- Historic Sites
An astonishing saga of endurance and high courage told by a man who lived through it
February 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 1
This is a true story of a boy and his family living on the high prairie in a dobe house in eastern Colorado and the tragic experience that occurred in March 1931.
A good dobe house was something to be proud of, warm in winter and cool in summer, with walls sixteen inches thick. We had just built ours. We plowed up a strip of prairie soil about fifty feet wide by two hundred feet long and twelve inches deep. Then we put in water enough to make a mudhole and rode horses back and forth until the dirt was sloppy. We added to that slop two or three wagonloads of wheat straw, then took six or eight horses and walked them back and forth until the straw and mud were mixed real good. Then we built molds of boards and shoveled the mud straw mix in, and when the mud dried we had big dobe blocks two feet long, sixteen inches wide, and six inches thick. The wind and hot sun baked them hard as bricks. Then we laid the big blocks of dobe in place with more mud, and after the house had settled and dried out, we plastered the walls with lime and sand, making a smooth surface inside, then painted it with lime, water, and color mix. Now this was our home where this story all began.
The family consisted of Dad, born 1885, who was a pioneer of the Old West and very rugged; Mama; and three children: Edna, twenty; Ethel, fourteen; and myself, Elbern, eighteen.
On the morning of March 28, about 6:00 A.M., 1931, Mama got up early as usual and told us all to get up. We didn’t want to because we had worked hard the day before getting some ground ready for the garden and cutting out the milk cows from the range cattle so we could turn them out onto the range, for feed was running short; but we all climbed out of bed. It had been cold, but now it was like spring; there was a soft breeze from the south with a fine mist. You could stand out in that mist, throw your chest out, and say, “Boy, at last winter is over.” You could hear birds singing. It was about sixty-five degrees, and what a beautiful morning!
Ethel, Dad, and I went out to the barn and did all the chores. We were milking about fifteen cows by hand, but it didn’t take too long, about an hour. We brought the milk to the house and ran it through the cream separator. By that time Mama had breakfast ready.
Mama was a good cook, if I do say it. We had rabbit sausage, whole-wheat pancakes, and homemade syrup. Mama was talking in the Czech language—her folks came from Czechoslovakia—saying, “You better get down to the table and fill your gut, for we have a long day ahead.” She did not know then just how long it really was going to be. So we all sat at the table, and Dad and Mama decided maybe Dad and I should go to Lamar, about sixty miles, and get seed and supplies for spring planting.
Dad said, “Kids, we are going to have an early spring and a good year this year.” We were all in high spirits. Going shopping was going to be quite a treat, for it had been four or five months since our last shopping trip. So I hurried around and got the car ready, filling the tank with gas out of a barrel.
All at once Mama said, “It’s getting colder.” We looked out at the thermometer, which was kept hanging on the wall just outside of the door, and sure enough, the temperature had started to drop. We did not have a radio, but we all knew something was coming, for the cows in the corral were milling around and seemed to be getting restless, and that meant a change in the weather.
Now it’s about 8:00 A.M. on the twenty-eighth. Edna was teaching a small country school about one and one-half miles northwest of our farm, and Mama told her to dress extra warm. I heard her say, “It might get bad.” Ethel was a pupil at the same school, but Mama said, “You’d better stay home with me today, for if it was to turn bad, I would be alone with all these chores to do.” So Ethel stayed home. Mama must have known something was going to happen.
Dad said, “We better get started and get back before it turns too bad.” Even though we had our woolen underwear on and I was about to roast, Dad said, “Brother, let’s take our overshoes, our felt boots, and sheepskin coats.” (The family always called me “Brother.”) Mama packed our lunch in a big flour sack. She also put in two extra pairs of homemade mittens and our pullover masks. As we got in the car, the soft breeze from the south had stopped, and it was calm as could be. This was a bad sign, since a bad blizzard is much like a tornado, with the calm just before the storm.
We went about twenty miles, and suddenly I began to get cold. By this time it had started to snow. I looked back and I could see a big ugly black cloud coming from the north. “Maybe we better turn back,” I told Dad, but he said, “No, we better go on, for it probably will blow over in a couple of hours.” I was getting colder by the minute, and it had started to snow faster. We went on, and as we entered Lamar, the temperature had reached thirty below zero. Lamar is only about three thousand feet elevation, and our farm is about four thousand feet. So we were not feeling the impact of what was happening at home, for we lived on the upland prairie and Lamar is on the Arkansas River.