The Blizzards of Buena Vista County
Storm Lake, Buena Vista county, Iowa
In the early summers of the twentieth century, Storm Lake was a hot-spot for fishing. The lake was stocked with black and silver bass, pickerel, pike, crappies, perch, and sunfish. During the colder months, ice was harvested to keep the fruits of the fishers’ summer labor edible. The Peterson Ice Company was the first to set-up shop. Once extracted, the ice was covered in sawdust to keep it from melting. However, Buena Vista county has also seen its fair share of unwanted ice, formed not across Storm Lake’s surface but rather across the county’s train tracks, roads and plains.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a series of blizzards led to catastrophe in Buena Vista—Spanish for “Beautiful View”—county. Historians C.H. Wegerslev and Thomas Walpole wrote that the snow “would become as fine as flour and would penetrate every crevice of the unprotected houses and outbuildings, seeking sheltered places, and drifting, drifting, everywhere. Unhappy the fate of a man caught in this hurricane of flying snow and icy wind, as he would soon lose his way and succumb to the cold.”
Unhappy the fate it was! Wegerslev and Walpole do not write metaphorically here. The second “great storm” in Buena Vista, the first to claim a life, was on March 25th, 1875. Wegerslev and Walpole recount the story of the death of Thomas Keating, of Maple Valley.
“He and his father has been to Storm Lake and found their way home. They found the well in the yard but could not see the house or barn. Unhitching the oxen they turned them loose, expecting that they would go to the barn, and followed them. But the cattle followed the wind and went away from the house, and the two men were compelled to wander around all night. In the morning the father could see the house only a few rods distant, but the boy was dead from exposure. The storm lasted for three days and it was almost two weeks until the body could be taken to Storm Lake for interment.”
Another deadly storm came on January 12, 1888. In Marathon, John Olney met his fate when he and a companion’s horses refused to continue into the wind. The pair dismounted and let the horses loose before continuing on along the railroad in separate directions. Olney thought he was headed to Marathon but was instead headed East. His companion made it to Marathon alive, but a search team was not able to search for Olney until the next day. He was found frozen to death.
In 1909, Wegerslav and Walpole predicted the county would not face blizzards as severe in the future: “The sweep of the wind and the speed of the flying snow can never attain their old time velocity because of the many groves and hedges that are now to be found in the county.” Groves and hedges, especially evergreens planted to the north of a house or barn, do reduce the effects of cold winter winds. But blizzards did happen even after these windbreaks dotted the landscape of Buena Vista County.
Another memorable blizzard appeared January 15-16, 1975. This storm had winds of up to 60 m.p.h. with power outages up to fifteen hours and an accumulation of sixteen inches of snow. Storm Lake reported up to fifteen-foot drifts. Schools were closed for three days. In total, 21 car accidents were reported. Due to zero visibility, a snow-blower was hit by a car, causing a three-car-pile-up at highways 3 and 71.
Meanwhile, some inhabitants of Buena Vista county threw on their heavy coats and faced the elements. These brave volunteers were the proud snow-mobilers in the area, many members of the Buena Vista Sno-Drifters. The local blizzard control center, operated by the wives of three of the Storm Lake snowmobilers, coordinated emergency missions of 36 snowmobilers. Eventually, all “had to abandon their machines in drifts along the way due to icing and other difficulties.”
However, in Newell, the Snowmobile Alert team had more success. They “carried workers to nursing homes and delivered groceries and medicine to stranded citizens.”