Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Friday, March 2, 2012
With the unusually warm weather and the “open winter” we have been experiencing here in the Kickapoo Valley this winter, perhaps we should look back at another winter when the temperatures plunged below zero for nearly two straight months. It was the winter season of 1935-36 and the really brutal cold spell set in shortly after the start of the New Year in January.
Walter Huston, who lives down Sextonville way now, wrote to me a couple of weeks back. In his letter he related his recollections of that cold, cold winter as he remembered it, so I think I’ll have Walter help tell this story of that cold spell from seventy-six years ago. By the way, for those of you who don’t know him, Walter is 97 years old and his mind is amazingly sharp in remembering these things from the past.
Walter begins by saying that he started working at the electric power plant in Seelyburg on November 1, 1935. That plant, located along the Kickapoo River on La Farge’s north side, provided all of the power for the village of La Farge and the lines out to the farms at Tunnelville and Bear Creek at that time. Walter describes the plant by writing, “At that time there was only a hydro plant which had two generators; one large one and one smaller; each one driven by separate turbines down under the ground floor, powered by the flow of the Kickapoo River. Close by in a separate building was a two cylinder Fairbanks-Morris 120 horsepower diesel powered unit that had a large alternating current generator and a direct current generator all on a large nine inch line shaft, all in line with the crankshaft of the engine. Also, there were just two 12-hour shifts (for the workers) and the dam on the river and the diesel plant I don’t think was over two years old.” The dam was new and fortunately had withstood the terrible flood of the Kickapoo River that previous summer. Eventually the La Farge power plant would be upgraded and expanded to also provide power for the village of Viola.
Walter goes on to tell how he got the job at the power plant, “Two brothers, Hobart and Bob Shird, were the two operators. The younger of the two, Bob, decided that he wanted to go back to work for the Jantz brothers at the Chevrolet Garage. Lester Wood, manager of the electric utility at that time, asked Hob if he knew of someone who he might get to fill Bob’s place. After a minute or two, Hob happened to think of the conservation that he and Walter Huston had just a few days before about how Walter as a little boy just loved to be around the threshing machines out in Montana (where the Huston family lived before moving back to La Farge). Hob told Lester he should go up to Huston’s (now where Earl and Deb Nelson live) and see if I would be interested in the job. When he told me the starting salary of $80 per month, it didn’t take much deciding to accept the offer.” With the 60-hour workweek that Walter worked, the hourly wage was only a little over thirty cents an hour, miniscule by today’s standards. But a steady paying job was hard to come by in those days of the Great Depression, so Walter snapped up the offer.
In his letter, Walter then moves on to describe the cold, cold winter of 1936, “About the middle of January the temperature dropped down below zero and never got above zero for six solid weeks. It got up to two degrees below zero a couple of times, but went right back down, and I think quite a few mornings we saw twenty-five and thirty degrees below zero.
“The ice down on the dam froze down to thirty inches or better. Hobart and I had to go down to the dam three times every twenty-four hours and chop the ice away from the boards to keep the ice from pushing and bursting the dam out. The chisel we were using to break the ice was beginning to be way too small. So Hob told Lester and Lester went down to Otto Novy at the blacksmith shop and had him make a larger and heavier one, with a “D” handle. Being heavier, there was danger of us losing it while chopping the ice, so they had to buy a leather strap to fasten around our wrist and the “D” handle. But, OH BOY! What if the new chisel took us with it down into the icy cold water? We just had to be double sure that it didn’t.
“The cold was so bad for so long that the water mains, located five feet down below Main Street froze up. Lester Wood had to call on the electrician Lester Brown from Viola to help thaw them out with electricity. He knew how to do it by using 2,300-volt transformers some way. Hob told me that they hooked up to a fire hydrant up by the Free Methodist Church and the other fire hydrant down by the Nuzum Yards. They would always call me at the power plant to be sure that I had the diesel engine running and on the line. They would call me so that I would be at the throttle to open it on the engine to pick up the tremendous load. As I remember it took almost a half hour with the plant at full power to get the water mains thawed out. I would liked to have been on hand on Main Street to see how it was done, but my job was to be in the power plant to take care of the heavy load.” Imagine that! Electrifying the entire frozen water system under La Farge’s Main Street to thaw it out. Drastic times call for drastic measures.
Walter also wrote about the troubles with the cold spell for his family and their home, “I also had a problem at home. The old house we called home didn’t have insulation, nor storm windows or storm doors. We also had to go five miles to get our firewood to heat that house. All the younger children were still in school. So it was left to Walter to hurry home right after my shift ended at midnight, grab a chunk of Johnny cake out of the cupboard and get a cup of cold milk, gulp it down quickly and then get into bed upstairs under those ice cold sheets and blankets, which were piled about six inches thick. At eight o’clock in the morning, Mom would call me to get up and grab a bite to eat while Dad was hitching the team to the wagon. Then we would start out to the woods. The county men had to keep the roads plowed out, so we could go three miles by wagon (This would be on old Highway 131, called County M in Walter’s younger days). Then we would unhitch the wagon and hook up the horses to a bobsled that we had parked there and go the other two miles over the farm driveway. We would load up the wood quickly on the bobsled, get back to where we had left the wagon and change our load of wood over to the wagon. By the time that we got the load of wood to the house and unloaded, I had to start for work at the power plant on the run. Nearly every day I was able to catch a ride with someone, so I always got to work on time. My mother always had my dinner and supper put up in a large stew kettle. Just think of living that kind of lifestyle for five out of seven days a week for six straight weeks in that below zero cold? I have to wonder as I look back how we ever did it.”
Walter then writes about how they had to keep track of the temperature as part of their duties at the power plant, “At the power plant, we had to read and keep a record of all the meters every hour on the hour and the temperature on the thermometer as well. The weather broke on the 9th of March. It got up to forty degrees above zero. The reason I remember the date, it was the same day that my nephew Vernon Nelson was born. As I look back I think it just happened to be that day. I can’t see where Vernon had anything to do with it.
“A week or so after the cold weather finally broke, Hobart and I went back over the log sheets to check and it had been six solid weeks that the temperature stayed below zero. What happened once could happen again.”
That is correct Walter, we’re just glad that it did not happen this January and February. Thanks for sharing your memories with us of that cold spell in the Kickapoo Valley from so long ago.