My parents have always recalled, with interest and even with some amount of fondness, the hard winters of 1977-78 and 1978-79. From what I’ve heard, those winters blew in before Thanksgiving, stayed ’til late in March, and at least a little snow fell every day in the weeks that passed in the middle.
Though the current winter, 2016-17, has recently backed off from its like-a-lion December entrance, for several weeks there that it looked as though this winter might be another one for the record books. It certainly, at least, sparked for some of us memories of those bad’ns passed almost 40 years ago. I personally have no memories from those years — I wasn’t born until ’82 — but I have imagined, through stories told of the good old days, a little bit of what it must’ve been like.
My sister was in third grade the winter of 77-78, and our brother was in kindergarten. The family lived at Butte Camp here on the PV (though at that time the ranch was still owned by the extended Grierson family). Ah, Butte Camp: the cow camp Dad had manned since 1964 — since even before he and Mom were married.
Butte Camp is 16 miles of dirt road from the closest school bus stop — from what we call “the Mouat Corner.” It’s the place where the paved Myers Road turns into the Pease Bottom Road, where the way turns south from its westward march in order to cross the bridge over Alkali Creek. Out of sight, many miles up Alkali from that bridge, is Butte Camp. The school bus stop was, actually is, about 11 paved miles from the school in Hysham.
Mom had two challenges that winter:
- To get her two kids to and from school every day.
- To help my dad, who had the autumn before suffered a broken pelvis aboard a frisky 4-year-old colt, with the daily task of feeding cake to hungry cows. See, Dad’s pelvis hadn’t healed yet (in fact, 40 years later, it still isn’t healed), and back in those days the cake for the cows was shoveled into the pickup from the shed and then out of the pickup at the feed ground. That much shoveling is difficult, maybe even impossible, for a cowboy suffering a bad pelvis… but together, as with everything those two have encountered in life, Dad and Mom could get the feeding done.
Then-ranch manager and owner John Grierson was a fatherly mentor to my folks, and he did what he could to ease the inconveniences of their remote locale for them. This meant that, that winter of 77-78, John made sure that his mechanic, Mason Hazel, plowed snow from the Sumatra Road and the Butte Camp Road almost every day with a D4 Cat so Mom could get the kids to school. Often Dad would hop on the Cat after John and Mason had headed back to ranch headquarters for the day, just to get more hours out of the Cat in each 24-hour stretch. Dad still remembers how cold the air was on his face as he plowed in wintry dark sitting in that open cab; he and Mom both recall that the wind howled incessantly through those months.
John also hired Dad’s friend and local heavy equipment operator Larry Williams to plow the trail to the school bus when the drifts became too deep for the D4 Cat to handle.
So Mom was able to get the kids to the school bus every day. The trouble was that Will was in kindergarten, and back then kindergarteners attended school only in the mornings and were dismissed before afternoon. Mom just couldn’t hang out in town all day waiting for her kids… dropping them off at 8:00, picking Will up at noon, then Sue at 3:00… because she was needed back at home to help Dad feed cows.
Getting the kids to school was challenge enough; the question of what to do about Will being done with school at noon was an added quandary. (My folks had already held him back one year, but felt that he wasn’t ready to go right into first grade; Sue, three years earlier, had completely skipped kindergarten.) Finally a solution came from a very kind, old-fashioned third-grade teacher named Dolores Manning, who will always be a hero in our family. She agreed that Will, a kindergartner, could spend the second half of the school day in the third grade room, sitting near Sue… as long as he promised to behave. He did behave, and so Mrs. Manning saved the day, is remembered as one of Sue’s favorite teachers, and 13 years later was a favorite teacher of mine as well… though she always called me Sue!
(Hi, Mrs. Manning, if you’re out there!)
Many years later, when Mom served on the local school board, she took personal satisfaction in getting kindergarten changed from half-days to every-other full-days. She has never forgotten how inconvenient half-day kindergarten was for her rural family.
Mom and Dad and Sue all remember an amusing incident from that winter that was the result of the plows constantly scraping the dirt road clean. The more snow they scraped, the higher the snowbanks on either side of the road grew. A herd of antelope spent a lot of its winter bedded in the middle of the road in the shallow snow. When a vehicle came along, the herd would often run for a mile or two up the road before finding a place to scramble up the bank and out of the road. It was the evening of the school Christmas concert and the family was returning home from town when they came upon the antelope all tucked in for a winter’s nap. The antelope startled in the headlights from my folks’ car (yes, the folks scooted up and down the dirt road in a little white Comet car; hardly anybody had four-wheel-drives back then; their ability to just make do is beyond the comprehension of my bigger-better generation), panicked, and, disoriented by the blinding lights in the night and funneled in their path by steep snowbanks, ran straight for the car… and up and over it. The whole herd of antelope ran right over the top of the car!
They say the winter-kill on antelope herds in those years was significant.
By March of that first winter, my folks had decided they could no longer meet the physical demands of life at their beloved cow camp, where Dad had lived for 14 years and Mom for 11 and my siblings for all their young lives. My grandfather, Edwin Kuntz, helped them find a farm to lease in the Yellowstone Valley. The work of sugarbeet farming would not be simple, but hopefully less demanding on their bodies and the kids’ schedules. They moved out of Butte Camp in March of ’78, just before the thaw. And that was the end of the first bad winter.
The following winter, they say, (that would be 78-79), blew in earlier and was more extreme in every way. The Arvik family was safe in the little farmhouse in the valley… but they were all terribly homesick for Butte Camp.
How did they end up back at the PV? Well… that’s a story for another time.
© Tami Blake