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Open range - the end of an era

June 3, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

Only the worst winters in the plains got named. After the Snow Winter of 1880-81, the next one worth christening was the winter of 1886-87, the Winter of Blue Snow. A beautiful name for a terrible season!

The winter of 1886 began earlier than usual, early in November. The summer had been unusually hot and dry, with numerous prairie fires, and water sources often dried up. In the fall animals grew unusually heavy coats, consumed more food than normal, and displayed abnormal behavior. The old-timers were about the only ones who paid any attention to the signs, but by the time the snow began it was already too late, there was not enough time to prepare for the harsh conditions ahead.

Following a series of early November blizzards in Montana, a ten day storm blew in on January 9, 1887. Sixteen inches of snow fell in sixteen hours, and the temperature dropped to 46 below zero. There were many stories of survivors and those not so lucky. Arlene Barr's family was one.

Arlene Barr couldn't see through the cabins one window, the snow was too high. Snow had fallen since a month before Christmas. She thought the date was now somewhere around January 18 or 19. Husband Joseph pulled on his coat telling her he had to go check the stock. She tried to talk him out of it but he continued to don his winter clothes, including the red and green scarf she'd made him for Christmas. He touched his wife's cheek, then tugged open the door. Snow was packed so tight he had to carve his way through the solid wall. The wind was increasing, and the snow steadily falling. Arlene shut the door behind him. As the long hours dragged by and her wood ran low as the storm raged on, whistling through the roof. She prayed that Joseph was holed up in the barn.

The next morning she awoke to silence. The cold stillness of the cabin shocked and alarmed her. The fire had gone out, and Joseph had not returned. She bundled in as many spare clothes as she could, and began to dig out, much as Joseph had done the day before. When she finally broke through she saw drifts of snow sculpted by the wind, looking like a mountain range. But no Joseph.

It was finally spring and Kippy McWhorter and Teddy Abbott continued to head out each morning, each day bringing new gruesome discoveries, dead cattle everywhere. That particular morning their gazes lit on something bright in the river. They approached the river closer. There were so many dead cattle that had to be dislodged, and once they were, the body freed itself and drifted downstream. Joseph had been found. They dragged him up on shore, wrapped him in a slicker, and prepared to take him home. Kippy said it wouldn't make much difference to Arlene, since her baby died when her caved in from the snow load she'd been a crazy woman. They figured Joseph got turned around in the blizzard and ended up more than a mile from the cabin.

From that storm on, Montana, as well as most of the plains states was a changed place. Hundreds of thousands of animals, mostly cattle perished. By spring, dead cattle were everywhere, piled against fences, stacked in coulees, and clogging rivers. The face of the western cattle changed forever. Smaller more concentrated outfits sprang up, and it became important to harvest and store winter feed. That became an industry in itself, effectively putting an end to the open range grazing.



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