So here we are at the Matile Manse, hunkered down while Winter Storm Ion has its way with us. Personally, I think naming winter storms is dorky, but then again I suppose we have to call them something.
Cold, snowy winters have been a rarity the past several years, but it looks as if the Winter of 2013-14 will be one to remember.
Even with our milder winters lately, northern Illinois is not, even during the best of winters, the place you want to be if you can’t stand cold, snowy, and wet weather. Given the state’s orientation, extending more than 350 miles straight south from the tip of Lake Michigan, Illinois tends to be the recipient of all sorts of interesting weather coming out of the north, west, and south, from summer dust storms to winter blizzards. And it’s always been so.
For instance, the winter of 1779-80 was said to have been one of the worst ones ever experienced on what was at that time the nation’s far western frontier. According to one source, local Indian tribes referred to that winter as “The Great Cold.” Whole herds of wild animals were said to have perished in the cold and snow, and Native American residents were hard-pressed to survive during the worst of it.
Another hard winter shortly after the turn of the 19th Century is said to have killed off hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of the state’s native bison, leaving piles of their bones bleaching on the prairies.
But during both of those hard winters, there were few pioneers in northern Illinois to record either the weather or their reactions to it. Not until the late 1820s did settlement of Illinois north of Peoria get a good start, and even then, the prairies from Galena south to Peoria, were mostly occupied by Native Americans.
As the decade of the 1830s opened, however, the state was struck by a winter so brutal the area’s earliest settlers used it ever after to mark who was and who was not an “old settler.” Generally, those who arrived before the winter of 1830-31, dubbed the Winter of the Deep Early Snow, could claim that status, while later arrivals were considered mere pioneers.
Starting in late December 1830, snow fell continuously well into January 1831 to a depth of 3 feet on the level, according to those who lived through it. Then a flash warm-up followed by a sudden rain struck the northern part of the state, immediately followed by sub-zero temperatures. The result of this weather whiplash was a crust of ice on the snow, described by many of those old settlers as “nearly, if not quite, strong enough to bear a man.” That was then followed by several more inches of snow after which the skies cleared.
But those clear skies brought sharply colder temperatures, followed by strong northwest winds that blew for days on end. “For weeks, certainly not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher than 12 degrees below zero,” one pioneer recalled.
The icy crust over the deep snow prevented livestock from digging down through the snow cover to prairie grass for food, as well as severely hampering travel and importation of food. Game became nonexistent, and starvation stalked northern Illinois’ scattered settlements.
Pioneers were forced to make some wrenching decisions. Many of the men set off for Indiana’s Wabash Valley where food was available, leaving their families to fend for themselves. Bailey Hobson, who had settled in what is today Kendall County’s Big Grove Township, struggled east to find food for his family, arriving back at his cabin weeks later just in time to save his family from starving to death.
As the 1830s wore on, erratic weather continued to plague the settlers on the Illinois prairies. On Dec. 20, 1836, a ferocious, fast-moving storm howled through northern Illinois, leaving an indelible impression on the settlers then struggling to create new homes. Ever after, the day would be recalled as Sudden Change Day, Cold Tuesday, or The Cold Day in Illinois.
Monday, Dec. 19 had been relatively warm and rain had fallen, leaving snow melting into slush across the region. Then the front came through with a vicious temperature drop of more than 40° F., accompanied by strong winds. According to meteorologist Dr. Keith C. Heidorn, on Dec. 19, a Colorado low moved east along a frontal boundary lying across the northern plains. Shortly before sunrise on Dec. 20, the front was speeding across Iowa and on into Illinois with frigid arctic air howling in behind it.
North of Peoria in Lacon Township, a settler named Spencer Ellsworth later recalled: “The morning was mild, with a settled rain gradually changing the snow on the ground into a miserable slush. Suddenly a black cloud came sweeping over the sky from the northwest, accompanied by a roaring wind as the cold wave struck the land, the rain and slush were changed in a twinkling to ice.”
Other stories Heidorn collected report chickens frozen into the ice while standing on one leg, and men caught out on horseback who reportedly froze to their saddles and had to be lifted off and carried to a fire to be thawed apart.
The front reached the Indiana border by 6 p.m. Residents of Detroit and Cincinnati recorded it passing about 9 p.m. Gales roaring with the front hit Lake Erie, grounding two ships off Sandusky, Ohio and toppling chimneys in Buffalo, N.Y.
For many settlers, however, the Sudden Change was forced to the background of memory by the disastrous economic Panic of 1837.
It’s been pretty cold the past few weeks, and we’ve gotten a fair amount of snow as well. But if our ancestors could stick it out in log cabin days, who are we to complain too much in this day and age?