It is no secret that we have spent a lot of time during this Iowa winter digging out from the snow. Many are anxiously awaiting Spring, which is still 6 weeks away. While it is easy to bemoan the snow that makes travel difficult and causes us all to have to shovel, we should remember the benefits of snow and be thankful that we live in modern times and that we have snow plows and furnaces.
In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder documents the hardships her family faced during the winter of 1880-1881. In that winter’s version of a Polar Vortex, farmers were caught off-guard with a three-day blizzard in October and snow that never seemed to stop. The family started to run low on supplies like kerosene, so they did tasks like rug-braiding in the dark. I wonder if some farm families in Iowa that were hit by the sudden upsurge in gas prices can relate to the Ingalls’ plight. School for the girls was cancelled, not only because of snow, but because there was no coal for the stove. The thought of being in a building without heat during an Iowa winter is daunting. The 1900 Farmhouse at Living History Farms has a little bit of coil heating to keep artifacts safe, but it is still cold before we light the stove in the winter time. Eventually, the snow in 1880 was so bad that the trains stopped. The Chicago and Northwestern could not get through due to snow upon snow and drift upon drift. In the book, Ma was concerned about the family making it through the winter without the train and the supplies that it would bring. If you have ever been at a grocery store in the day leading up to a snow storm you might have a sense of the desperation that she felt. Even modern people stock up on supplies in preparation for big storms. Last week the St. Louis Post-Dispatch even got a bit cheeky, predicting the snowfall of the most recent storm by reminding their Facebook followers how many loaves of bread they should pick up at the store.
It is easy to lament the winter and complain about the snow. But we live in a time where we don’t have to worry as much about food supplies like the Ingalls in the Dakota Territory. With a little effort we can go to warm offices, stores, and houses, and we have a myriad of entertainment options if we are snowbound. I wonder how sick Mary and Laura got of rug braiding without lamplight, because there wasn’t enough kerosene. Reading about the winter of 1880 makes me a little bit warmer. While we still have to go out and water and hay the horses, cows, and pigs here at Living History Farms, we wear insulated bib overalls and carry hand warmers. I bet Pa would have liked a pair of those.
The Long Winter ends with Pa playing the fiddle during the Ingalls’ Christmas celebration in May. Take heart Midwesterners, not only does a modern perspective help, it also brightens the spirit to think about the good effects that the snow brings. By looking toward Spring, and the benefits of the snow, maybe we all can remember that there is warmth at the end of the Polar Vortex. Farmers like to talk about the weather because it has a direct impact on their work. Even though snow happens during a season where little farm work is happening, it is still quite important. Michigan State University talks about some of the farming benefits of snow here.
In the meantime, let’s not forget how pretty the snowfall can be on the farm. I’ll leave you with a few shots of the farm from earlier this winter.