Storms On The Prairie

The old settler always has the special privilege of talking about the weather of bygone days. Perhaps the weather itself has not changed since fifty years ago, but the conditions under which we were compelled to face the storms have been entirely altered.

It is hard at the present day to realize the contrast between the open prairie as we first knew it and the stretches of farming country as we see them today, with their groves, hedges, houses, fences and other serviceable windbreaks. Before settlements were established outside the timber, there was nothing to check the force of the storms, especially the windstorms, which swept across the open prairie for many miles without trees, buildings or fences to check their violence. Travelers crossing these vast unsettled plains were sometimes overtaken by storms, especially in the winter, and often would suffer great privations and even loss of life.

In the winter of 1850-51 a man by the name of Williams started from the town of Bunkum to cross the prairie to the Beaver timber, a distance of some ten miles. He was overtaken by one of these storms and became lost. He failed to reach his destination. His friends, learning that he had started across the prairie, organized searching parties which moved out in all directions, but without success. His body was not found until the snow melted in the spring, and it was then discovered some four or five miles west of the point he was intending to make.

For many years I had been hearing of similar cases, and one especially interesting, but I had been unable to get the exact facts in the case. A short time before the death of John Myers I interviewed him and requested him to tell me what he knew about the story I had heard. He said he was acquainted with some of the facts in the case but referred me to Mrs. Jacob Kenoyer, who, he said, could tell me all about it.

I interviewed Mrs. Kenoyer shortly after and found she had a very vivid recollection of all the circumstances. In fact, her brother had been the principal sufferer and it is from my recollection of what she told me, and also from a narrative published in a history of Iroquois county, Illinois, that I am enabled to offer the following facts.

In 1836, James Frame, the father of Mrs. Jacob Kenoyer, was living near the present city of Onarga. In December of that year, Thomas Frame, his son, had sold some cattle and from the proceeds of such sale, after riding across the prairie to Danville, Illinois, he entered eighty acres of land in section 13, township 26, range 14. The transaction took place December 19, 1836. On the following day, in company with a man by the name of James H. Hildreth, who was also on horseback and going in the same direction, he left Danville for his home. They journeyed along together during the day through a misty rain and there was considerable snow on the ground. About four o’clock in the afternoon a gale of wind, sharp and piercing, came sweeping over the prairie and in a few moments clouds overspread the sky. Within a short time the men were moving across a sheet of ice. They were proceeding on the Ash Grove road when this change in the weather took place. They reached Fountain Creek about sundown, finding the creek overflown and ice forming along the banks, making it impossible to cross. They decided to return to the house of a man named Bicknell, but had not gone far when darkness overtook them. The cold growing more and more intense, the labor and difficulty of travel kept on increasing and the prospect of reaching any house became more and more gloomy, until it seemed altogether hopeless. They realized they must do something or perish. They agreed to kill their horses. Hildreth was to kill Frame’s horse first, and when that became cold, then Frame was to kill Hildreth’s. Accordingly, Frame’s horse was killed by severing a vein in its neck.

The carcass was opened and both men got their arms and legs into the carcass of the dead horse. Frame survived until nearly daylight, when he expired. Hildreth, although badly frozen, as soon as it was daylight, started for help. He soon discovered a house, but before he reached it he came to a stream three hundred yards wide, with the current deep and running swiftly and full of ice. A man by the name of Burson lived in the house on the other side of the stream but was powerless to help him. Hildreth, however, went up the stream and finally found a place where he crossed. Burson went with Hildreth to Asa Thomas’s, a mile south of Milford, and gave notice of what had happened.

Clement Thomas, David and Benjamin Mersham, Levi Williams and Amos W^iley set out for Burson’s. Arriving there, they found the stream frozen over, and from there they followed Hildreth’s tracks and were soon at the spot which witnessed the terrible sufferings of that night. Frame’s body was taken to Burson s and the following day word was sent to the father of the deceased, who on the second day thereafter removed the body of his son to his own home. The funeral was conducted by Amos Wiley, one of the parties above mentioned, he being the circuit rider of the Methodist church.

Robert Williams, living near Milford, knew that Burson had no conveniences for caring for Hildreth and sent a team the next day to convey him to the Williams home. There he stayed for several weeks, his mother coming to care for him as soon as the news could reach her by mail. Doctor Hawes amputated all his toes and all his fingers and thumbs, except one finger on each hand.

While writing upon the subject of cold weather, it may be well to state that there have been two memorable cold and stormy days in the history of Newton county. One of these days was January i, 1864. The other was February 14, 1866. There have been colder days, probably, than either of these, but the days above named were not only cold but accompanied by snow and high winds. It is safe to say that both days may be classed in the list of regular blizzards.

So far as January i, 1864, is concerned, I was absent from home at the time. I had started about three o’clock in the morning from Stevenson, Alabama, for Nashville, Tennessee, riding all day in a freight car in company with William Graves. We had been to Chattanooga, he to look up and care for his son, Lawrence, while I went to do the same for George W. Dearduff, both wounded at the battle of Missionary Ridge. While we were quite a distance south, the cold was so intense and the storm so severe that it is almost a wonder we survived the trip. The next day we took a train for Louisville and had to wait over there for two days on account of the floating ice in the river. The ferry boats were afraid to cross and at that time no bridges spanned the river. We finally reached Kentland on the first train to get through in four days. While no one was reported to have frozen to death at that time, there were several persons who died shortly after from the effects of exposure, and there was a heavy loss in stock and poultry. Many who had started away from their homes that morning, expecting to return in the evening, were compelled to seek shelter at the first opportunity, there to remain until the storm had abated, while the folks at home kept up lights and fires all night awaiting their return.

February 14, 1866, was another day long to be remembered. Up to about nine o’clock in the morning it was a bright and pleasant day, with enough snow on the ground to make fine sledding. Many started out that morning expecting to get a good day’s work done and be home again by night, or sooner perhaps. About nine o’clock the wind shifted to the north and it commenced snowing and drifting. Within a very short time all who could do so sought shelter. Among those who were out that day were some six or eight parties with teams and sleds from Morocco, who had come to Kent for lumber for Daniel Ash. He was building a new house to take the place of one destroyed by fire a short time before. The storm struck them about the time they were crossing the Iroquois river. They succeeded, however, in reaching Kentland, although suffering severely from the cold. They put their teams in the stable, where they remained for two or three days, and then all returned with empty sleds as the roads were drifted so full of snow they were impassable for loaded teams. John Goddard and Isaac Smart, two of the number, the next day after the storm, left their sleds and one team and each one riding a horse, they started for Morocco, finally reaching there safely. There was an urgent reason for John D. Goddard taking the risk he did, as he was to be married that night to Miss Mary J. Kessler, and Isaac Smart was to act as best man on that occasion.

About the worst condition arose from children being at the school-houses. The morning being so pleasant, there was at least the usual attendance, and when it came time for dismissing school in the afternoon the storm was so severe that had the children started for home they certainly would have perished on the road. The teachers therefore kept up the fires and stayed with them until their parents or some of the neighbors came to take care of them. Some cases were reported of teachers and pupils remaining in the school-house all night.

I had a little experience that day. William had gone to school in the old school-house, located on the lot on which W. F. Porter now lives — just across the street from the old United Brethren and Christian church. Mr. and Mrs. John Cunningham were teaching the school. It was nearly three blocks from where I lived. About the time for school to be dismissed I went after him. We started home, hand in hand. We ran as fast as we could all the way, but when we reached home his hands were nearly frozen and we had to use snow and water before going to the fire to warm them. Mr. Cunningham remained at the school-house with the children until the parents came for them.

The winter of 1884-85 was a very cold winter. There were thirty-three days that winter when the thermometer stood below zero; December, 1884, had seven days; January, 1885, had eleven days; February, 1885, had fourteen days; and March, the same year, had one day. January 22d was the coldest day of the winter, the thermometer standing at thirty-three degrees below zero. December 19th was close to it, registering thirty-one below, but these were not stormy days.

Source: Ade, John. Newton County: a collection of historical facts and personal recollections concerning Newton County, Indiana, from 1853 to 1911. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., c1911.

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