The Morality of Winter
Sioux County, Iowa
The winter of 1872, when Sioux County began its transformation from real estate investment to settlers’ home, was a cold one. On January 21 or 22, 1872, one source claims that it was 22 degrees below zero when a group of 150 Dutch settlers left Orange City on the 25-mile trek west to Calliope to confront the country governors there. They travelled by sleds in the bitter cold to seize county records from what they believed was corrupt county management. In Sioux County the weather has been a character in many important, local stories.
“Weather shapes morals,” wrote Michael Bugeja, an Iowa State professor, in a 2018 opinion piece about the ethical challenges of Twitter. His reasoning is that in a place where extensive snow and other major weather events happen, it takes a village to survive. Neighbors rely on neighbors. In Sioux County where many residents are members of a Christian church, some might want to amend Mr. Bugeja’s assertion about the weather and say that the source of their conscience is not in the weather, but the weather, nonetheless, intensifies, sometimes creates opportunities to live out the morality of neighborliness.
The opportunity for neighborliness provided by the weather appears in a story of Mrs. Asmus Jacobsen. One winter night as she stayed up late to scrub a floor she hadn’t had time for during the day, she saw a flash of white at the window, a ghostlike figure. Her reaction moved quickly from fear to concern when she realized
“it was a young boy entirely covered with a coating of sleet and ice.” While Mr. Jacobsen tended to the boy’s horse, she “took charge of the boy and peeled his frozen clothing from him, and dressed him in dry woolens. He was so near being frozen stiff that he could hardly move, and could not talk, but with his eyes he seemed to thank her for each spoonful of hot soup she fed him. Then she and Mr. Jacobsen rubbed the boy’s body with warm oil, and they made a bed for him near the stove. While the boy tossed and turned in his troubled sleep, she kept an anxious watch and added fuel to the fire.”
In the morning, much recovered, the boy explained that he “was on his way to visit his Grandmother, a Mrs. Caswell, who lived several miles to the west. He had lost his way in the sudden fierce storm, and probably would have perished had he not seen the light shining from the Jacobsen’s window.”
Losing your way was, maybe still is, a common occurrence in blizzards and other winter storms. Charles Dyke remembers his mother tying a clothesline to his sister, in a blizzard, so she would not be lost going to the well. Max Thorman and his wife used a rope in a blizzard for another purpose. In a big snowstorm, Mr. Thorman cut a hole in the straw roof of his barn and lowered Mrs. Thorman by a rope so that she could feed the animals, milk the cows, send the pails of milk up by the rope, and then be pulled, by the rope, up through the barn roof herself.
Heavy snow and wind can reduce visibility to near zero but the heavy snow alone is an obstacle to forward movement. Even a snow-plowing train sometimes succumbed to deep snow on the tracks that could not be butted out of the way. Dirk Willem Doornink, an early settler, intended a day trip to LeMars one winter day. But in a heavy snowfall the oxen became too tired and could not go further. A county neighbor’s cabin and stable proved his salvation even though no one was home. He slept in the stable between the warm oxen.
Vulnerability to the weather did not stop in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. On January 10, 1975, a terrible blizzard hit Sioux county. The wind picked up Friday morning and did not relent until Sunday night. Many residents were without electricity and heat and did not have the benefit of warm oxen. After the storm, three residents of one household in Granville were found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Much livestock was lost.
Sources: Ken Hansen, Calliope: a History of the County Ring Rule of Sioux and Surrounding Counties, Iowa, 1982; Russell and Edna Marshall Local History Research Files. Sioux County folder Ms 234, Box 1, Folder 18 SHSI; Michael Bugeja, opinion section, Des Moines Register June 3, 2018; Charles L. Dyke, The Story of Sioux County, 1942 and Later Gleanings of The Story of Sioux County 1943; Granville, Iowa Centennial 1891-1991. All but 2018 Des Moines Register from SHSI.