Frightful blizzard leads to a ‘White Christmas’

A rural farmstead located west of Reinbeck nestled in the snow on Monday, Dec. 26. It was officially a ‘White Christmas’ this year in Iowa including across Tama and Grundy counties as more than one inch of snow was present on the ground on Christmas Day. PHOTO BY SOREN M. PETERSON

The prelude to Christmas in Iowa was downright frightful this year.

Despite leading to the quintessential ‘White Christmas’ – defined as snow depth of at least one inch – the blizzard that blasted the state with snow, wind, and sub-zero temperatures beginning late Wednesday, Dec. 21, created havoc on the roads, snarled mail delivery, inserted difficulty into the care and feeding of livestock, and closed most county and city offices Thursday and Friday.

While the storm deposited just 2.5 inches of light, fluffy snow in Traer and 3.5 inches in Clutier as of Thursday morning – per the Heartland Co-op and Tama-Benton Cooperative observer stations’ reporting, respectively – it was the wind and cold that defined the event.

The high northwest winds – with gusts up to 50+ mph – that followed the snow created blizzard conditions beginning Thursday and pushed wind chill values to between 35 and 45 below zero.

In the rural, open areas across both Tama and Grundy counties on Friday morning, snow built steadily across the rock roads from the northwest making travel impossible for many.

A rural rock road located east of Clutier drifts shut due to sustained northwest winds of at least 25 mph on Friday, Dec. 23 during the height of the pre-Christmas blizzard. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

According to Chief Deputy Joe Quandt, the Tama County Sheriff’s Office received roughly 55 calls for services in the county from Dec. 21 through Christmas related to motor vehicle incidents, broken down vehicles, and assistance to motorists.

There was no USPS Mail delivery in much of Tama County on Friday due to the weather including in the communities of Clutier, Dysart, Elberon, and Tama-Toledo.

Per the National Weather Service, at one point during the storm roughly 60% of the U.S. population was under some form of winter weather warnings or advisories.

At its height, the Iowa DOT had 255 staff working on the roads, according to a Facebook post made on Friday.

Ahead of the storm, the Tama County Engineer put out a statement indicating that rock roads would not be plowed on Thursday or Friday due to the counterproductivity of doing so in the face of the immense drifting.

The view looking north on T47 between Garwin and Gladbrook courtesy of the Tama County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday, Dec. 24 with one truck crashed in the west ditch and another located perpendicular across the road. Most rock/gravel roads that morning were completely drifted in and plows were not running due to the extreme weather. PHOTO COURTESY OF TAMA COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE

“We will attack the rock roads as soon as we can, hopefully on Saturday,” the Tama Co. Engineer’s office posted on Facebook on Wednesday. “We will work on Saturday and Sunday if productive and necessary to reach everyone. Please note the rock roads will only be open to single lane traffic and will likely still have areas with some snow on them.”

For rural Dysart farmer Jon Winkelpleck who runs cattle alongside his father and brother, the subzero temperatures were the biggest issue his family had to contend with in the storm’s wake.

“We keep cattle bedded and check waterers frequently,” Winkelpleck told the Telegraph Friday morning. “Carry a box of fuses for waterers and an extra dry pair of gloves, pliers, and an empty milk jug to carry hot water to thaw out a frozen valve on a waterer.”

And like many farmers, Winkelpleck said he created a windbreak ahead of the storm to protect the cattle from the cutting winds using large round hay bales.

Blizzard of 1934

Snow collects along the back of one of Jon Winkelpleck’s beef cattle on his rural Dysart farm on the morning of Friday, Dec. 23 during the height of the pre-Christmas blizzard this year. PHOTO COURTESY OF JON WINKELPLECK

While the storm was certainly frightful in Iowa and became even more intense as it tracked across the U.S. – eventually killing almost 30 people in western New York alone mostly due to the cold according to A.P. News – there have been much worse storms in Tama County through the years including the Thanksgiving blizzard of 1934.

Headlines from local papers declared of the 1934 storm which hit early on the night of Thanksgiving – ‘Blizzard Ties Up Business in Tama County’ and ‘Supervisors Cannot Open Those Side Roads.’

The blizzard that year dropped some 15 inches of snow across Tama County and the accompanying high winds created drifts as tall as nine feet by the next day.

At the Tama Co. supervisors’ meeting held the following Monday, discussion centered around opening up the secondary roads.

“[The supervisors] said that it would break up the county financially to try to open the side roads,” the Tama-News Herald reported. “These roads are filled with deep snow drifts, some nine feet deep, and the work that would be required in opening them would be so costly that it simply can’t be done.”

Cattle bed down with corn stalks for warmth on the farm of Jon Winkelpleck located just west of Dysart on Friday, Dec. 23 during the height of the pre-Christmas blizzard. PHOTO COURTESY OF JON WINKELPLECK

The article went on to state while the supervisors “regret such a situation,” there was nothing that could be done about it. Fortunately, the 1934 blizzard did not feature “especially low” temperatures which prevented the blizzard from “ranking with the severe old-time storms of pioneer days here,” per reporting in the Traer Star-Clipper.

In addition to countywide road closures, the 1934 blizzard also threatened a butter shortage, according to the Star-Clipper, as the Traer Co-operative Creamery “had only a few tubs on hand when the blizzard opened. Enough cream to manufacture more was secured, however, before the supply was exhausted.”

Officially, the low temperature in Toledo this year on Christmas Day was -2 degrees with a high of 8 degrees and four inches of snowpack, according to local weather spotter Randy Cooper.

Using 128 years of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data, the coldest Christmas Day for Tama County on record took place in 2000 with a low of -22 degrees and a high of -6.

So while it could always be worse as this reporter’s German grandmother would say – colder cold, county bankruptcy, walls of snow some nine feet high, and a butter shortage during the height of the holiday baking season – the payoff of a White Christmas this year certainly came at a painful, polar price.

The view from rural Gladbrook resident Laura Bru’s window – restricted by a massive snowdrift – on Friday, Dec. 23 during the height of the pre-Christmas blizzard. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE PIE LADY/LAURA BRU

The view looking south down X Avenue just west of Dysart on Friday, Dec. 23. PHOTO COURTESY OF JON WINKELPLECK