On Monday nights my husband and I get together with some friends down the street. They live just eight houses away, so we walk. No big deal, except last Monday it was snowing and my husband was at work. I braved the cold and the wind alone, feeling the sting on my face and the ache in my fingers. In spite of my polka-dot boots, my toes were cold.
I had one thought as I kicked my way through the oh-so-deep ten inches of snow on my driveway. I’m a weather wimp! Considering the amount of snow in the Midwest and the piles of white stuff in Virginia and Washington DC, I have nothing to complain about. Our cars have good tires, and the county will (eventually) plow our street. I’ve got food in my fridge, electric heat and a fireplace. I’m as snug as the proverbial bug in a rug.
How different things were when America experienced what became known as “The Little Ice Age of the 1880s.”
This period of intense bad weather began with the winter of 1880-81. If you’ve read The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you’ve got an idea of the intensity of that time. Her books are fiction but largely based on fact. Set in South Dakota, the story portrays days and days of snow, white-out conditions, a lack of firewood and a food shortage. The snow was so deep the trains couldn’t reach the town with fresh supplies.
In Brown County, Nebraska, this winter is one of the most severe ever. The snow buried the natural grazing, and at times it was so deep cattle could barely move. Thousands of head starved to death. Of the 3000 cattle on the Cook Ranch, only 800 survived. This winter had a secondary impact. Devastating losses forced cattlemen to shut down their operations, which opened the prairie to farmers and new settlement.
Ironically, the winter of 1881-82 was unseasonably warm. The average temps in the Twin City area were 27 F, but it ushered in a period of record breaking cold. For the next six years, winter temperatures (Dec. to Feb.) recorded in the Twin Cities area averaged from 0 F F to 9 F.
The cold weather in 1886-87 affected all of the United States but especially the West. Beginning in October, the country experienced waves of intensely cold arctic air, and snow fell much of December. These storms devastated the cattle industry. Winter began earlier than usual, and the summer had been unusually hot and dry. Some old timers noticed the tell-tale signs of a harsh winter–animals growing thicker coats, eating more food–but these natural warnings were largely ignored until it was too late to prepare.
The freezing temperatures killed cattle and people alike. White-out conditions made it impossible for people to see even a few feet, causing them to get lost close to their houses and thus perish in the cold.
The winter of 1887-88 offered a bit of a break temperature-wise, but in March 1888, the East Coast got a dose of the winter woes plaguing the center of the country. A blizzard that came to be called “The Great White Hurricane” paralyzed the East Coast from Maine to the Chesapeake and killed 400 people. More than 40 inches of snow fell in New York City. Major cities were isolated for days.
How about you? Have you had enough winter? Do you have snow in your yard, or are you basking in winter sunshine? I’m in Lexington, Kentucky with 6 inches of the white stuff on the ground and a midday temp of 24 degrees. But you know what? I’m fortunate indeed to be warm, cozy and safe.
Coming March 16th!
Pre-order at Amazon: Kansas Courtship, Love Inspired Historical, March 2010