These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 8: A Cold Ride

Guest Post by Barb Boustead

Once again, let’s talk about weather!  To understand the degree of cold weather during this cold ride, it was important for me to correctly identify at least the months during which Laura was a teacher at the Bouchie school (literarily known as the Brewster school, of course).  Following the timeline of Laura’s books literally, the teaching episode would have taken place from late December of 1882 through late February of 1883.  However, Nancy Cleaveland has done careful research of Laura’s teaching years and the history of schools in DeSmet and surrounding areas (click on “Other”, then “Schoolhouse”), and documents indicate that Laura more likely was a teacher from mid-December 1883 through mid-February 1884, a full year later.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter.  Both winters were bitterly cold.  The winter of 1882-83 was the 10th coldest on record in Huron (since records began in July 1881), and the winter of 1883-84 was 14th coldest.  (If that wasn’t enough, three of the next four winters in Huron also were among the top ten coldest, including the coldest winter on record in 1886-87!)  Both winters had periods where the high temperature for the day did not rise above 0 °F and low temperatures were in the -20 to -30 °F range.

Top 15 coldest winters (December 1 through February 28) in Huron, South Dakota, since records began in July 1881.

But let’s take Nancy’s awesome history lesson and assume that Laura did teach in December 1883 through February 1884.  If that was the winter of the Bouchie school, then when did the cold ride most likely occur?

Almanzo always picked Laura up on Fridays, so we can narrow down our search to just the Fridays from December through February and look for the coldest.  (Thank goodness for Google and the power of the internet that allows me to look up calendars from the 1880s!)  Friday, January 4, 1884, immediately stands out.  The high temperature in Huron was a mere -14 °F that day, with a low temperature of -38 °F reported.  The low temperature plunged again to -35 °F the next morning.  We can conclude from the data that the temperature on that date was cold from morning to night.  No other Friday between December 10, 1883, and the end of February 1884 was nearly as cold.  (Friday, February 8, 1884, was the next coldest, with a high of 0 °F and a low of -24 °F, but I think it’s safe to say that January 4th has it beat!)

 

Temperatures recorded from December 1883 through February 1884.  Note the especially cold snaps in early January (with daily record lows on the 4th and 5th) and early February.

You will notice that none of the temperatures are “40 below”, though 38 below is certainly close.  Laura used that expression extensively in The Long Winter, and it rears its head again here in this chapter.  The reading at Huron was so close to 40 below that it isn’t out of the question that the temperature fell to that reading in DeSmet. The problem is that Laura and the rest of the DeSmet residents might not know if it had.  Mercury freezes (becomes solid) at -37.89 °F.  Almanzo mentioned that the thermometer in town froze, which would happen before it hits -40 °F.

Back to the weather on January 4, 1884.  Let’s assume that the highest temperature occurred somewhere around midday or early afternoon.  Likely the temperature already was falling as Laura and Almanzo began their ride and continued to fall throughout their trip.  The coldest temperature probably happened overnight, which means that we can probably estimate that the temperature was around -20 to -25 °F for a good part of their trip.  Now, let’s imagine that the wind was a fairly typical Plains wind of 20 mph.  The wind chill for that combination would be -48 to -55 °F, which is cold enough to cause frostbite in a mere 5 to 10 minutes on unprotected flesh.  Laura and Almanzo were well bundled, but this does give us an idea of just how cold that ride felt.  And I haven’t even tossed in the additional (roughly) 10 to 15 mph travel speed of the horses.  Imagine the temperature and wind already described… and imagine riding in a convertible in such cold.  The effective wind chill, combining ambient wind speed and travel speed, could have been easily in the range of -55 to -65 °F.  With all of the stops, the ride probably took an hour and a half, at least, give or take.

Laura, you took a long chance, indeed!

Once again, now that we we’ve focused on the history and the evidence about the weather, we can turn to the story of how Laura nearly froze to death.

Fresh off of telling Almanzo that she’s only interested in his rides home, Laura is shocked when he shows up at her doorstep, right on time, on this bitterly cold Friday.  She bundles up at the Brewster house, where her host is concerned for her safety.  After the knife incident of the previous chapter, Laura has no intent to stay in that house any longer than she must – the danger of a crazy lady with a knife must have outweighed the danger of the cold in her mind.  If Almanzo is going home, then she is hell bent on going with him.

The horses start at a plucky pace, but like the cattle in The Long Winter, ice forms over their noses.  Almanzo must stop them every couple of miles to clear their breathing.  It benefits horses and humans alike to keep the pace as swift as possible, but progress on this trip will be hampered.  Almanzo, who surely was cold himself, asks Laura questions every few minutes to make sure that she is still conscious and coherent.  I don’t know what he could have done if she had stopped replying, but it does show his caring side that he continued to check on her condition throughout the trip.  Laura is shockingly cold at first.  Then, she begins to drift into a world where she doesn’t feel the cold quite as much.

Hypothermia is sneaky.  Many of us, surely, have been very cold.  We shiver so hard that it hurts.  Our fingertips and toes go tingly or even numb.  Our gut muscles tighten up.  The line is crossed from cold to hypothermia when shivering stops.  A person enters an eerily warm place where the cold doesn’t matter, becoming dreamy and removed from the harsh elements.  Eventually, a hypothermic person will fall asleep as the body shuts down, and if not warmed, will die.

The cold that Laura felt in this chapter was not only uncomfortable, like her bitter cold sleeping room at the Brewster’s house.  It was dangerous, deadly.  Almanzo knew that Laura was dangerously cold – that she was hypothermic.  He was in a race against time that was slowly freezing Laura to death, battling against horses that also were nearly freezing.  But he won.  He got her safely home to her family, where she could be warmed back to life.  Safe in the arms of her family, she is warmed from the outside in and the inside out, by fresh clothes, blankets, a seat next to the fire, and a cup of tea.  She feels like she will never get warm again (maybe a familiar sensation after the Long Winter?), but she does.  The temperatures outside begin to recover, she catches a good night of sleep, and as Ma would say (and Laura does say), all’s well that ends well.

On the ride back to the Brewster house, she asks Almanzo why he took such a risk to get her, especially after she had given him the cold shoulder (pun intended!) the week before.  Of course, he planned to make the trip even after Laura’s dismissal, and her naivety does not comprehend his motive.  The cold nearly deterred him, but naturally, Cap Garland gets involved, and he essentially goaded Almanzo into making the trip.

Almanzo was persistent.

Laura was lucky.

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Posted in These Happy Golden Years
15 comments on “These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 8: A Cold Ride
  1. Sarah Manley says:

    Quick question: were they driving into the wind or was it at their back and does that make a difference when you are in a cutter? I think anytime I am outside and it is below 0, it is cold. Thanks Barb for your thoroughness, great post!

    • Great question, Sarah! If I’m not mistaken, the Bouchie school was southwest of DeSmet, right? Observations taken at forts around South Dakota indicate winds were of moderate force and were out of the northwest on January 4, 1884. She likely was heading home with a crosswind.

  2. Tracy Sapp says:

    In Chapter 8, A Cold Ride- “Prince & Lady started swiftly into the wind. It struck Through all the woolen folds & took Laura’s breath away.” I am assuming this means that they were going into the wind. BRRRR!!!!

  3. naomi says:

    I’ve always felt sorry for the horses in this scene. At least Laura and Almanzo are wrapped in multiple layers of wool and have a lantern to warm their feet. Prince and Lady just have a very thin coat of horse hair…

  4. Layla says:

    I agree. Laura was very lucky indeed! :)

  5. Daniel0107 says:

    It is kind of insteresting that historical and meteorilogical research shows that Almanzo was right, that is was about 40 below, and all the things he describes fits a temerature that cold. I lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and can recall colds where it “hurt”, it was so bitter.
    Anyway, an interesting contrast that Laura would rather face this cold ride than the emotional coldness of the Brewster home. Besides, if Almanzo is going back anyway, just bundle up!
    Nice posts, everyone!

  6. BB/VA says:

    New commenter here!

    I have seen a copy of Laura’s first teacher’s certificate. It can be found on page 25 of the book “Laura’s Album” by William Anderson. It is dated December 10, 1883. She would have been 16.

    This does nail the time frame down a little better. Also, wasn’t the “fictional” Laura a year younger than the IRL Laura?

  7. LauriOH says:

    Were Royal and Almanzo sharing the feed store that winter? I always wondered why he wouldn’t have milked the cow if Almanzo didn’t get home. Of course without a phone or something, Royal wouldn’t know Almanzo was safe and risk his life looking for Almanzo. Also, the Brewster’s house wasn’t that big, where was Almanzo going to sleep? Speaking of the Brewsters, anyone else wonder what’s going through Mr. Brewster’s mind? His wife tried to attack him with a knife a couple nights ago, and he offers to let someone else stay with them.
    My less than scientific two cents….

    • naomi says:

      I thought Almanzo already had his claim by then. But maybe not. Or maybe he was living in town for the winter.
      More to the point, what other stock did he have? At that point he didn’t have any horses other than Prince and Lady, (maybe Lady had a yearling colt?) and the next summer I think he says that he doesn’t have a cow. (And he clearly didn’t have one until [spoiler…] Pa gives them a cow as a wedding gift.)
      Sounds more like an excuse to NOT have to stay at the Brewsters. (Where he would, presumably, have slept on the floor by the stove, wrapped in the blankets and robes from the cutter.

      • Marybeth says:

        he did have his own cow when they married…there were the milk pans with that morning’s milk in them when she moved in and saw her pantry for the first time…he might have had other horses, remember he had a side business of selling horses…and these books aren’t completely factual–the actual stock he had may or may not be the same in the real life world….

  8. Michelle says:

    I always figured (after reading books about the history of the Canadian Prairies) that he’d be put up in the barn. And yes, the “I’ve got stock to take care of” also struck me as odd; he didn’t have any at that point beyond Prince and Lady (so naomi’s idea that it ws an “excuse” makes excellent sense!)

  9. Eddie says:

    Fabulous post, Barb! Can’t wait to hear more Wilder Weather at LP. I think it was you that recommended The Children’s Blizzard at the last LP? The explanation of hypothermia in that book has made me look at this chapter in a whole new light since then. When you live in a more temperate climate it’s really hard to get your head round the extremes of cold / blizzards etc in the books. We define a cold snap quite differently here!

  10. Daniel Rabe says:

    I happened to be reading Farmer Boy, and in the early chapters the temperature in Malone, NY on the Wilder farm was 40 below zero. So,Almanzo had lived in that climate before. He knew about extreme cold and what to do about it.

  11. Holly says:

    He would have slept in the house, never in the barn in that weather. Slept on the floor wrapped in the blankets and buffalo skin robe, as mentioned above. Just like the men did when they were settling DeSmet and the Ingalls put them up in the Surveyor’s House.

  12. Carla says:

    Great posts everyone! Special thanks to Barb. I’m always gratified when your research proves that Laura was right (my gosh who could accurately remember stuff from 50 years ago! I think other people are WAY too critical, but we all understand, huh? Forget those naysayers.) Anyway, we are so blessed to have technology at or fingertips. It’s sometimes hard for some to remember that research the way we have it didn’t exist in the 1940s. Just think back to the 1980s, as I can. Research was painstaking. Finding out info was soooooo different. I hope that, when I’m 70ish, I can remember stuff as well as Laura did!

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