Extreme Weather in Interpretive Ballet
Lemars Municipal Park, Plymouth County, Iowa
On September 15-16-17, 1946, LeMars Municipal Park was the site of The Mammoth History Pageant commemorating the 100th birthday of Iowa and the history of Plymouth County in particular. Entitled “Plymouth County Marches On,” the pageant offered many episodes, each one enacted, in one presentational form or another, by local groups in the county. Episode VIII, “The Plagues of Plymouth County,” featured the LeMars High School Girls Group using interpretive ballet to narrate a history of the physical challenges faced by the county’s nineteenth-century settlers. “First came the grasshopper scourge, then the terrible blizzard in the winter, and the greatest of the hazards of early pioneer life—the prairie fire.” Now, though Iowa is nearly three quarters of a century older, it seems fitting to tell its hazards history, as experienced in Plymouth County, through the events chosen for interpretation by the LeMars High School dancers.
The dancers’ program notes explain the connection between grasshoppers and poverty, saying “they left a trail of desolation, destruction, sadness, and poverty in their wake.” Historians make the same point, noting that the grasshoppers (Rocky Mountain locust) created such devastation in the 1860s and through the 1870s that those who could afford to leave did, leaving those who had little choice but to stay and risk greater financial ruin. Drought, wind, cyclones, cold winters and blizzards all compounded the crop losses and debts resulting from the grasshoppers’ swarms.
The settlers’ experience of blizzards follows a familiar pattern of trips ventured, landmarks obscured in a whiteout, and lost humans and animals struggling to survive in intense cold until they can again find their way. But this summary doesn’t do justice to the specific reminiscences of early settlers who recalled blizzards, especially the “starvation winter” of 1880-81 when the snow-shovelling train did not reach them, as was often the case. There are many stories of that winter, but one from the winter of 1872, is among those that deserves special mention. It’s easy to imagine its storyteller inspiring the dancers from LeMars High School.
“As the New Year–1872–came in the cold became more and more intense and the storms more treacherous. Imagine a bright, sunshiny morning, with more than two feet of snow over mother earth, and, in less time than it takes to write it, the wind whips into the northwest and blows at the rate of sixty to eighty miles an hour; the heavens overcast, the snow falling thick and fast, while that already on the ground is lifted and mingled with it. The snow is now so thick in the air that you cannot see the length of your arm from you. …”
While the sun was still high, four neighbors had passed by on their way to the woods, observed by the storyteller as he moved from “shanty” to “sod stable” where he curried the horses in preparation for taking oak posts to trade in Merrill. When the gale came up, he made his way back to the shanty and was saved only because of a snow bank he had previously shoveled out of the west end of the shanty. Eventually, two of four neighbors returned, frozen and without wood, but a man and his son did not. “After the storm subsided I took the posts to Merrill. On my way over I met people in search of the lost father and son. The family was at the roadside to enquire of anyone that might pass along. On my return I met the bodies being hauled in the bottom of the sleigh, frozen stiff. I am glad that I escaped seeing the meeting of that mother and family, for it must surely have been a pathetic one.”
Harry Codd, one of the young Englishmen who came to Plymouth County to explore the Close Colony offer of affordable land and farming prospects in a distinctly English cultural context, also wrote his mother in Dorset, England, about the blizzards of the county. On January 22, 1886, he wrote, “It has snowed about every other day & we have had 2 or 3 more blizzards…. the thermometer at that time ranged from 35 degree to 15 degree below zero but they had [my cows] in the sheds & the cows were in good order & came out all right.…I manage to keep warm in my cellar without any trouble at all-& I have Jill there to keep me company. She had pups in December & they all froze but one & I found her & the pup snowed in one day & so I keep her down there…S winds & N winds each worse than the other…The glass [barometer] has fallen much today with a strong S wind that I look for another North Wester tomorrow but possibly we may not get it.”
For all the challenges created by grasshoppers and blizzards, Mr. Hilliker, writing in the Akron Register-Tribune in 1913, asserted, as did the dancers in 1946, that the prairie fire was more dreaded than blizzards. It overtook many travellers who would have to run the horses for miles. Some learned to back-fire, creating corridors where no fuel remained for the fire and they could escape. Others were not so fortunate.
In the spring of 1879 fire erupted on Broken Kettle Creek, 12 miles west of LeMars. Someone set a prairie grass fire that spread quickly to the straw and hay-constructed stable of the Fuller family. Mrs. Fuller ran to, then into, the burning structure to free the horses when her clothing caught on fire. Her husband rushed to her from another structure he was trying to smother and tore the burning clothing from his wife’s body, but she died, along with 4 horses, 10 hogs, 13 head of cattle, 1000 bushels of wheat, and substantial quantities of corn. The flames leaped to the farmhouse and took that too.
The dancers seem to have had the tragedy of Mrs. Fuller in mind. Their program notes speak of a farmer lost in 1878; a farmer’s wife, in 1879. “Again through symbolic ballet we depict these hardships through which our forefathers lived and over which their hardy spirits triumphed.”