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.
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.
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
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.
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.”