Operation Snowbound

May 4, 2018

This essay originated during the Good Friday Blizzard of 2018 on the northern plains, when the only person who still liked snow was my Labrador retriever. She has a coat like a bear, about two inches of body fat, and a serious case of cabin fever. (And yes, I realize I just referred to my dog as a “person,” what of it?)

Being a Great Plains guy, I follow the news and weather up and down the plains, reading reports from Texas to Alberta--which means that I read this new book, Operation Snowbound: Life Behind the Blizzards of 1949, with immediate interest. The book is by David W. Mills and published by North Dakota State University Press.

Full disclosure: Dave was my first PhD student. I directed his dissertation, about the Cold War on the northern plains, which became his first book, Cold War in a Cold Land. So Dave has a cold thing going in his work. Also a military thing, which is appropriate, since he has a teaching position at the United States Army Command School and General Staff College, in Leavenworth.

The military part of Operation Snowbound is that in 1949, with the horrific natural disaster of multiple blizzards pounding the western states, the US Army stepped in with a campaign of relief--the Operation Snowbound of the book’s title.

The Great Plains historian Walter Prescott Webb labels the blizzard, as a meteorological phenomenon, “the grizzly of the plains.” A Texan, Webb really knew nothing about blizzards, or about grizzlies, for that matter, else he would have known that in the days of Lewis and Clark, the great bears were common on the northern plains.

Up here we consider hard winters and horrific blizzards to be defining features of regional life and core determinants of regional character. We originated the practice of giving proper names to sequential blizzards in a given year. The belief across the country is that the Weather Channel started the naming convention in this century, but I distinctly remember how when our meteorologists commenced naming blizzards in 1996-97, it was the subject of rueful commentary here.

This recent naming custom is something different. Previous proper naming of blizzards or winters in prairie history considered such phenomena to be singular events. We referred to the hard winter of 1886-87, so disastrous for the cattle industry on the northern plains, as the Blue Winter. After that came the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888, named for its deadly impact on schoolchildren trying to get home. Oddly, there is no catchy name for the winter of 1949. It is just the Winter of 1949.

In a future feature I need to get into some of the grizzly winter stories Dave recounts for 1949. For now let me state the significance he ascribes to the subject. First, examination of private and public response to the blizzards of 1949 provides an index to the quality and deficiencies of regional life at mid-century. Second, the extent of disaster, with only the US Army, and no other federal agency, available for response, showed the need for a coherent federal disaster relief program.

What all parts of the Great Plains have, despite their regional variations, is continentality -- what people in real estate like to call a healthy, four-season climate. It is defined by meteorological extremes -- blizzards, drought, hail, tornadoes, extreme range of temperatures, sometimes in the same day. So sometime this summer, when the heat has my Norwegian neighbors dropping like flies in a cloud of DDT, Operation Snowbound will be a great book to read.

~Tom Isern