Editor's Note: This article is part of a regular monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser
The pre-Christmas blizzard of 2012 more than likely prompted a few recollections around holiday tables concerning the winter of 1936. If those Depression era memories included stories of 20-foot high snow drifts and coal shortages they were fact and not nostalgic imagination.
From mid-January through the end of February in 1936, Webster City and Hamilton County citizens endured and survived the worst winter since 1881-1882, according to news reports in the Webster City Daily Freeman Journal.
This photo was provided by Alton Crim. It taken at the very end of February 1936 near the Crim Farm about three miles south of Stratford. Pictured with the Crim’s 1930 Chevy is his father, Edgar Crim, and his10-year-old brother Vincel. The family was just getting out after being snowbound on their farm for three weeks. He said they had plenty of food for the family and their livestock during that time. According to Alton Crim, the county road crew used a 'cat with a V blade and wing' to open the drifts.
W. H. Hunter, editor of the Freeman Journal, remarked in a February 20, 1936 editorial that "Nature has been extremely boisterous," a relatively understated comment from the normally outspoken editor.
The month of January began as a typical winter month in central Iowa as reported daily to the newspaper by Harriett Bonebright Carmichael, the official weather and crop reporter for Hamilton County. Three Works Progress Association (WPA) projects were underway to provide employment. The projects, with about 100 workers, included an improvement to the city gas plant, construction of a tunnel from the light plant to the water works and the outdoor project of digging storm sewers in the blocks south of Second Street.
The first major blizzard of the year came on the Jan, 17 and 18 with more than four inches of snow which drifted to snowbound the city and close outlying roads. The temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero, freezing water pipes and disabling car batteries.
From then on, Webster City, Hamilton County, and in fact, most of the northern portion of the United States began a 33-day battle against the elements.
M.Y. Kinne, Hamilton County Engineer, stated that his crews were working day and night to get the county roads clear of drifts. His 24-man crew worked 12 hour shifts using three large snowplows, five smaller plows and all of the counties' road graders to get the roads open according to the Jan. 20, 1936 edition of the Freeman Journal. The paper also reported the next day that the county supervisors requested bids on three crawler tractors and three more snow plows.
On Jan. 22, 1936 the Freeman Journal headlined that the cold wave caused 420 of Webster City's 1,761 students to be absent from school. The paper also noted the trains were late, the strong "gale force" northwest winds created three- to four-foot high drifts and that the WPA storm sewer crews were taken off the job due to cold. A day later the paper noted that 30 rural schools were closed due to drifting roads, mail delivery was disrupted and 473 kids were absent from city schools.
The below zero temperatures and transportation problems brought on a coal shortage as the usual supply of Kentucky-mined coal was diverted to Michigan and Indiana due to their emergency needs. Iowa Gov. C. L. Herring made an emergency request for more coal to meet families-on-relief orders, and with the help of the Iowa United Mine Workers president, Iowa miners were finally allowed to work overtime hours to aid in the crisis.
By the first week of February, one blizzard after another, along with the continuing below zero temps and coal shortages caused rural schools to close. State officials continually advised motorists to stay off the roads as state and local crews fought a losing battle to keep the roads open.
Trains were delayed or even snowbound between cities disrupting transportation of passengers, mail and supplies, especially coal. On Feb. 10, 22 cars of livestock were blockaded two miles north of Clarion on their trip from Omaha to Minnesota. It took 75 trainmen and volunteers more than 48 hours to dig the livestock cars out by hand and move them to shelter in Clarion.
The Feb. 7, 1936 headline in the Freeman Journal declared that there was an acute coal shortage in Webster City as coal shipments were again delayed by the weather. Buyers were allowed only one-ton purchases. Another blizzard beginning the next day prompted Ellsworth, Stratford and Stanhope school to close indefinitely.
By Feb.10, roads were again blocked. Hamilton County officials worked hard to open the Kamrar and Woolstock roads as both towns reported they were short on food and fuels. The WPA storm sewer workers were assigned to help open the Woolstock road by hand with scoop shovels. Forrester's Dairy sent sleds to get milk from farmers instead of their usual trucks. Churches shut down and held union church services at Washington Central School.
Rural residents resorted to sleds and four-legged horsepower to get around, with several reports of critically ill persons being transported to the local hospital in this manner. Many reported telephone pole high drifts and driving sleds over fence tops and took photographs to document the unusual conditions. Many rural families were confined to their farms for weeks on end, struggling to keep livestock fed and watered and using their own home-grown products to survive.
The Beck coal mine in Fort Dodge, which supplied coal for the Webster City welfare office, had to shut down due to lack of fence posts to prop the tunnels. Mayor Fred Hahne quickly remedied that problem by rounding up a supply of posts from Webster City and sending the load to the mine to keep the local coal coming.
On Feb. 17, the schools of Webster City closed, not to reopen until Feb. 23. The school system heating plant also supplied heat for the courthouse and the county jail. The county prisoners were transferred to the city jail and the courthouse offices were open only one hour each day.
Temperatures began to warm by Feb. 20 and trains and coal trucks arrived to ease the fuel shortage and relegating these 33 days of below zero temperatures and snowy conditions to the record books.
Another blizzard came in the last days of February to block highways again. More than 100 people were stranded on highways in the county 51 at the junction of Highways 20 and 69 near Blairsburg, 25 at a farm house a mile north of Jewell and 32 at the Cliff Mickelson farm, north of Duncombe. It took road crews a day or so to dig them out. And the Iowa Farm Bureau asked for a delay in the March 1 moving requirements for tenant farmers since many rural roads were still blocked.
Things didn't improve much for the rest of 1936. The Boone River didn't flood from the melt off, but the spring season was cool, there wasn't much rain, the grasshoppers invaded along with cinch bugs, and Iowa would suffer through a July with day after day temperatures in three digits.
Perhaps the year of 1936 is where the old adage "If you don't like the Iowa weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change" came from.