My Favorite Childhood Story: The Blizzard of Pingree, North Dakota and the Family Photo

By:  Grace Dean (grandmother to Michael G. Dean).  Unedited, word for word, from Grace’s journal.


The North Dakota prairie lands seemed to be a playground for winter blizzards.  It was very common for the storms to last for three day periods and during that time it was a common occurrence for people to be lost in the storms and many people lost their lives.  There were not many groves of trees or graded roads to stop the blowing snow and help to subdue the fury of the storms.  It could be so bad with the snow in the air that it would be impossible to see to make your way through it.  Many people would stretch a rope or wire between their house and barn so it would be possible to get to the barn to feed and care for their animals during the storms.

I remember one case where a man was found just four feet from the step to his homestead shack frozen to death.  Another thing that happened several miles from where we lived back in the range of the hills: a lady had taken a homestead and built a small house usually termed a shack.  The law required anyone who filed on homestead had to live on it a certain length of time and break up a required portion of the land.  This lady during the summer season compiled the winter supply of fuel and food for the winter.

At Christmas time she went by train to her parent’s home for the holidays.  Coming back later she had brought her sister with her to stay the winter.  In all the towns there was a livery barn with a place for farmers to put their horses where feed and water was provided for them at a decided fee.  They also provided a travel service if anyone wanted to go from town to town or to visit or whatever the need might be.  The lady I’m writing about came by train to the nearest town to her homestead and hired the livery attendant to take her and her sister to her house.  Before leaving town she went to the general store and bought a large order of supplies – flour, sugar, coffee canned foods, meat and a large enough supply to last until another trip to town would become necessary.

Leaving town it would be several miles for the livery attendant to drive.  It was getting late in evening where they arrived and starting to snow.  It was very necessary for him to return to town as soon as possible so they quickly put the supplies on ground in front of the door and the ladies said they would put them in – were very worried that the would have trouble if a storm came.

And a storm did come.

A few days later after the storm had stopped and it was bitter cold as was the usual pattern, weather wise, a neighbor homesteader went on skis over to see how the lady was doing.  No smoke from chimney and before he got to the house he was sure something was wrong.  Inside everything was scattered around, drawers turned upside down, papers scattered and cupboards emptied out – all indicating a search for matches!

The foundation for a fire laid in the small coal stove and old round heater, but not a match could be found.  All the supplies she had purchased and evidently had forgotten matches.  One girl was found a little ways from house and the other one in the bed with blankets, coats and small floor rugs for covers.  One can imagine the panic and suffering they endured until the end.

My Mother had a lamp in a basket that would turn at angles and it was fastened to a window side and turned over in front of window and could be seen for miles over the prairie at night.  All winter long at night that lamp burned.  It was always filled with kerosene and wick kept trimmed so it would burn brightly.  I can remember several occasions when it brought someone to our house who had lost their way or whose horses were too tired from deep snow to go to their destination.  Then the people or person would stay until morning or longer if a storm developed.  Of course in a raging snow storm the little lamp couldn’t send its beam too far, but people would get stranded at times even if there was no storm.

There were no roads.  Just trails and at night things all looked the same – just a glare to guide the way.  If a team of horses got off the trail into deep snow then sometimes a path had to be shoveled ahead of them before they could pull the sled back onto the trail – always the danger of the cold air disturbing the horses’ breathing.  Of course people tried not to be out after dark unless they were very sure of their directions and familiar with winter trails.  There were no graded roads.  Very little to check the sweep of the blowing snow, and, at times you could not see six feet ahead.  The blinding snow could almost cut your skin in its ferocity.  As I remember there usually were three or four bad storms during the winter.

As the country developed, people planted trees, graded road ways, plowed and planted fields, built fences and built homes.  So the danger became less as the community grew.  But in 1907 the primitive way of life still existed.  It was during this period that I am writing the following episode of our family history.

Our home [near Pingree] was twenty two miles northwest of Jamestown, three miles south and nine miles east was Buchanon.  Eight miles north of Buchanon was Pingree.  Twelve miles south of Buchanon was Jamestown.  When the two weeks Christmas vacation came my folks decided the family should go to Jamestown and have a family group picture made.  The arrangements were made and on Thursday Mother, Father, my two sisters and I were driven over to Pingree and went to Jamestown the twenty miles on the train.

My first train ride – and my first time to stay n a hotel, “The Capitol”.  On Friday the five boys were to come down with the team and sled.  Friday was a wonderful day.  We [the women] went into stores and ate in restaurants and Laura and I both got new coats and shoes.  Dad had business at the bank and we waited for him at hotel and what a happy time we women had.  I remember Mama looked so pretty – and we all laughed a lot.  The boys got there quite early and we all ate at hotel and afterwards we all went to an old silent movie.  I can still remember the jiggling picture:  a bench with big stones and the water coming in waves up on the beach and a funny man running on beach.

In the morning we had our picture made.  I had to stand on a couple blocks behind Mother and Dad so I would be tall enough to show good [Mother and Dad were seated in the middle of the picture in the front and I was in middle behind them.  As you look at the picture Dad is seated to your left and Mama is seated to your right].  We were all dressed up.  Earl and Merhl had suits alike, new.

Our style of dress was quite formal and it was not polite in those days to smile for a photograph and so none of us did, except for Mother; who ever so slightly let the corners of her mouth curve upward but without opening her mouth; her eyes too showed that this was a happy day for her; she was proud of her family – she had well earned it. We girls wore what look like snug, dark gray or black judges robes with high collars.  The older girls and Mother wore white lace snug around their necks.  My collar matched the dark gray color of my “robe”.  Some people say we looked like Quakers but without the bonnets the women usually wore.

[Merhl is seated to the left of Dad and Merhl is seated to the right of Mama].  [The other five children are standing behind us with the two girls on either end, Nels in the middle, Charlie to his right and Clarence to his left.  Since there were ten of us the two rows lined up perfectly with each other.]  I thought we were all beautiful.  We surely were not rich but Mama was just as surely beautiful.

I felt a little upset because my new shoes were not going to show on the picture.  However, Nels had given Laura and I rings for Christmas.  The photographer put my hand on Mother’s shoulder and my ring showed and that somewhat compensated for the hidden new shoes.

Mama too had worries about the picture.  One summer on the Pingree farm, Mother walked out to a field to fetch our dairy cow home; we kept a chain with a bell on it around the cow’s neck.  The noise from the bell helped us find the cow when we couldn’t see where she was, like at night.  On this particular time the cow was being a bit stubborn so Mother grabbed hold of the cowbell chain to get the cow started home.  But just as she grabbed the chain, Mother’s wedding band got caught in one of the links; her wedding ring finger was pulled completely off as the cow suddenly jerked back her head and neck.  Her finger and stump were so shredded to pieces there was no way to put the finger back in place.  So you can guess what happened.  As Earl tells it, “Mother was getting us all seated right and seeing our hair was in place.  She had a finger cut off before this but was so self conscious about her finger being missing she wanted to hide her hand.  But she got so busy fixing everyone that she forgot to hide her hand.”  It was just like Mother to be sure everyone else was settled before taking care of herself.

After the picture session we all had an early noon meal and we prepared to go home.  Dad and Mother were to stay over [in Jamestown] until Monday and come up on the train again to Pingree at 1:00 o’clock where the boys would meet them.  We kids were all going together.  We were all packed into te sled called a bobsled.  We could sit on straw with blankets over it in the bottom of the sled facing each other.  We had a big heavy cow hide robe and faced each other in sled.  We were warm and happy and I was so proud to be included with the rest of the kids instead of being treated like the baby which I was most of the time.  Mothers words were, “Now children be careful and you boys take care of the girls.”  Dad’s words were, “The sky looks stormy.  When you get to the top of the hill (meaning out of Jamestown) if it looks like it will snow you coe back down, put te team in the livery barn and come to the hotel.”  And so we left for home.

Jamestown is located on the James River so we had to make our way around the hills and up the valley . . .

. . . at the top of the hill it looked a little hazy and there was a little snow coming down.  Clarence and Nels talked but decided it wan jot going to amount to much so we went on.  The snow got progressively heavier and I can remember how pretty it was.   Always is.  At Buchanon the snow had almost stopped.  It was getting on toward evening, but, we were over half way.  Clarence went into the meat market there [in Buchanon].  A man run it who jade his own wieners and bologna and each time any one was in Buchanon we’d buy some of each.  So Clarence got ten pounds of Weiners.  We all went potty and started west towards home.

It seems in my memory that all at once the snow was coming so thick and so fast it was unbelievable.  Again Nels and Clarence talked:  Back to Buchanon or home?  Nels was more or less the self appointed horseman in the family and had a great love and understanding for them.  He also did most of driving when we were out together.  The decision was on home.  But very suddenly came the wind.  There was not way you could see.  The wind was from the northwest and getting very cold and soon dark.  Charlie was back with the rest of us under the covers and asleep.  We had a lantern which the boys lit.

Clarence and Nels took turns of walking ahead of the horses to see the trail.  The wind was so strong the horses would puff to breathe.  Then the boys would hold a blanket in front of the to protect the from the strong wind until they coiuld breathe easier..  they also cleared the snow out of the horse’s eyes and nostrils.  Then we’d go on.

Ella had us singing for a while under the blankets and robe, but we all knew, even the baby, that we were in a great danger.  We finally came to the creek in a valley known as the Pipestem Creek.  That for Nels and Clarence meant they were on the right trail but soon after that they lost it and horses were getting very tired.  Clarence woke Charlie and said, “We need you Charlie we are off the trail and have to find it we will be lost.”  I can still remember the impact of the word “lost”.  I wanted to cry but Ella told me “nothing to cry about, we are with our brothers.”  But we did pray.

So Charlie, who had herded cattle all over that territory and knew it like one else took the lantern and started away from the sled.  For a while he and Nels called back and forth but of course the storm was louder than their voices, and, soon couldn’t ear each other.  Fear must have been gripping the hearts of the other brothers when all of a sudden the lantern light appeared to relieve their fear.  Here he came and said, “Now Nels we’ll take it a easy, you lead the horses and follow the light, we are just about one quarter mile from Johnnie Hekenswallow’s fence corner where it meets the Hall’s fence.”   He added, “We will get there and be alright, just take it slow and easy.”  So Clarence and Nels lead the team and followed Charlie.  And there was the fence.  But still very rough going.

Rocks and low places and deep snow in lots of places.  So every minute the horses were more tired and slowing to a slow walk.  Nels talking to them all the time and they responded.  At the end of the mile fence we came to the home of the Halls.  It was close to eight o’clock; they were preparing for bed and Nels shouted at their door and they both came to the door.  Mr. Hall and his hired man quickly took the team to the barn.  We were all cold, especially the big boys.  Mrs. Hall took us in and got us unbundled and Nels and Clarence got their hands warming up.  Mrs. Hall had baked bread and it was on the cooling board as it was late when she baked it.  Every time I smell freshly baked or baking bread the memory of that night returns.

We brought in the wieners.  Mrs. Hall cooked half of them and later the other half.  We ate them all; all ten pounds of them – along with a lot of the fresh bread.  Is there anyone in the world that does not believe that God is good?  Later on beds were made for all of us.  All but Nels; he stayed in the barn with the horses rubbing them and watching for one of them to go down.  He told me afterwards that he gave each of them about a cup of water ever hour; massaged their legs and rubbed down their bodies, especially over the kidney location.  They were both fine again.

There were no telephones to call our folks in Jamestown.  They were there until Monday when the train came north to Pingree; hearing all kinds of things about lost people in the worst storm of the year and not knowing where their family was.  Sunday late in the afternoon the storm subsided and the boys decided to go on the three miles home.  The Halls were not in favor of it but the boys said, “We have to go; it will clear and the train will come up on Monday and we just have to be there to meet it.”  So the boys and Ella went on home.  They left our still tired horses and Mr. Hall gave them his best team to break the snowed in trail on home to our farm.  Laura and I stayed at the Halls.

In bed that night we covered our heads and cried for fear our brothers and sister might not get home.  We also prayed hard.  Outside the bitter cold was much below zero.  Monday was a bright sunny day.  The boys were up early and they broke trail the entire nine miles from or farm to Pingree.

Meanwhile Mother and Father were very worried and concerned when the storm grew worse each hour.  Their family was somewhere out in a terrible storm and they had absolutely no way of knowing where and no way of finding out. They  did very little sleeping and the following day, Sunday, was endless.  There was only one thing they could do and that was to wait.  All through the long day on Sunday and the long night until train time on Monday.  There was some doubt that the train would be able to go north because of the heavy snow.  My Mother related some of the worrisome conversation that took place: trying to console each other, both knowing that there was a possibility of their family being victims of the ruthless storm.

The train was to arrive at Pingree at one o’clock.  A couple miles out of town Dad said, “ Mother we will soon know because if they got through allright our boys will meet the train.”  It was cold in the train and thick frost covered the windows.  Dad took a coin and scratched the frost off as the train pulled up slowly to the Pingree depot.  They were both standing at the window looking out the scratched clearing through the frost.  And there were the boys.

Mother said Dad hugged her and they started to get off the train.  Charlie never seemed to be cold.  His cap always on the back of his head and coat always open.  Mother was always telling him to button it up.  And now as they helped her down from the icy steps of the coach, she said, “Charlie, why don’t you button your coat?”  It broke the tension as only Mother knew how to do.  And they all laughed to keep from crying.

We were all taught to control our emotions under most circumstances so they all talked at once explaining where we all were and how we got there.  Laura and I were at the Halls that night again and on Tuesday morning, Charlie, Nels and Dad came for us bringing Mr. Hall’s team and taking ours home.  When we got home I remember so well Mother hugging me and tears on her face.  I was young but I did realize that a tragedy had been avoided by my wonderful brothers.

So things slid back to normal and life went on.


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