The Blizzard of 1952: Before the storm
Wed, 01/11/2017 - 11:36am admin
James E. Roghair
James E Roghair, son of the late Ed and Margaret Roghair, lived near Okaton on their farm his first 14 years (1943-57) and still has many relatives in the area. He writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The blizzard of 1952 is legendary in western South Dakota. Everyone who lived through it has a story to tell. I was nearly nine years old in the third grade, my brother Gene was almost seven in the first grade, and Dad was thirty-nine and father of three. My memories of this horrendous storm are vivid, and I tell what I remember seeing and hearing of it.
Dad drove the two of us boys to school in Okaton that Monday morning, January 21, 1952. It was beautiful and warm for mid-winter. Huge snowflakes floated gently to the ground with no wind or hint of bad weather. So we drove in his two-door1949 Ford Custom instead of the four-wheel drive 1947 Willys Jeep.
Since the day was so mild, we didn’t even wear our normal three layers of clothes: woolen long-johns, blue jeans, and denim bib overalls to remove when we got to school—dark blue for Gene and striped blue and white for me. We did wear our overshoes, warm coats, mittens and caps with earflaps, but not the overalls. The memory of how pleasant weather was that morning is unforgettable.
After leaving Gene and me at the school door Dad went a few blocks to the general store/post office to get the mail and chat with relatives and neighbors before heading home. His brother Nicholas Albert (Uncle Albert to us) was there. He had heard a weather report on KOTA radio in Rapid City about one hundred fifteen miles west. “The snow is heavy there,” he said, “with a strong west wind. It’s gonna be a big one, and it’s headed our way.” Uncle Albert had no kids in school yet but advised his older brother, “Go get your kids from school, and take ‘em home.” Dad followed his advice and was back at the school in minutes. He warned the two teachers of the coming storm, but since they had the responsibility for about twenty kids and no way to contact parents, they would go on with the lessons, for the time being.
When we started home the falling snowflakes were still large and beautiful but becoming heavier. It was only three and a half miles home but with no farm houses along the way. The first mile was mostly on the original highway 16 built in the 1940s, but the second mile was under construction. Old pavement was torn up and we shared the uncompleted dirt and gravel road with road working machines and especially with gravel trucks.
Dad was always careful, but this was a dangerous situation. As we entered the construction zone, even though there was no wind, the snowfall had become so heavy it was getting hard to see where we were going. Gene was sitting by the passenger door and I was in the middle of the front seat. Dad said, “Guys, this is going to be hard. Gene, I want you to watch on your side of the road. Look for the wooden construction stakes to make sure we don’t run off that side of the road. Jim, I want you to look straight ahead. Tell me if you see a gravel truck coming. I will watch the left side to make sure we stay on the road.” Gene and I watched carefully, and Gene reported the position of the stakes as we went by. I only saw one gravel truck and warned Dad as it approached. How much Dad was relying on us for safety and how much he was trying to keep us occupied to avoid panic, I don’t know. But together we crept down that road with no incident.
We relaxed a little after we safely completed the mile of construction and turned north for a more familiar mile of Jones County dirt road. Then we turned west, and only a half mile on a narrower township road lay between us and our own 200 yards of driveway, the final lap of this journey.
When we were within an eighth of a mile of the driveway, Dad, blinded by the falling snow, mistook a snow bank on the right of the road for one on the left. He drove directly into the deep drift. He knew immediately the car was stuck so wasted no time trying to get it free. There was nothing to do but pile out of the car and begin trudging home.
The low visibility made even walking treacherous. But finally we triumphantly walked between the well-known two rows of small Russian olive trees lining our driveway and directing us onto our home place. As soon as we were within sight of the house, Dad said sternly, “Get into the house right now. I am going to make sure the horse and the cows are safe in the barn and shut them in.” We did what we were told.
When we burst through the door, Mom—with four and a half year-old Crysti by her side—asked, “Why are you guys home?” She had not heard a weather report and had not been outside. “Mom,” I said, “a blizzard is coming! Dad picked us up at school.” Gene chimed in, “There is so much snow. The car is stuck in a snowbank and we had to walk home!” Before we could tell her everything, Dad arrived from the barn.
On the way to the house Dad observed the 6-volt DC Windcharger on its wooden tower turning lazily. Then it abruptly changed directions indicating the arrival of the predicted storm. “The Windcharger swung around,” he said. “It’s a strong wind from the west. This is going to be a big blizzard!” With a sigh of relief Dad took off his overshoes and coat. He did not mention that had we all been a few minutes later getting home, we might not have made it. Or that if he had run off the road a little further from our driveway, we might still be walking.
Driving and walking in the heavy snow had been difficult, but it was minor compared to the hazards of the actual blizzard conditions, snow and strong wind. In a blizzard anyone can be disoriented, even in a space as familiar as that between our house and barn. Dad never expressed strong emotions, but I’m sure he offered up a silent prayer of thanks for the safety of home and the close call we had avoided.
Mom, about six and a half months pregnant, might have imagined what it would have been like to be stranded with her little girl not knowing where the rest of her family was. She gave us all hugs and asked, “Who would like a cup of hot chocolate?”
(To be continued next week)