The Big Blizzard

If 1888 was famous for nothing else-the blizzard which swept the great plains that year would have made the year noteworthy. The storm struck on January 12-in a day that was "normal" but out of the northwest in the middle of the afternoon came a storm that wrought great damage, took many lives, killed hundreds of head of cattle and sheep. It was a storm that tied transportation up almost completely-and there was considerable hardship for weeks before shipments of food and fuel once again reached Rock Rapids and other communities which felt the full force of the storm.

In Rock Rapids the storm was not recognized as being as bad as it was for several days. The papers the net day said it was bad-but not nearly as bad as out in South Dakota where temperatures were reported to have dropped to 50 below, and where the wind whipped the snow into drifts that were impossible to go through or over.

In this immediate area one man died in the storm, others were badly frozen-and hair-raising tales were common of how others caught in the storm, escaped. Two young men, the Cleveland brothers of the Lester area, died as a result of exposure when they became lost in the storm. Tommy Cushman suffered greatly from exposure and it was necessary that all of his fingers-on both hands be amputated. In Cleveland Township John Langfeldt was on his way home from school and became lost. He wandered around and around, but the storm was too much. The next morning he was found frozen stiff and apparently dead. He was brought in to Dr. G.C. Wallace, who set about reviving him. Slowly he thawed the boy out and brought him back to life-but it was a precarious thread which threatened to break many times. Then two weeks later it became apparent that he would have to have surgery on his feet, arms, ear and nose. Dr. Wallace performed that surgery, removing both hands, both feet, his ears and part of his nose. Such an operation had never been performed before and no one-with the possible exception of Wallace, thought that the boy could survive. He did! The operation was performed under the most unfavorable conditions. Dr. Wallace had two assistants-a druggist and a blacksmith.

Langfeldt recovered, grew to manhood in Lyon County and moved to Davenport. Then years later he moved to California where he died in 1961. During the years Langfeldt lived in Davenport he visited Rock Rapids on many occasions. He was able to get around on false feet, very well, and did not use a cane or crutch. He was able to take care of himself, although most of his life he lived with a brother.

By the end of January 1888 the railroads had almost given up getting their lines open. The Burlington had a big crew of men with shovels trying to open their road. The only snowplow in the area had been wrecked at Spirit Lake, when efforts to reopen the line were started. The Illinois Central tried everything they could to open their lines, but the snow continued to drift in as fast as it was shoveled out. It finally announced that it was giving up until spring when nature would melt the snow. On the Omaha's Bonnie Doon line, it seemed that no effort was even made to get the trains running until after the first of February.

The editor of the Reporter apologized to his readers for the skimpy paper-but pointed out that with no trains there was no paper on which to print.

The storm couldn't dampen the ardor of the community boosters for long, and early in February a meeting was held to figure out ways to get the Sioux City and Northern to build their new line from Sioux City to Duluth through here. It was rumored that the "mud creek" line was favored.

On February 17 Close Brothers, the English capitalists who owned so much Lyon county land, announced that they had sold more than 20,000 acres of that land to actual settlers who would farm the land. Most all of the sales were of quarter section plots, on which the Close brothers had built a small house, a barn-and a covered area between the two. They also broke land on each of the places so that the farmers could get a crop in at once when they bought a place.

Another big landowner also became active in selling land. This was Richard Sykes, Esquire, of England, who owned a lot of land around Larchwood.

The big storm was being forgotten by the time March rolled around. Mayor Olaf Olson headed a ticket of incumbent councilmen in a bid for reelection-and all of them were reelected.

George, which had started to grow with the arrival of the Cherokee to Sioux Falls rail line was said to be really booming. It was reported to have a bank, two lumberyards, two general stores, a hardware store, a restaurant. A hotel was being built and a newspaper was planned. It was also noted as having several places where liquor could be acquired-even if it was against the law.

May saw an uprising of civic indignation in Rock Rapids. The people demanded that something be done about the house of prostitution which was flourishing in the community and had been in operation for more than a year. The Reporter set forth Iowa code references against such a place and said that in spite of protests of neighbors, the house was allowed to continue.

The Commercial Hotel company, which had been formed in 1887, had finally completed the work of remodeling the former Eccelston residence into a fine hotel. The three-story structure was ready, and on May 11, the Reporter said that Col. Chase has come to Rock Rapids from Dubuque, where he had been associated with the famous Julian hotel, and would operated the Lyon house. The building would cost $20,000 and it took $4,700 to equip the hostelry. But it was wonderful, from all reports. The new hotel, the paper said, was "the best $2 house in the northwest."

In May the Breen Brothers bought the "Piele" property in the business section and announced that they would build a two-story, 44 x 100 foot building. The lower floor would be for store buildings but the second story would be equipped with a stage so that shows and operas could be presented there.

The Illinois Central was back in operation after the bad snows of January and February and late in May it ran the first completely passenger train over the line to Sioux Falls. The train went north in the morning and back in the evening. The company said it would put on two more passenger trains so there would be service each way twice each day.

There was a class of six girls and three boys who completed their high school work here in 1888 and the last week in May the group with family and friends gathered at the Congregational church for commencement exercises.

There was little activity of note in Rock Rapids that summer. Ringling Brothers came here with their circus late in July-and advertised strongly the great mile-long free parade that was a part of the show. Plans for the Lyon County fair were being pushed. Crops were fair, and more people were moving into the community.

When the fair was held the first of October it was a disappointment to the backers-not enough people turned out. But the committees did not lose faith. They immediately started planning for a bigger and better show in 1889, and they decided to improve and enlarge their show grounds.

Eighteen hundred eighty eight was a political year and there was a lot of electioneering. The country seemed ready to give up its democratic president and get back in the republican scheme of operations. There were a lot of political rallies-and both parties held torch light parades. Speaking of the democratic parade the editor of the Reporter said, "It was composed of six men and a collie dog."

When the election was held on November 7, W.H. Harrison was elected as president to succeed Grover Cleveland. Iowa went Republican as did Lyon County and Rock Rapids. In the county the big fight was over who should be county attorney. There were charges of all kinds thrown about, the incumbent, H.G. McMillen was charged with stealing from his clients-but when the votes were counted he was easily reelected.

Although there was little said about the churches of the period, there was activity. The Methodists held special revival meetings, other groups were active-and the Catholics, who had been holding occasional masses at the courthouse, were to build a new structure for their church purposes. The first week in December the Catholics held a big fair. They raised the great sum of $669.43 for furnishings and equipment for their new church when it was completed.


Three events in 1889, changed the whole face of the community. These events were all serious fires which struck-and which took out a good share of the central business district. N February 1889 a fire started in the .G. Anderson store, mid-way in the east half of the block on the south side of Main Street between Marshall and Story Street. Without organized fire fighting equipment or manpower the blaze could not be contained and the whole half block was destroyed. Records of the Lyon County bank, which was at the east end of the area, were in the bank's vault and were not destroyed, but all of the other buildings and their contents went up in smoke.

In June of that year fire started in the Lockwood block-across the street east of the Lyon County bank, and it burned until all of the buildings except the one on the east end of the block-at the location of the present Lyon County Cooperative Oil company were destroyed.

Then in November, to cap the climax, fire was discovered in the second floor of the First National bank building, which was kitty-corner from the Lyon County bank, and everyone turned out to fight it. Their efforts were of no avail and the bank, and all of the business houses in the quarter block-going east to the alley were gutted.

The community spirit was demonstrated by the fact that work was started immediately to rebuild the buildings destroyed-and build them bigger and better than ever.


Rock Rapids people were pleased with the progress the community was making in 1890. They foresaw great things for the town and big things were going on.

The disastrous fires of preceding years had changed thinking about a water works for the community and the beautiful new Union block was almost completed at the start of the year.

Business conditions over the country were tight-and farm income was not satisfactory. Lamar & Co. had been conducting a grain, livestock and banking business at George for the past 18 months. They got into financial troubles and made an assignment to Ed McCoy shortly after the first of the new year. They stated their assets were less than $5,000 and their liabilities were over $7500. Fortunately those with money on deposit had all drawn out their accounts, and the only ones hurt were the companies against whom the George people had drawn in their livestock and grain transactions.

There had been agitation in the community for some for a creamery and a meeting was held the last week, in January of those interested in the proposition. Promoters had been working in the community for some time trying to sell a deal for a locally owned creamery-which they would furnish. Local farm people insisted that the price being asked was about double what a creamery could be started for. They brought in an expert from Iowa State College, who attended a big meeting at the opera house. He said that a building could be put on for $800 to $1200, and that machinery for making butter only, could be installed for some $1,000 to $1,100. He said that if the backers also wanted to get into the cheese business the investment would be only $1500 to $1700 over all he said a creamery could be started here-either way, for under $3,000.

A couple of months later-in March, a meeting was held and a Butter and Cheese Association formed. Articles of incorporation were adopted and J.C. Shenberger, J.M. Deal, L.P. Kenyon, T.C. Puckett, and N.T. Manley were named as the first board of directors. The group were authorized to buy two acres of land in east Rock Rapids, and proceed with the erection of a building for the creamery.

Agricultural prices were some better that spring of 1890. On April 9 local papers reported that wheat was bringing 65 to 70 cents a bushel; barley, 18 to 20 cents; oats, 15 to 18 cents and corn was worth 27 cents a bushel. Flax was being bid at $1.25 to $1.35 a bushel. Hogs were being bought at $2.40 to $3.60 a hundredweight and cattle at $2 to $3.50 per cwt. Butter was bringing 16 cents a pound and eggs were 11 cents a dozen.

There was much interest in a murder which took place near Beloit mid-April. Henry Boesen, 43-years old had lost his wife and remarried an older woman. They were fighting most of the time, and Boesen and his 12-year-old son had gone to a neighbor for a short visit. Willie came home ahead of his father along with the small daughter of the neighbor. She started back home. The older brother, John, loaded a gun that was in the Boesen house, and the mother told Willie to go back on the trail and that when his father came, he should shoot him. The youth did as he was told. His father came, asked the boy what he was doing with the gun, to which the youth replied he was hunting. He pointed to a place back of the father and when the father turned around the boy shot and killed him.
The neighbors formed a coroner's jury and decided that Boesen had met his death accidentally. Later the neighbor girl, told her family that she had witnessed the shooting and what had happened. Willie and his older brother were charged and pleaded guilty to second degree murder. John, the older, was sentenced to 20 years and Willie to 10 years in the penitentiary. The mother was also charged, but she denied any responsibility. The newspaper reports said that people didn't think she would be in the pen very long at best, as her health was so bad.

A real bad accident occurred near Doon the middle of April. A gravel train was pulling into Doon from the south when two workmen fell off the train and were run over. Both of the men had both legs cut off. They were immediately loaded onto a special train and rushed to Sioux City. John Oloff, of Luverne, one of the injured men died shortly while the other lingered on for a short time.

Drowning in the Rock River seemed to occur frequently all through the early days in Rock Rapids. Lewis Bradley, young son of T.K. Bradley was drowned late in June. He with other youngsters had been swimming in the river, Bradley using a short plank to support him. He went under in a deep hole and although his companions tried to get him out-they failed. The alarm was spread in about half an hour the body was recovered. Efforts to revive him failed-even the use of an "electric battery" was unsuccessful.

Late in April the community got a bad scare when it was reported that the scourge of diptheria had struck at Doon, and a young girl had died. Dr. G.C. Wallace, local health officer, was on the verge of declaring a quarantine against Doon, when information came from that place that a girl had been sick with the disease, but had recovered-and that several weeks previously.

Reported on May 7 was the letting of a contract for reconstruction of the First National bank. The structure had been destroyed in 1889, not too long after the disastrous fire which wiped out the Union block-which housed the Lyon County State Bank. H.S. Bradley got the contract to do the carpenter work and J.M. Starbuck of Cherokee won the contract for the brickwork. Work was to start just as soon as the materials could be got on the ground.

The new Union block was completed mid-year 1890-although the bulk of the construction was done the year before and the building carries a date of 1889 in stone at its top corner. Building the block were Miller & Thompson, bankers; D.H. Shannon, and M.D. Hathaway of New Rochelle, Illinois, who participated as an investment. The structure was reported to be the finest banking and business house in the northwest part of Iowa. In addition to the bank and stores on the first floor, there were offices on the second floor, and the third floor was occupied by the Masons, and Knights of Pythias lodges. The third floor lodge rooms were owned by the lodges-and caused some problem over the years, as to roof, and who should repair it.

Mid-June of 1890 graduation exercises were held for a small class of seniors. Graduated were Edith Hatch, Mabel Creglow, Anna Van Wagenan, Ben Tupper and Harley Smith.

The fires which destroyed the two banks in Rock Rapids-along with other business houses finally created enough interest so that a vote was held in the spring of 1890 and it was decided that a water works system should be installed. Committees from the council and business people visited a number of nearby towns to see how they were handling their water systems.

About that time E.E. Frizzel came to Rock Rapids and offered to put in a water-works system, if the town would grant him a 21 years franchise. He would install a pump house with two 250,000 gallon (a week) pumps along with boilers, a distribution system with a standpipe eight feet by 100 feet high to maintain pressure. He would grant the city an option to buy the property in 10 years, if it wished. Rates were to be $5 a year per residence, $8 to $10 a year per store, and $3 a year for sleeping rooms. W.G. Reeves was to be superintendent for the company and H.P. Pierce would be the local manager.

The water works were put in at once-and late in July a celebration was held. There were tours of the community, races, games, a tug of war-and demonstrations of the water pressure on the fire hoses. Delegations came from Canton and Hull to take in the celebration.

Superintendent Reeves and his associates from Illinois, who held the water franchise, also started surveying the community for an electric system-which they would like to install, if they could get a franchise.

On August 18, 1890 Rock Rapids' new Catholic church was dedicated. There was a large crowd on hand for the ceremonies, "including many protestants". The dedication took place on Sunday morning and the structure was dedicated as "Church of the Holy Name." The Rev. Father Thomas Dullard and the Revs. McNulty and Seoik of Sioux Falls officiated. They passed around the church on the inside and then on the outside to dedicate the structure to its holy uses. The Rev. John Carroll, D.D. of St. Joseph's college celebrated the high mass and gave the sermon for the occasion.

The fair held in mid-September proved to be a failure. Crowds were small and there were few exhibits. It would sustain a substantial financial loss the papers reported. But they commented on the fine bicycle races, which made up one day's program for the events and proved to be very competitive.

One of the best improved farms in Riverside township was sold late in September. It was the quarter section owned by E.F. Hull and it was sold to Cornelius Sheehan of Grundy County, Illinois. The consideration was $22.50 an acre. The purchase price was said to be "dirt cheap."

There seems to have been a minimum of electioneering in 1890. The November election was termed a victory for the democrats because they greatly reduced normal republican majorities. The results showed that republicans cast 732 votes to 625 for the democrats. There must have been some cross-voting also, because Steve Wold was elected county recorder, on the democratic ticket. He was a particularly popular Rock Rapids businessman.

It is clear from a reading of old newspapers of that day, the prohibitory laws passed in the 1880's did not stop the sale of liquor in Northwest Iowa. It was a hot question and there seemed to have been plenty of folks on both sides of the issue.


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