County Lines

When snow blankets the earth and my toes turn numb as I shovel the driveway in 2-degree temperatures, I imagine myself in a Willa Cather novel.

But, in reality, I am no Antonia.

As much as I want to believe I'm a hardy soul, the truth is I'm a wimp when it comes to clearing away 10.7  inches of snow.

After Tuesday's storm and with the temperatures dipping to single digits, I was shivering in discomfort. But, thankfully, back indoors I could crank up the furnace a few degrees and heat up some canned soup on the electric stove.

I am not the only wimp in modern Kansas. From Liberal to Hutchinson, officials called off school because of this week's snowstorm. College classes were cancelled along with Wednesday night church events in many communities. Forget Zumba and senior activities; all were cancelled. Then there were many city and state government agencies closed again Wednesday due to the inclement weather.

Pioneer children would have bundled up in several layers, headed out the door and walked - or rode a horse - the mile or two to the rural schoolhouse, where the teacher would have been warming up the fire in the wood stove to welcome them. Then, if the snow continued (because who knew what the weather would do back then before weather forecasts?), the students would spend the night in the schoolhouse. Mothers might have worried, but there would be no text messages sent to let them know the kids were safe.

How lucky we are in today's world to have the long-range weather forecasts of winter storms days before they arrive on schedule, so we can rush to the grocery store for supplies, fill our cars with gasoline, then cancel all activities and remain home safe.

Think about the Kansas pioneers back in January 1886. With no meteorological warning the blizzard of all blizzards hit, spreading from North Dakota to Texas. With high winds and heavy snow, it blew through the region, according to the Kansas State Historical Society, destroying thousands of head of livestock. It would financially ruin many of the cattlemen, with herds later discovered piled in ravines and frozen under the snow.

Drifts were higher than six feet and the temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero in some places. At the time the Great Plains was being settled, many pioneers were living in cheaply built dwellings and were not prepared to handle such cold. The snow and wind were so fierce that people became lost just yards from their homes. According to historical records, an estimated 100 Kansans froze to death during the 1886 storm. Cattle were lost and some large cattle companies went bankrupt. Business and rail traffic were paralyzed for weeks.

That's when winter took a toll on people and the economy in Gray County. According to one resident, Mrs. Ray Kelly - a child at the time of the 1886 blizzard - her parents went to the cow shed to try to save the cows and horses. The storm was so intense that they tied ropes to the house and around their bodies to enable them to find their way back to the house in the blinding storm. The three children were put to bed and told not to leave the warmth of the bed until the storm was over. In the morning, the blowing snow had come into the house through the key hole and cracks around the windows and formed drifts several inches high across the floor.

In Greeley County, the historical society has a marker commemorating John K. and Lincoln Rodgers, who both froze in the blizzard of 1886. They were returning to their homestead at the time. Their faithful collie, buried beside them, had gone to the nearest town and led some men to their bodies. They were the first to be buried in what was then known as the Rodgers Brothers cemetery.

Even in today's world there are plenty of older folks who believe we have become a society of wimps. Cal Sheppard, 88, can't recall very many snow days when he was a kid growing up on his parents' dairy farm, Sheppard's Acres, north of Hutchinson. A snowy day was just another day expected in the winter. It was just another day to crawl out of bed in the dark to feed and milk the cows, before walking to Prosperity School.

"Snow never kept us in," Sheppard said.

Meanwhile, Wednesday morning I did just enough snow removal to get the car out of the driveway. When I returned home that evening, my kind neighbor, with his snowplow, had come and finished the job. He is surely a descendent of the pioneer stock found in a Willa Cather novel.