Blizzards on the Prairie of Osceola County
When Civil War veterans began settling in Osceola County in 1870 it was a treeless prairie. Lured to the county by the 1865 decision to run a railroad from St. Paul to Sioux City through Osceola County and by a special veteran’s benefit or by the Homestead Law that provided 160 acres to anyone with $10 who promised to occupy and cultivate the land, early settlers, nevertheless, found it hard to remain five years and “prove up” on the land thus acquiring clear title of ownership. One challenge was the blizzards encountered in the severe winters of 1871-72 and 1872-73 when new settlers had no surplus supplies to help see them through.
The winter of 1871-72 brought heavy snowfall and intense cold. The building of the anticipated railroad was impossible well into the spring of 1872. Telegraph lines were down; the mail was halted for ten days. More than inconvenient, the storms could be deadly. Many early settlers did not understand the force of a blizzard crossing a treeless prairie, how the snow would be pulverized into fine grains by the wind and pierce eyes, even clothing, taking one’s breath away.
One story repeated is the death of Dr. Hall. Dr. Hall and his son were out with two teams of oxen cutting willow brush for fuel when a storm came up. The son, a strong boy, drove one team on ahead and arrived home in a “frozen condition.” Dr. Hall and the other team never arrived. The next spring when the snow was gone, the “family dog came to the house with a foot and ankle with the shoe still on the foot, and the family knew it was from the remains of the unfortunate husband and father.” When the family went to retrieve the body, they found it “torn to pieces and mutilated by the wolves.”
In a typically dangerous scenario, Fred Knaggs started for home on a fine February morning in 1872 with a hand sled full of supplies from Sibley. When a storm came up, he was apparently insufficiently clad and became exhausted then confused. When the storm ended, a search party found his frozen body partly eaten by wolves.
The following winter was no better. The histories of the county repeat the story of the freezing of Peter Baker and A.K. Jenkins. Baker drove the stage that went from Spencer to Rock Rapids through Sibley. On January 7, 1873, he had one passenger, Jenkins, “a contractor for bridge iron who was going to Lyon County to see the officials about furnishing iron for their bridges.” The morning was sunny, making the trip seem doable. They arrived without incident in Sibley and left there before noon. But ten miles west they encountered “a terrible blizzard [that] struck that uninhabited region of prairie with terrific violence.” The stage driver’s horses soon floundered in a snowdrift created by the wind. Once they were stuck, more snow gathered around them. Despite the men’s best efforts, they could not free the horses and the animals soon died. For hours the two men stamped around trying to keep blood circulating, but after some eighteen hours, Jenkins “became insane from suffering and laid down and died before Mr. Baker’s eyes.” The storm continued for three days. Baker was found a ½ mile from the stage trail, both legs frozen to the knee. His legs were amputated in an effort to save his life, but he never recovered. He died May 25, 1873.
Another homesteader died in this same January storm; another died the next month on Ash Wednesday in another blizzard.
Though the Mennonites did not settle in Osceola County until 1887, winter storms together with infectious diseases were still a challenge, especially to new residents. When fifty families came to the county in 1888, three quarters of them were children. That first winter families stayed together in close quarters in barns, sheds, and granaries. Within the year, five children had died from measles spread through the colony. By 1915 the settlement had disbanded and many moved elsewhere, because of differences in church matters, not because of the weather. Remaining residents reported missing the Mennonites. “When tragedy struck, barriers were unknown. They came and helped where help was needed. It was only realized after all had moved elsewhere what an asset the Mennonites were to the community.”
Sources: SHSI: J.L.Peck and O.H. Montzheimer and W.J.Miller, Past and Present of O’Brien and Osceola Counties, Indianapolis 1914; D.A.W.Perkins, History of Osceola County, Iowa, Sioux Falls, 1892; Osceola County History, Iowa by The Iowa Writers’ Program of the WPA, 1942; E. Martin, Mennonite Settlement, May City, IA, 1983.