The Blizzard of 1888

John A. Scott, well known resident of the Ben Clare community, was one of the early pioneers who went through the great blizzard of January 12, 1888, and although the 50th anniversary of this storm was Wednesday of last week, we print the account of the blizzard as written by Mr. Scott nearly 50 years ago. Mr. Scott wrote the story shortly after the blizzard, but this week is the first time that the 50-year-old manuscript has been printed:

On January 12, 1888 the northwest experienced, as I experienced it, one of the worst blizzards on record. At that time I was living on a farm about two miles northwest of Lester, Iowa, and as I remember it the day up to about 4 o'clock in the afternoon was cloudy and warm and snowing a little. About 4 o'clock I went out to the barn to do my chores and was in the barn only a few minutes. When I came out I noticed that the wind had changed to the west, and I could hear a roaring noise in the northwest like the approaching of a heavy loaded freight train. I stood for a few seconds listening to the roaring sound, not realizing what was coming, but shortly I noticed the telegraph poles and fences one-half mile away were disappearing. Then I began to realize that a blizzard was coming. I was still near the barn, and when I looked to the west only 20 or 30 rods away I saw a tremendous bank of snow and ice approaching. In a second it struck me with such terrific force that it was with great difficulty I succeeded in reaching the house only a few feet away.

It had turned extremely cold and when I got inside the house and took a survey of myself, I found my ears, eyes, and nose so full of ice and snow that I could hardly see or breathe.

Just a few minutes before the storm struck, one of my brothers who lived about 80 rods east of my place and who was out of water for his stock came over to my place with a couple horses to water them. As the well was about 30 rods north of my house he had just arrived at the well a few seconds before the storm stuck him. I called to him and told him that a blizzard was coming and he replied "Let 'er come." He soon realized what he was up against, and would never have gotten in if he had not held on to a fence that led up to the barn, and then he did not get to the house until about 8 o'clock. The storm raged in great fury all night and a part of the next day.

One of my neighbors, Mr. Byron Cleaveland, who lived about a mile and a half northeast of which I lived, suffered a great loss in the blizzard, as two of his boys, 13 and 16 years of age, were frozen to death with 90 head of cattle, while watering them at a nearby creek.

The boys did not follow the cattle or go with the storm, but wandered off to the south, going almost directly away from home as their tracks the next day plainly showed. After wandering south about a half mile they turned and faced the storm a few rods west, when they came to a few hay shocks that had been left in the slough. Becoming faint and weary they laid down on one of the hay shocks and perished there.

The next day, in the afternoon, the storm abated somewhat and in looking toward Mr. Cleaveland's I saw about half a dozen men working over there. I made up my mind that I would walk over to where they were and see what they were doing. On my way over I had to cross the same slough in which the hay shocks were that I have before mentioned. When I came within about 20 rods of the shocks I saw a dog wandering about on particular shock, so I went over to see what I at first thought was a dead cow or horse. But when I came close up to the shock I was astonished to find it was the two boys, lying flat on their backs with their faces up, and frozen stiff. So terrific was the force of the wind that the ice and snow cut little holes in their exposed faces, large enough to insert the end of a match.

The good old faithful dog, who was with the boys, had lain in between the two boys all night. The younger of the two boys had put his left arm around the dog, probably when they first laid down on the shock. Marks of the boy's arm around the dog showed plainly on the dog's wooly back the next day. Just about the time I discovered the frozen bodies of the boys, I noticed Mr. Cleaveland, who up to this time had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the boys, going from the house across to where the men were at work, digging out the 10 or 12 head of cattle that were yet alive.

I left the frozen forms of the boys with the faithful dog, and hurried across to meet Mr. Cleaveland, and informed him of the fate of his two boys. The expression of sorrow that showed in Mr. Cleaveland's face I shall never forget. Up to this time he had received no information of the whereabouts of the boys, but thought they had got in some farm home and would return after the storm was over.

As it was now nearly sundown, I suggested to Mr. Cleaveland that we return to the house and get a hand sled of some sort and go and bring the boys in, as we could not take a team on top of the deep snow and crust of ice that had formed. We succeeded in getting the boys in a little after dark, when the bodies were prepared for burial.

Mr. Cleaveland in telling of the disaster, said it was his custom to water his cattle about 3 o'clock in the afternoon each day, and as his windmill was broken he had two of his boys drive the cattle about a half mile east of his place to a little stream called Mud Creek. The boys had watered the cattle at the creek and had returned with them to within 30 or 40 rods of the house when the blizzard struck. The cattle turned and went with the storm, most of them stopping at or near the creek where they had been watered. Just a few minutes before there was about two or three feet of snow along the sides of the creek and there was where most of the cattle perished.

I never witnessed such a scene. Some of the cattle were lying flat on their back with feet straight up, others with head up and in all kinds of positions. A goodly number of them had ice balls frozen to their under lips with such weight it partially tore the lip from the gums. Mr. Cleaveland with the help of the neighbors managed to save 12 or 14 head out of the 100, and some of them were badly frozen.

The writer experienced a blizzard in McLean County, Ill. In 1867 that was almost as bad as the one here in 1888, only it was not so cold. Thousands of head of sheep and hogs perished, but no loss of life was reported, possibly on account of the storm starting in the night.

Index   |   Home