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Blizzard of 1888

Fifty-nine years ago this week--on January 12, 1888--Nebraska was hit with what old-timers will tell you was the worst storm in the memory of man in this state. The territorial pioneers looked back on the winter of 1856-57, which began with a life-taking storm on December 1, as the most terrible they had spent in Nebraska. Likewise, the Easter storm of 1873 was talked about for years. The Blizzard of 1888, however, which covered the entire Plains area, seems to have been worse than either of these.

At least, the Blizzard of 1888 is the most celebrated snowstorm ever endured in Nebraska. Hundreds of reminiscences have been written about it. An organization known as the Blizzard Club, composed of men and women who went through the storm meets each year on January 12 to commemorate the event. The club soon will release a book about the storm, based on much careful research.

Although conditions differed some what in various parts of the state, most accounts agree that the early hours of that eventful January 12th were unseasonably warm. Cattle were out in the fields. School children in some areas played outside during the noon recess. In some cases, men were reported to have worked out-of-doors in their shirt-sleeves.

Then, the wind suddenly changed to the north, driving before it a great mass of thick, blinding snow. Men and animals alike were trapped in a freezing, white wasteland. The thermometer plummeted to 34 degrees below zero.

The storm lasted from 12 to 18 hours over most of the area, and was followed by minor local storms. The state was two weeks digging itself out. When the newspapers finally were able to assemble the details from isolated farms and ranches, it was evident that the loss of life and property sustained in the great blizzard was the greatest ever know in the West. Estimates as to the number who died in Nebraska ran as high as 100. In Dakota Territory, 109 lives were lost.

A particularly harrowing aspect of the storm was the fact that it caught so many school children away from home in tiny one-room school houses, with no food and little fuel. The heroism displayed by a number of school teachers, and their older pupils, in caring for the young children will always share a place in the annals of Nebraska.

Of all these, the one who probably gained the most fame was Minnie Freeman of Mira Valley, Valley County. When the storm broke there were 13 children in her school. She tied them together, single file, with herself at the head of the line, and ably assisted by the older pupils managed to get them to the nearest farmhouse. A popular song of the day, "Thirteen Were Saved, or Nebraska's Fearless Maid," was written in commemoration of her achievement.

Lois Royce, teaching near Plainview, attempted to get to a farm home with three small children. The children perished and she lost her limbs below the knees. Emma Shattuck, a teacher in Holt County, found refuge in a hay stack, where she remained from Thursday night until Sunday. She was so badly frozen that both limbs had to be amputated, and she later passed away. A relief fund was subscribed for these and other sufferers--both teachers and pupils.

By James C. Olson
Superintendent, State Historical Society
January, 1947

 

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