Memories of deadly blizzard far from sweet

Downtown Rapid City during the Blizzard of 1949. Courtesy South Dakota Archives.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Our current snow storm (April, 2019) reminds us of a story we posted here several years ago. So we pulled it up out of the archives and here it is for your snow day.

Sweets were in short supply 50 years ago at the Fred Kammerer ranch. So when 10-year-old John found a box of candy hidden on a shelf, he began sneaking the chocolate treasure. It would have been better if this had not occurred while the Kammerers were trapped by the historic blizzard of 1949 — because the sweet was not really candy.

John, Maurice and Marvin Kammerer pose for a photo during the late 1940s.

So far, winter had been pretty decent at the K Reverse K Ranch in western South Dakota near Rapid City. Temperatures had been civilized and snowfall within reason. Then came that Sunday in early January.

Fred Kammerer stepped outside that morning and looked at the sky. He went out a short time later and looked again. It scared him. “Boys, we gotta get the cattle in because we’re gonna get it.” Fred and sons John, 10, and 11-year-old Marvin and Maurice (fraternal twins), jumped on their horses. They no sooner reached the herd of 100 when the wind hit.

“Man, it was blowing,” John recalls. “Before long it was about 70 miles per hour and cold, oh, God, but it was cold. Then the snow started. We got all the cattle into the corrals where they were safe.

John Kammerer

Dad always kept plenty of feed on hand for emergencies like this; we had enough to last all winter. His savvy paid off. We lost one heifer, and that was not directly related to the storm. Some of our neighbors lost hundreds and hundreds.”

After the cattle were safe, the Kammerers fought their way to the barn to bed down their horses, and then groped through the cutting wind and blinding snow to the house, stringing a long rope so they could find their way back.

Fred Kammerer (born in 1888) said later the blizzard of ’49 was the worst in his memory, but it certainly

The old outhouse still stands on the Kammerer K Reverse K Ranch near Rapid City. During the Blizzard of 1949, Fred Kammerer strung a rope between the outhouse and the main house so people could feel their way through the blinding storm.

wasn’t the only one. He knew that without a rope to follow they would not be able to trudge safely from house to barn. And while they were at it, he and the boys stretched a rope between the house and the outhouse.

The ground floor of the ranch house was warm. There was a potbelly stove in the living room, and the kitchen stove was an old Monarch wood-burner. However, the wind-whipped snow seeped through every opening, every crack in the walls of the old building. Upstairs in the kids’ bedrooms there was no heat, and an iron-hard crust of frost soon formed on the ceiling. The youngsters sandwiched themselves between feather mattresses and heaped blankets on top of those. One bed was capped with a tanned horse hide that John swears must have weighed 50 pounds. The snow accumulated in six-inch drifts on the floor, adding a layer of white to the high-piled bedding.

“One thing for sure,” John remembers, “we didn’t dilly-dally when we got out bed. We got down those stairs as fast as we could to warm up by the stoves.”

John said it would not have been as bad if they were able to stay in the house “but we had to take care of the livestock, the cattle, pigs, chickens and horses out the barns and corrals. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was damn dangerous. Without Dad’s ropes to hang onto, we never would have lived through it.”

After the chores were done each day, the family was able to rest and recover from their efforts. All except John. He was poking around the house and there, hidden on a high, dark shelf, he found a little box of candy. The Kammerers had always been well-provisioned, and all their lives had feasted on beef, tons of canned goods their mother had put up, and the heavy, wonderful bread she baked every day in the old Monarch. But candy, sweets of any kind, were rare, and therefore craved.

John had sneakily pocketed the little box of candy, and before the day was over, ate it all. It wasn’t candy, of course, but Ex-Lax, the fabled laxative that poses as chocolate. He clearly remembers being doubled over by cramps, racing to get into his heavy clothing and then desperately clawing his way along that frozen, wind-blasted rope to the outhouse. Time and time again. Today, more than 60 years later, he still has little taste for chocolate, preferring mints instead.

It was deep out there as shown by this famous photo from the South Dakota State Archives.

As John remembers, the storm screamed for three days. “On the fourth day, it was quiet when we got up. We looked out and saw the sun, hanging frozen in that hard blue sky. It had no warmth, but nearly blinded us reflecting off the snowdrifts. And there were drifts, drifts like mountains, everywhere. They were as hard as mountains, too. We could walk across the big one between the house and barn and touch the electric wires. We hitched up a hay wagon, and the horses were able to pull it right over the drifts, just like they were walking on rock.

“Then we started to shovel. We’d no sooner get a path dug out when another storm would come along and bury it. My brother, Marv, reminded me of digging a trail out to the stock dam and then breaking the ice so the cattle could drink. One of the worst things was hacking the snow out of the animal sheds. It would drift in, and the animals would stomp it into solid ice, and it kept getting higher and higher. The whole rest of the winter was a blur of wind and snow and shoveling and shoveling some more.

“It was the middle of March, and Dad and I were out feeding cattle a quarter-mile east of the house. It was cold, terrible cold, when a chinook wind hit. We started peeling off our coats. Dad leaned on his pitchfork, looked upward for a long time, and whispered, ‘Thank God, it’s over.’”

Fred Kammerer lived well into his 90s and died in 1987. John, who now lives Rapid City, gets cold easily. “I’m not sure why this is,” he said, “unless every time the thermometer falls a little, it awakens an old memory of the blizzard of 1949.”

This painting by Johanna Stensaas shows the Fred Kammerer ranch as it was in the late 1940s. The white building at lower left is the main house.

Snowbirds report: Messing around in Mesilla, New Mexico

Snow geese at Bosque del Apache in Socorro, New Mexico

By Ed Martley

c 2019

The best result of my decision in the late 1970s to start a business in Las Cruces, N.M., was the discovery of the nearby village of historic Mesilla.
In the following decades, we visited Mesilla from time to time and developed a real affection for the little place (population about 2,000). This winter, we decided to flee the blizzards of South Dakota for the warmth of the Southwest deserts. Naturally, we chose Mesilla and stayed a month. Mesilla buildings are (by ordinance) either authentic adobe or adobe-look, and the streets are very narrow. Mesilla is old — our rented casita (“little house”), with its two-foot-thick adobe walls, dates to 1860, and has been in our hosts’ family for four generations. Businesses and residences surround the Mesilla Plaza, a National Historic Landmark. History calls from the architecture, landmarks, signs, and events. Among Mesilla’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your politics) historical residents is Billy the Kid.

Mesilla’s historic plaza

Some of the buildings in the town plaza date to the early 1850s. Mesilla is only 50 miles from the border with Mexico and, in fact, was part of Mexico until acquired by the United States in 1854 in the Gadsden Purchase. Many of the residents are direct descendants of the town’s settlers, and Spanish is spoken and printed everywhere. Cultures and traditions of Indian, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American flavor the community.
Our casita — the photos show the care that went into the furniture, décor, and artwork— was rented through Airbnb. Not inexpensive, but day by day, immensely more economical than other options. In fact, no sooner had we returned home than we reserved the same place for next winter.

Casita hallway is an art gallery

Exterior patio and entry.

A fascinating aspect of Mesilla, and indeed the entire area, is the influence of Catholicism. Many of the streets bear saints’ names. For example, our casita is on Calle San Albino. Dominating Mesilla Plaza is the Basilica of San Albino, originally built of adobe in 1855. The present church was built in the early 1900s around the old adobe structure, which was dismantled and carried out the front door. The modern design on the outside opens to a “historic” appearance on the interior. The basilica has three Masses on Sundays, the first being in Español. The bells ring over the town beginning with a 6:30 call to mass.

It is no surprise that in the town of Las Cruces, crosses, crucifixes and other religious iconography are everywhere. (For more history on this important crossroads). One of the biggest holidays is Dia de los Muertos — or Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day. Or, as we northerners commonly call it, Halloween. A huge proportion of religious items reflect stylized skeletons and a host of other spooky images.

Living room

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Adventures in the Land of Enchantment

FIRST SAINT — Gracing the outside of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe is this statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, also known as the Lily of the Mohawks, who is the first Native American to be given sainthood. Beatified in 1980, the Algonquin-Mohawk woman was canonized by Pope Benedict XVL in 2012.

By Ed Martley

There’s something about the combination of a powerful car, a warm night and a beautiful, empty highway that compels you to cruise hour after hour at more than 100 mph, windows and radio wide open. That’s how my decades-long love affair with New Mexico began.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE MADRID — Madrid is a hippy hamlet near Santa Fe. As you can see, it’s pretty easy to end up in trouble. At our last visit a few years ago, sanitation at the settlement’s elite eatery consisted of an outdoor Port-a-Potty. It is unknown what other establishments used.

In the late 1970s; I was operating a clothing store in South Dakota, and a good friend was working in Las Cruces, N.M. So I drove down to visit — after all, 1,000 miles is nothing to an old road warrior in an Oldsmobile 98. Las Cruces was a nice town of about 35,000 then and has grown to more than 100,000 today. Anyway, I decided open a branch of the store there. Which I did, got tired of the commute after a couple of years, and sold out. But in the years since, we have traveled throughout New Mexico, always finding adventure, always finding something new.

Our most recent visit, in early December of 2016, was to attend a feast day observance of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the pueblo of Tortugas, which adjoins Las Cruces. You can read Suzanne’s observations about the fiesta in last week’s Rapid City Journal. More on the rest of that trip in a subsequent installment of this series of stories.

That is only the most recent adventure. Early during our years of discovery roaming the Land of Enchantment, I took my daughters, ages 12 and 15, to Santa Fe, state capital and one of the great towns on the planet. There is a downtown square of a block on each side. In and around the square are handcrafters, artists, jewelry makers, fortunetellers, acrobats, musicians and dozens of delightful characters doing weird things — all hoping to relieve you of some of your money.

HISTORY TO THE 1600s — The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is a prominent landmark in downtown Santa Fe. The diocese was established in 1850; Catholicism had come to the area with the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-16th century.

We stopped at one table of handmade jewelry where youngest daughter was examining a nose decoration. The idea was, you shoved a little magnet up your nose to hold a jewel to the outside of your nose. She tried one out, and after much grimacing and contorting, was up to the second joint before she got the hang of it. The magnet didn’t hold well so we didn’t buy it; the vendor wiped the magnet on his sleeve and tossed it back in the box.

As we walked away, oldest daughter asked, did you notice that guy who was watching you? Youngest daughter said no, who was it? “Eric Clapton,” oldest daughter replied.

On that same trip, we visited the museum at Los Alamos where we got an education on the atomic bomb, which was designed and built there.

CAVE DWELLINGS — About an hour’s drive from Santa Fe is Bandelier National Monument, where you can actually go inside the cliff dwellings.

Not far from Los Alamos is wonderful Bandelier National Monument, where you can crawl around in some ancient cliff dwellings. The girls were delighted when they looked into one of the cave-like rooms and saw a pair of elderly women on their knees, crying and reciting unintelligible words, perhaps praying to or for the spirits of the long-departed residents? The so-called great mystery of the disappearance of the original Anasazi residents has filled popular books and TV shows. (According to current theories, they moved out when their water source ran dry. Their ancestors live in communities down the road, making pottery and silver jewelry in the same designs as artifacts found at the site.)

We will be offering several more stories and many pictures about New Mexico travels in subsequent weeks. This coming spring, we will be in New Mexico again, although briefly. We plan to drive a portion of fabled Route 66, heading westward out of Albuquerque.

St. Francis Cathedral, built between 1869 and 1886, is open to the public.

DUMP YOUR DIET — The coffee shop in Santa Fe’s famed La Fonda Hotel is the home of some of the best pastries ever baked.

WOOD AND TILE — Few hotels will rival the La Fonda in beauty. It glows with woods, its walls and floors are sheathed with tile. The price tag for a nice room is also pretty memorable. Toward the top of my bucket list is the hope of saving enough to stay there for just one night.