Burning the furniture to stay warm


ast weekend the incredible Greene County wind chill readings pretty much dominated everyone’s conversations.

The wind chills arrived on the heels of significant snowfalls, creating dangerous road conditions and driving folks indoors unless they had to go outside.

That kind of weather always generates another round of one of Iowans’ favorite sports: comparing current weather conditions with the extremes that people can recall from their own past. 

When was the last time things were this uncomfortable?

For old-timers, the answer has always been the winter of 1935-36. 

The comment generally goes something like this: “You think this is bad? You should have been around in January and February of 1936. That was a real winter.”

So what was that winter more than 80 years ago really like?

The best account I can find is an article by the late Otto Knauth, printed in 1960 in the State Historical Society of Iowa magazine The Annals of Iowa. 

Knauth, a native of Germany, was a former assistant editor of The Des Moines Register. He performed meticulous research on the 1935-36 winter in Iowa, which had taken place 25 years before publication of the article. You can find it on the internet by seeking “Iowa winter of 1936.”

Here’s some of the jaw-dropping detail:

Starting on Jan. 18, temperatures in northwest Iowa stayed continuously below zero for 35 straight days. That’s below zero, not just below freezing. For the entire winter the state’s average temperature was only 12.6 degrees.

Iowa snowfall for the whole winter totaled 42.9 inches. It fell almost perpetually the last half of January and on through February. Because of the accompanying high winds, more than half of Iowa’s 215,000 farms were isolated for seven weeks.

Blizzards blasted the state on Jan. 16, 17, 18, 22 and 30, and on Feb. 3, 8, 9 and 26. Three were particularly disastrous: Jan. 16-18, Feb. 8-9 and Feb. 26. 

The Feb. 8-9 storm ranks as one of the worst ever in Iowa, bringing everything to a standstill.

The winter had started out pretty easy, with average conditions in December and early January relatively mild (sound familiar?). Then the record-setting cold and snow hit. Starting Jan. 16, the mercury sank below zero and snow that fell remained on the ground in some spots for 72 days. That’s 2½ months.

A few days later, temps plunged to 33 below in northern Iowa and 22 below in the south part of the state. Actual temperatures; wind chills were way lower.

Vehicles, including school buses, got stuck in drifts around the state. A Cedar Rapids girl walked three miles to school and both her legs were frozen below the knees. Sixty pupils at Northwood sustained frozen ears, noses, fingers or toes.

Coal was the fuel of choice across the state in those days, and coal mines couldn’t keep up with the increased demand as cold hung on and huge drifts hampered delivery. The coal miners’ union agreed to work on Saturdays to provide coal for Iowa indigents who were on relief. But even so, shortages continued, and a number of Iowans burned corn and their own furniture to keep warm.

A doctor on a county snowplow, after six hours, reached a farmer who lived 11 miles from Sac City. He’d been isolated for two weeks, and was suffering from mumps and pneumonia when the physician arrived late the night of Feb. 4.

The snow and cold killed 22 Iowans by Feb. 6. 

Then winter arrived for real.

Saturday morning, Feb. 8, a blizzard howled in on northwest winds of 30 to 40 mph, piling snow into drifts up to 20 feet high. Snowplow crews had to give up, and plows were abandoned on the spot. Drifts rose above utility poles by Sunday morning.

In the country, horses became the only method of transportation once again. Some farmers resupplied their families by hooking up bobsleds and setting out cross country, cutting fences or riding over them on the ridge lines. Animal deaths were widespread, both domestic and wildlife.

Cities opened public buildings as refuges against the growing coal shortage. Several trains halted in the brutal blizzard because of drifts across the tracks and had to be rescued by other locomotives. Several carloads of hogs froze to death near Clarion when a livestock train came to a forced stop. 

Frost depths ranged from four feet in central Iowa to seven feet in the north part of the state. Ice reached 42 inches thick on the Iowa River at Iowa Falls. Some towns completely ran out of coal and had to borrow from nearby communities.

Roads remained totally blocked until Monday, when a few were finally opened, although temperatures did not reach above freezing in central Iowa until Washington’s Birthday on Feb. 22.

The weather finally broke in Iowa on March 2, six weeks after the first blizzard of 1936. 

Yeah, our recent weather deserves to be talked about, and we will. But it’s not what our forebears faced in early 1936, and modern technology and convenience are far superior to what they had to rely on back then.


A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the scourge of poor English usage and typographical errors. 

I should have known that complaint would come back to bite me, and it did in last week’s column about the War in the Pacific during World War II.

One of the points of the article was that the particular battles I highlighted had occurred 75 years ago. But my column, through a typo I didn’t catch, said 45 years ago instead.


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