snow came pelting down with such force that visibility was next to nothing in a very short time. Farmers in their barns were unable to find their way back to their houses. It hit overwhelmingly hard and fast.
     Stories of affected Beadle county residents were not hard to come by -
Emil Gilbertson had come to Dakota Territory from Chicago some five years previous, answering the call of free land. His claim was 11 miles southwest of Altoona, and it was there that he was headed as he left town on Wednesday. He was found Friday, about 2 ½ miles west of town, frozen to death.
      Another Altoona resident, 60 year old Lewis Merriman and his 18 year old son Hallie, came to Dakota Territory from Whiteside county, Illinois. They were just a mile away from home when the rage of the storm hit Beadle county. They knew they were lost, and conditions so bitter that survival was not likely; Mr. Merriman was exhausted and could not continue; his son took off his overcoat and put it on his father, and attempted to find help. Mr. Merriman’s body was found a half mile away, and his son’s body just a short distance from their home.
     Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Gilkeson, who came to Dakota Territory from New York, lived on the Caldwell Dairy Farm, three miles south of Huron. On Thursday, he and Otto Gose headed east of the farm in order to get hay. The storm hit just before they started for home. Once they realized that they were lost, they tied the team of horses to the wagon and started out separately. Gose wandered the rest of the day, but eventually made it to the farm, although badly frozen. Searchers went out early Friday morning, but there was no sign of Gilkeson. It was not until the following Monday, when Frank Miller, who lives 12 miles from Huron, was walking to town, and happened to notice a piece of cloth sticking up from the snow. He found the body of a man, arms folded across the breast to keep his coat tight, and his hat pulled down over his ears. He had nothing on his hands. A piece of the man’s coat was taken to Mrs. Gilkeson, who confirmed it was her husband’s. The body was later taken to the Gilkeson residence. Their daughter came from Wessington, riding on the snow plow.
     Meanwhile, Michael Hand, a farmer, took his cattle to a nearby well for water. The coming of the storm was so sudden that he could not see the barn, and wandered for some time before stumbling over a gang plow. Knowing the plow was only about 10 feet from the house, he started in what he thought to be the right direction, but it was not until he came to a harrow which was a half mile from the house that he knew he was lost. He stumbled about all night; by morning, his eyes were frozen shut. Later that morning, William Morse was out doing chores when he found Hand, and took him to shelter. Hand’s clothes were frozen to the extent that they had to be cut from him. Hand had wandered more than 10 miles before being found.
     Two neighbors, J. A. Scoville and S. W. Campbell, had close calls as well. Scoville had been at Campbell’s before the storm. By the time he started for home, it was too late; he became lost, and was wandering on the prairie for more than three hours, finally finding his farm. He warmed up, and then went to his cattle sheds to tend to his livestock, but as soon as he opened the door, the roof collapsed under nine feet of snow, burying Scoville under the mess. One of the farm hands, who luckily was nearby, began shoveling and finally freed Scoville. Scoville recovered fully from the events of the day. Meanwhile, his neighbor Campbell, was forced to shave off his mustache with a pocket knife, when it became so encrusted with ice and snow that it froze to his face, and made it very difficult for him to breathe.
     The Nierson brothers, Frank, 22, and Willie, 16, left their family in Chicago to come to Dakota Territory to farm. On Thursday morning, Mr. J. F. Wilson came to their place to “doctor” a sick horse. The storm rolled in while Wilson was there, and the boys, fearful of the storm, decided to accompany Wilson back to his farm, just two miles east. Heading in the right direction, the visibility was so poor that they walked past the Wilson farm, coming within 10 rods of the house. Realizing they were lost, the began to look for some sort of shelter from the fierce wind and biting ice raining from the sky. After several hours, Frank fell to the ground, exhausted, and died within minutes. Wilson and Willie Nierson continued their search for shelter, and eventually Willie collapsed and died as well. Wilson rested for a short while in a deep drift in a cornfield, until his knees gave way, and he had to resort to crawling. About 10 o’clock Friday morning he crawled to a house belonging to John Bremerman, having wandered at least 10 miles. The bodies of the Nierson brothers were retrieved and taken to the mortuary to be prepared for shipping to the family in Chicago. While badly frozen, Wilson recovered.
     South of Cavour, Ezra Fuller and his housekeeper, Miss Pearson, were going to Fuller’s house to work, when they were caught in the storm. They wandered all Thursday night; when found, they were nearly buried with snow, several rods apart. Mr. Fuller’s left arm, face and feet were badly frozen, and Miss Pearson’s legs were frozen, as well as her hands and face.
     In a touch of irony, Sergeant Glenn, whose duty it was to predict weather for the Huron office, started for home Thursday, but before reaching his street his eyes were nearly frozen shut with snow and ice. He was confused, and became lost. He wandered for some time before being put on the right road to his house. He arrived exhausted, but unhurt, for the most part.
     One of the saddest stories is that of Robert Chambers and his two young sons, aged 9 and 11, who left their home on Thursday morning, headed to the Rush place a mile away, to water some cattle. When Mr. Chambers saw the storm approaching, he immediately sent the older boy home, as the child was afflicted with rheumatism and could not be out in the cold weather. The boy reached home safely. Mr. Chambers and the younger boy, Johnny, began driving the cattle home, but soon became confused and lost. Johnny, who survived the ordeal told what happened to the local newspaper, as follows:
… when his father saw that they were lost he made a place in the snow for him, and wrapped him up the best he could. They had no over coats, or extra clothing. Johnny says that he was so covered up that he was warm. His father went out and called, and called, and the St. Bernard dog barked, but no answer came. Then father and the dog got into the snow beside him. While he was warm he knew that his father was getting very cold. He urged father to go on and try to find the trees, and then he could make the house. But the father said, "No, I cannot go and leave you here." The boy urged, but the father would do no more than to call for aid within certain reach of the boy's bed of snow. The dog also kept with the boy. Through the long night they had conversations about perishing, but the father kept assuring the boy that they would get through all right if he would only be sure and lie still! The boy knew that father was freezing, but was quite comfortable himself, and finally fell asleep. When he awoke it was evidently near morning. Father was still alive. Discovering that Johnny was awake the father said to him, "Now, Johnny, you pray, and I will pray, and then I know God will take you through all right." They prayed as proposed, and soon after the father was dead. The boy, entirely covered up, except a little breathing place through the snow, laid still. The dog stood sentry, and afforded the cue by which the bodies were found soon after daylight, by a searching party. Johnny thinks his father had not been dead more than an hour when they were found.
     A huge cause for concern once the weather turned bad were the hundreds of school children throughout the county. At the Utah school in Huron, some children insisted on leaving the building, some of whom were retrieved and the building locked for their safety until help arrived. In order to get students to the nearby home of J. W. Campbell, a rope was attached to Mr. Campbell’s fence, and carried to the school building. Students were able to make their way to the house, where Joe Bloodgood, with his horse and sleigh, took children home. Ben King and his hired man did the same, until everyone was safely delivered to their families. At the Illinois school, teachers and students stayed together until each child could be taken home.
     However, it was the rural school teachers, all alone on the frozen prairie, often without enough fuel to last, who had difficult decisions to make. Miss Hattie Grant, teacher of 12 pupils in the Goodell neighborhood six miles west of Huron, saw the storm approaching as the children were getting ready to eat their lunches. She advised them to save a portion for an evening meal, if needed. She continued on with her teaching, and with the help of three older students, got enough coal to last the night. They sat around the fire, told stories, and talked until the small children fell asleep, and again with the help of the older students, kept watch over the fire. They were all rescued safely about 8 o’clock the next morning.
Miss Hacket taught in the Bloodgood addition; aided by others, she was able to get all the children to the residence of A. Bloodgood and Eli Brockman, and notify parents that their children were safe and being cared for overnight.
     There was no shortage of heroes in Beadle county. When it was realized that there were missing school children, a call was made for volunteers to brave the elements and bring the children to safety. A number of railroad boys were the first to answer the call. As written in the Daily Huronite, They threw on their overcoats, pulled down their sealskin caps and were quickly out in the storm. It was not too severe for them to aid in the search for the little ones. They didn't wait to be asked to go - but went voluntarily. Their eager desire to take part in the search showed the goodness of their hearts, and their promptness in duty as railroad employes. ‘By their works ye shall know them.’”
     Jud Spaulding, Mr. Ritchlag, W. B. Joy, J. B. Coffin and many others also aided in the search for missing people. Mr. Spaulding came up with the idea of sounding the railroad whistle, and many lost and confused people were able to follow the sound back to town, and numerous lives were saved as a result of his clear thinking.
     Reactions of the county residents to the storm were mostly awe and grief, but M. J. Dineen summed up the spirit of the Dakota pioneer: “We survived the big winter. This storm may be a little severe, but we were here first, and are going to stay.”


  1. Karen,love your blogg and the stories!I have read about the blizzard before but you bring it to life well.Thank you for sharing with us!

  2. Our family tells the story of Thomas and Emma Greer who were married in Wolsey and lived somewhere in the township. Emma went into labor on January 11, 1888. This was their first child so Thomas set off to get the doctor with the wagon and horses. He was caught somewhere on the prairie during the blizzard. The storm was so bad he eventually had to set the horses loose and shelter under the wagon. He survived but did not make it back to the farm for 7 days by which time Emma had delivered my grandmother, Gertrude Isabel Greer. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who may know more about their story. They left Wolsey sometime in 1889 or early 1890 and moved to Washington.