Prairie Cold

I’m no stranger to cold weather. I was born in northern Idaho and I was there for the record cold temperature of -42°F in 1968. My dad was in college and we lived in a house with no insulation to speak of. My bedroom window, frame and all, would occasionally fall into my room if the front door was shut too hard and the nail holding it in wasn’t adjusted just right. I remember my mom putting so many blankets on my bed during that cold snap that once I was under them, I could barely move. The horses started running because of the cold and broke through the fence into the wheat fields. They had to be caught. Good times.

Cows coming in to drink -20F. 


Then I moved to northern Nevada, which is also very cold in the winter. On my daughter’s sixth birthday, we woke up to temperatures of -34°F. The pipes were frozen, the truck wouldn’t start. We had a birthday celebration booked at the local McDonald’s. Fortunately, my friend’s truck did start and she was able to pick us up and take us to the party while my husband dealt with hairdryers, heat tapes and engine block heaters.

This fall I moved to Montana. I thought I was ready for the low temperatures—the record so far has been -24°F—but I’d forgotten just how face-burning cold this place can be when one has to go outside a lot. It felt different than the Nevada cold, which made no sense, since we also had numerous below zero days there. A kid at the Mac store in Bozeman cleared it all up for me.  He mentioned that the cold must be a change. I assured him that we had cold weather in Nevada and he quickly said, “That’s desert cold. This is prairie cold.”

He’s right. Prairie cold is colder—which got me wondering about how in the world did the early settlers on the prairie–and I’m thinking the wind-whipped prairies with no mountains in sight–stay warm in those little cabins and sod houses with no wood to stoke the fires? The answer is cattle and buffalo chips and hay twists. The chips are, of course, dried bovine dung. The hay twists are bundles of dry grass twisted together. Both of these fuels burn hot, creating a lot of ash. The fire needs tended full time. One excerpt I read talked about one family member leaving the cabin with a bucket of ashes every time another came in with a load of fuel.

The following excerpt illustrates the ongoing battle of staying warm and cooking with cattle chips.

“Here is the rundown of the operations that mother went through when making baking powder biscuits. … Stoke the stove, get out the flour sack, stoke the stove, wash your hands, mix the biscuit dough, stoke the stove, wash your hands, cut out the biscuits with the top of a baking powder can, stoke the stove, wash your hands, put the pan of biscuits in the oven, keep on stoking the stove until the biscuits are done (not forgetting to wash the hands before taking up the biscuits).”

— From Western Story: The Recollections of Charley O’Kieffe,

1884-1898. Lincoln: U of N Press, 1960.

I am in awe of the men, women and children who weathered the prairie winters back in the day in order to build a better life. I’d like to think I’m tough enough to have endured, as my great-grandmother did, but I’m also very glad I don’t have to find out for real.

What about you? Do you think you could have handled a prairie winter in a cabin or sod house?

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

30 thoughts on “Prairie Cold”

  1. Wow. You really made me think. And you made me cold, LOL.

    I guess it’s like anything else. You get used to it.

    I was watching a special on TV today about firemen-did you know human flesh starts to burn at 120 degrees. Well, that’s a day in the sun here in Phoenix. And while I was raised in Buffalo, NY, and lived in Oklahoma and Colorado, I thought I’d never get used to the heat. You get used to it eventually. I prefer cold to hot myself, lol.

  2. Not just the settlers, but the native americans had to tolerate that cold. The thought of only a teepee to try to stay warm in is chilling. I grew up on the Canadian border in Northern New York. We had winter days in the -20’s often enough. I lived in an old farmhouse also with no insulation. When the wind blew the curtains would flap and there were few times snow blew in. When I married, my husband was stationed at an Air Force base in Northern Maine. I remember coming home one night with our 3 month old daughter bundled up against me. The base housing was connected units and the garages were detached and about 100 feet behind the units. There was no walkway between them. I had to walk the length of the garages to the street, down to the corner, about 4 units worth, then about 15 units to ours. When I got inside, I called my husband to say I was home and had never been so cold in my life. It was -55. About 10 years later, we were moving from NY to Colorado Springs. We left New Years Day. We hit thunder snow before we got out of the state. In Iowa we hit a blizzard and nothing moved for 3 or 4 days. It was -100 with the wind chill. Even being in a modern, solid building, the snow blew in around the door and the room never got warmer than 55 degrees. I don’t see how anyone could survive those conditions. We had to carry our dog out and hold her because her feet would freeze to the ground almost instantly. That is definitely prairie cold. After that, Colorado winters were easy.
    The key to surviving is to have enough covering to stay warm. Stay in a shelter out of the wind, and have at least a small heat source. I could probably have survived, but have no desire to fight those conditions. The damp, snowy single digit temperatures here in Tennessee are bad enough. I take my nice warm house with its wood stove.

  3. California kid born and raised so the only real cold was moving to Lancaster around 2010-2011 high deserts, mens, strong winds, hot days, cold nights and only worse adding blinding cold storms or blinding stinging day sand storms too. There the ecosystem is a combo of a few varieties. It can be nice, then it drops 60 degrees or more some nights. Hot and cold extremes as well. If a say Lancaster native and farmer type went to the prairie then maybe they could stay alive, you and me nah we would be super struggling. Animals back then we’re in houses to keep you and them warm and for fuel too. Not an easy life by any means. Pioneers were just that, pioneers for new lands and the ones that made it or not and their stories helped others, trial and error. Death in childbirth was high, child mortality rate was high, say 10 pregnancies, 7 were born and lived to be born, 3 got sick and died as infants or children, 2 females but both died in childbirth of their own leaving 2 brothers to live as long as they could. Life expectancy was short, why they married so young, but teen girls died trying to give birth if too young as well. More people died than lived in families and it’s why they had so many kids, to help on the farm, as much as they could, as long as they could but accidents abounded as well as illness. So a couple was lucky to 1 both still be alive by 25, 2 have at least 1-2 kids live til 15-18 where they usually married and 3 had many miscarriages, still births or infants and young children who never got to 10-12. Bad and sad times, but reality too. This was not a good time to make it on your own even if from a well established family, place, farm or city. As many died in the city leaving orphans, none wanted and orphanages were terrible at best back then. Do you really want to be a mail order bride after the Civil War decimated towns, cities, families, estates and most of the males ages 12-45 were gone, most dead, just the younger children and old folks left to carry on. Again why most teens 13-16 ended up marrying but too much childbirth mortality rates. Never mind the cold, those pioneers had basically nothing and those that lived past 30 were lucky indeed. Sorry but when we realize just how bad the weather is in places back then, you take into account all the other remaining factors. I bet on avg 1 in only 4 survived into adulthood. Sod houses were first made by those brave pioneers but how long did they last in them to make it into a regular wood house from there. Animals again might be their initial saving grace, chickens, cows, pigs, goats, these helped a lot both in food and what they provided by eggs, milk, into butter and cheese, pigs abundant for food as well as introducing hens maybe. Then of course they would cultivate eggs for hatching a new crop of chickens, sheep for wool. Everything had a multiple purpose, it had to. I could go on but you all get the idea, cold was biting, only the strongest still survived and for many that is why mail order brides became convenient since most of the pioneering had eased or progressed so any new women could come in, take care of the kids, the stock, the house, the food and her man until that endless childbirth cycle or illness would hit around again. I can see why city women coming out wanted new stoves, wood houses and more to better their chances to survive a harsh winter environment.

    • Great information, Elaine! My great grandmother lived in a sod house, where she had 13 children. Ten lived. My grandfather would leave to work the mines to raise money, but she had to stay on the homestead, because one party had to be there at all times working the land to fulfill the homestead requirements. She lived to be 103–traveled by horse and wagon and lived to see a man on the moon. I also read where some families didn’t name a baby until it was over a year old, because babies were expected to die. How very sad, but also real for the times. Thanks so much for these insights!

  4. As with everything, you do what you must, but I am glad I did not have to. Thanks for the interesting post. I shall never complain about 8 degree weather again.

  5. Yes, the prairie cold is something, isn’t it? I remember our first trip west and northwest and the effect of the constant wind–even in summer. All of our pictures of that trip (SD, WY, MT, etc.) always show our hair blowing. I already had read pioneer women’s diaries who lived in soddies, so their stories really did sink in then, even with just the summer wind.

    Much earlier than that in time, I went to college in Boston back when women weren’t allow to wear slacks until it was 15 degrees or below, and, boy, do I remember that cold with the wind off the bay! My school was right on the main river leading to the bay too, so one does indeed learn to cope.

    These days, we still live in the Northeast in an old farmhouse built in 1800 so it can get pretty darn cold. Good thing I like piles of blankets anyway–always have. And it’s what I’m used to. But after your post, Jeannie, I’m glad you reminded me I don’t have to tend to the heat the way the pioneers did. Central heat and area heaters–something to be very grateful for! Thank You!!

    P.S. I forgot I grew up in my youngest years in an old farmhouse with a heater only in the living room (the 1950s), which was much like what the Scots had when I visited there in the 1970s (also later years). The highland Scots have persistent wind too because it’s an island and one is always near the sea wherever one is. So it’s not only the pioneers, is it?

    My Lakota friends from SD always said if one had shelter, food, and a way to stay warm, you should be grateful to the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka).

    • Excellent post, Eliza–I really enjoyed reading it. I remember wearing skirts to school as a kid because girls had to wear skirts, and the only thing between my legs and really cold weather were tights. Hello, numb thighs, lol. Forgive my late reply–computer issues 🙁

  6. I read also about not naming a baby til older at a year too, sad but true. And true to if you have food, shelter and warmth those are the basics. Yes all countries had pioneers , those where they are learning to settle the lands, however harsh they are. Alaska must have been horrendous in winter to establish and settle. Even now we see shows on Alaska and the homesteaders still may not have central plumbing, running water, outhouses still today. So I guess technically all homesteaders, pioneers and settlers in rural areas are still without the basics at first, maybe shelter of a sort, though if you land is available in Alaska you can grow bumper big crops of vegetables during the the long days of summer but you better preserve them for winter. Talk about cold, I guess Alaska winters beat most other states for cold. Anyone want to homestead still in these United States? If you are rich enough and can buy the latest in technology gadgets to help it is still you against a harsh land to successfully develop for at least 5 years before it’s yours legally and not a claim. Thanks to recent TV shows we are given a better glimpse into a homesteaders life then and now. Rough but promising if you can do it and make it work.

  7. Used to live in Vermont and I remember one very cold winter where — with wind chill — it got down to 60 below zero. Talk about cold. I was a Realtor at the time and only one person wanted to see a house — and I remember I left the car and heat running — we ran into the house — looked at it — ran back to the car. So very, very cold.

  8. What a wonderful story. I’m from Te as but moved to southwest Kansas 22 years ago. So I’ve been acclimating my body for well over 2 decades to these prairie cold temperatures. I don’t think it’s possible to ever fully acclimate but I’m far better withstanding them today than I was 22 years ago. I do agree the cold is felt different & is truly hard to take in different areas of our great land. What a really great subject. A few weeks ago we were -15 temperature and -29 windchill. That’s just not tolerable or man or beast. I really felt for all the livestock.

  9. I’ve made a lot of biscuits in my day but never had to use any kind of chips. As to cold, I grew up in upstate New York. We lived in a hundred plus year old house. My sister and I shared a bed in the cold weather to stay warm because if it snowed and the wind blew, it was in our bedroom.
    The year I was pregnant for our youngest son we had an exceptional cold snap that lasted a week. It hovered around -30 every day and all the water pipes ruptured even though we had left the water running. Then we had a major thaw and what a mess!
    As I write this the repair man is fixing our heater which went out for our current cold snap. Thankfully it only went down to 10*! I just know that when I’m cold, I’M COLD! So glad I don’t have to do this for days on end.

  10. I prefer cold to heat–but not THAT cold. Great post. I didn’t know about grass twists for fuel rather than just getting the fire going.

    I’m so thankful that I live in a house with good AC/H and don’t have to deal with any minus temperatures. I would not have survived as a pioneer.

  11. I prefer brisk weather more in the 50 to 60 range, a sweater or Hoodie maybe but nothing really hot or too cold. Lived in high Desert where down to 20 at night is easy or over 100 in daytime depending on the season but it usually varied 40 to 60 degrees from day highs to night sometimes more. Thinking back to Native Tribes then too winters were brutal, less food either to grow, scavenge or kill. Amazing how many died in harsh terrains and conditions, freezing cold and nothing really insulated, betting bodies all huddling for warmth just to sleep, some with no wood fires just grasses and cow chips or animal dung, they must not have been very warm really. Do you know if the mortality rate was very very high then, not just there but all over the prairies? The elderly, young and infirmed probably did not live long with severe winters, poor housing, no insulation and lack of strong warm fires and fuel. Survival of the fittest makes sense back then too.

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