The First Four Years; Chapter 4: Section 12

Guest post by Barbara Mayes Boustead

The 1880s were a cruel decade in the Dakota Territory and elsewhere on the Plains.  Winters were brutally cold and snowy, with vicious blizzards (extra credit if you can remember which winter was the mild exception!).   Worse for the new settlers, though, was the period of particularly dry weather that started in the late 1880s and continued into the 1890s.  Homesteaders unknowingly had settled the Plains during a relatively wet period in the late 1870s to early 1880s.  The dry summers were too much to take for many would-be farmers, who abandoned the Dakotas and nearby areas during the drought in the 1890s… right around the time that Laura and Almanzo also abandoned ship.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The summer of 1889 is the 17th driest on record in nearby Huron, SD, with just 5.21 inches of rain from June 1 through August 31.  If this was supposed to be the year in which Laura and Almanzo decided if farming was a “success”, they were facing an uphill battle.

We start this section in April of 1889.  Laura’s recollection of an early, warm spring is accurate, as the high temperatures in March were well above normal.  The last really cold days were on March 13-14, though low temperatures still dipped below freezing consistently through March, with a couple of sporadic freezes through early May, ending the freeze season a little early compared to average.  March was a dry month, as well, with just 0.19 inches of rain (compared to a normal of about an inch and a half).  April and May both had near-normal rainfall, but the rains came mostly on a couple of wet days.  From April 19 through May 10, measurable rain fell on just one day, and that was just a tenth of an inch.

Once again, Laura was very precise about the date of a weather event in this book : April 2, 1889.  But was she accurate?

The high temperature on April 2 was 70 degrees, which is quite balmy.  On April 3, the high rose to just 48 degrees.   A cold front must have passed through, which would have brought a switch to northwest winds, but let’s see if we can document that further.  Wind records in this period aren’t great, but I do have enough data in the historical records to know that the winds were very strong on April 2, and that they were indeed out of the northwest by afternoon.  We also can look at historical weather maps (like the one below) and see that a strong low pressure system moved from northwest Dakota Territory to central Minnesota through the day, with a cold front sweeping through the Dakota Territory.

Weather map on April 2, 1889, at 8 PM local time.  Low pressure is centered in central Minnesota, and the closely-packed isobars (pressure lines) over the Dakotas would bring strong winds.  Arrows on the station plots behind the low show northwesterly winds.

I think she finally got one right!

On the heels of a dry March, the dust could have been stirred by a brisk northwest wind pretty easily.  Dust storms evoke iconic images like those of Dust Bowl dusters, with opaque clouds of angry black dust lurking behind cars, houses, and vulnerable families.  These storms aren’t just a product of the Dust Bowl drought, though, and they can happen in dry years on the Plains, even now.  In the midst of a dust storm, visibility can drop to near zero, with the added pain of sandpapery dust flying into the eyes and ears and mouth and nose.  The effect of a “black blizzard” is just as disorienting as a good old snow blizzard.

(Image link:
Dust storm approaches Stratford, TX, on April 18, 1935.

Vegetation in South Dakota is not usually greening much by early April, even with some warm days.  The ground cover is the browned, dried-out remnants of last year’s plants, and the dry March would have only helped it become even drier.  It’s no surprise that a prairie fire would be ignited, and with such strong winds, would be carried quite a distance.  Prairie grass burns rapidly, and the only saving grace is that it doesn’t burn as hot as, say, a forest fire.  But fire is dangerous regardless, especially under windy conditions that make it hard to escape.  With the dust storm limiting visibility and with winds causing rapid advance of the fire, it’s likely that the flames would have arrived with little warning to anyone in its path.

Of course, Manly and Cousin Peter save the sheep and douse the stray flames that threatened one of their haystacks, dodging the worst of the prairie fire that burned an extensive path to “the river” (the Vermillion or Big Sioux, perhaps?).  They reseed the fields and shear the sheep, and spring moves into summer.

Rose, now a two-and-a-half year old toddler, keeps Laura busy by, well, being a toddler.  She falls into a tub of water, rolls in the dirt after a bath, and becomes a hurdle for the playing colts.  Laura, like any (pregnant) young mother, struggles with balancing housework and watching her daughter.  I don’t have a child myself, but as a child of the outdoors myself, I really appreciate that she wants to continue to allow Rose to play outside in the beautiful weather, rather than keep her “safe” in the house.  Laura becomes determined to manage, a very Laura-like attitude that we saw develop when she was teaching her first school.

But Laura is worried about money.  Her analytical brain goes to work on the sums, reminiscent of the mental arithmetic tests during the school exposition, and she struggles between pride and practicality as she debates whether to purchase coupon books from the merchants.  She shrugs off the worry to close the section, shifting responsibility to Almanzo.  The Laura in this section has always struck me as very similar to the characteristics of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind – an analytical brain at work, practicality and pride in conflict, and worrying about the consequences later.

Unfortunately, the calculations about what is needed to pay the bills serve as foreshadowing to a tough summer ahead.


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3 comments on “The First Four Years; Chapter 4: Section 12
  1. naomi says:

    Summer 2012 was even dryer than that here. 6.9 inches between May 1st and August 31st, with virtually no rain at all between mid-May and mid-August. (1.7 inches in June and July.)

    Of course ‘inside the house’ wasn’t especially then either. With a wood stove for heating and cooking, it was pretty risky. (As well learn later…)

  2. My Name Is Really Laura says:

    Hi! I love these read alongs because everyone brings such interesting perspectives to everything, things I had never thought of!

  3. ACCER says:

    Barbara, Thanks so much for the weather facts on this era. I love hearing about how accurate much of what she wrote about the winters really was.