Three winters that sent us packing

tamrawilson Uncategorized

My parents’ house, January 1977

The recent cold snap reminds me of why we live in North Carolina. I know, six degrees  sounds extreme, but it could be worse. We could be buried under snow that keeps coming and coming like it did 40 years ago.

The other day a Facebook friend posted a photograph from Central Illinois in 1979. It showed a winter scape of a rural highway buried in 12-foot drifts. A string of stranded semitrailers looks ridiculously small and powerless.

Yes, I remembered those times.

I replied, “Thanks for reminding me what prompted Tym and I to move to North Carolina.”

Oddly, this topic came up a few weeks earlier when I noticed that Catawba County Museum of History was seeking artifacts for a display about “local immigrants.”

I asked museum director Amber Clawson Albert if people from other parts of the United States would qualify as “immigrants.”

She had never thought of that. Turns out she had never heard of the three horrific winters that sent us South.

Since moving to Catawba County as newlyweds in 1979, we have tried to describe what sent us packing from the Midwest. Our winter weather memories are so unbelievable, we ourselves have a hard time believing what we’re saying until compatriots from Chicago and Erie and Cleveland and Pittsburgh chime in.

The winters of 1977, 1978 and 1979 smashed records in terms of prolonged cold, snowfall and misery for much of the Midwest and Northeast. If you lived up north during the late ‘70s, you know what I’m talking about.

For those three epic years, winter came brutally harsh by mid-January. It snowed and snowed again—so much so that state equipment operators in our small town plowed the state highways closed at sunset. You could not get in and out of town because troopers and other first responders did not wish to risk having to go find you in a ditch.  Whiteouts were common. When the wind picked up, which is did regularly, it was impossible to see the highway edge or oncoming traffic. If you lived on a farm, you had better have supplies on hand for you and your livestock.

I’m sure there are those who have lived in harsher climates—Alaska, the High Sierras or the Yukon–but Central Illinois had seen nothing like it. In our little town 35 miles south of Decatur, water pipes were freezing. I remember as a young reporter for the Shelbyville Daily Union, taking a photo of a matchstick next to a stream of water to show readers how far a tap should be turned opened to ensure free-flowing water in the morning.

More than once, I drove into rural areas, mindful of where the last farmhouse was in case I ran off the road and had to seek shelter. Motorists were warned to carry a water jug, food, blankets, a snow shovel, ice scraper and kitty litter or sand to help traction if they got stuck.

Overheated flues and stovepipes posed fire danger. As the snow piled up over the weeks, country intersections became particularly hazardous. Snowbanks were piled higher than the roof of cars, making it impossible to see oncoming cross traffic.

Meanwhile, free-span sports arenas and other roofs were not designed to withstand the weight of epic snows. Collapses were common.

In 1978-79, we lived at Bloomington, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. An excerpt from tells it all:

“Back to back brutal winters occurred in the late 1970s. These were three of the five coldest winters on record. 1976-77 had 54.1 inches of snow and was the third coldest winter ever. January 1977 was the coldest January on record with an average temperature of 10.1. There were 12 days below zero in January 1977. Dec. 28, 1976 to Feb. 8, 1977 has the distinction of being the longest continuous string of sub-freezing weather in Chicago history: 43 days.

“Winter 1977-78 was the fifth coldest. The 82.3 inches of snow that fell was the second highest seasonal total. Winter 1978-79 was the second coldest. The 89.7 inches of snow that fell is the all-time season record. One of Chicago’s worst blizzards occurred Jan. 13-14, 1979. The storm total was 18.8 inches of snow. Roofs collapsed from the weight of the snow, people fought over parking spaces and a mayor lost his job.”

I remember Chicago’s winter of 1979. I had ordered my wedding gown from Marshall Field’s. One of my fittings was scheduled on a snowy Saturday in March. What should have been a two-and-a half-hour train ride took four.

Yes, I know how it is about Yankees and their snow stories. Things get worse with the telling, but what’s been called a “whiteout” and “blizzard” in North Carolina has never come close to what we saw up north.

In Catawba County, I have never been trapped inside my home because there are three-foot snow drifts blocking the door. I’ve never seen roofs cave in from the weight of snow.

Even though the extreme weather pattern hasn’t returned in 39 years, Tym and I have never seriously entertained the idea of moving back. When we left Illinois in 1979 for a Southern place called Catawba County, we told ourselves if we ever went back and complained about winter, it would be our own stupidity.

Living through such drastic winters marked us for life. When looking at property to rent—and later buy—our thoughts were often about insulation, water pipes, the steep grade of driveways, the strength of the roof, how far to shovel a sidewalk. Even after 39 years of southern living, we still think of stuff like that.

When I spoke to Dr. Albert about the museum display she asked if we had any iconic items we brought with us. No, I said. The down coats are long gone with the bent snow shovel, and we aren’t complaining about it. We have snow photographs, but these days people would assume they were Photoshopped.

Family and friends who stayed in Illinois have poked fun at us over the years, pointing out that such weather was an aberration. We were weenies to leave, but what they forget is that back then, scientists warned of coming bad times. Global cooling, they said, caused by the accumulation of air pollution blotting out the sun. The earth would become colder, the winters harsher, they said.

Those same friends and family have conveniently forgotten a couple of other record-breaking chills that came to Illinois a few years after we left.  Again, cites the shocking cold of the 1980s.

“From Dec. 22-25, 1983, the temperature plunged below zero to 100 consecutive hours, a record. It was the coldest Christmas ever in Chicago. Dec. 24 had a low of -25 and a high of -11, an average of -18, making it the coldest day in Chicago history” at that time.

But on Jan. 20, 1985, the temperature plummeted to -27, and a wind chill of -93 was recorded, thus setting a new coldest temperature for Chicago.

Nope, we didn’t move back.