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January 12, 1888

By January 12, 2024 8 Comments

Exactly 136 years ago today, a monster arose on the northern plains just as country school kids were about to be dismissed. The Initial brute force of that unexpected storm did not go unnoticed, even by the youngest children, some of whom began to cry, alarmed by all the noise, as if a train were just outside the rattling windows and shaky walls. Those who dared step out, all too quickly learned the barrage iced over man and beast. What we’ve come to call the Schoolhouse Blizzard put a hundred teachers in a horrifying predicament: should the kids be sent home or kept at school? And if they stayed, when would the storm relent? Was there enough coal or corn cobs or stalks–enough of anything to keep warm?

Not one of the children who stayed died; 200 or so who left did. It’s a horror story retold by hundreds who survived in a pointed collection of memories titled In All Its Fury: Great Blizzard, 1888. Eighty years ago, those many survivors wanted their stories told. They published a book. 

It’s an odd old book, full of instant replays, a thousand tellings of the same story, some ending in horror, some in miracle. Being odd and old myself, I loved it, all of it about another January 12. 

That night there was good reason to pray-without-ceasing, but by my count, only a half-dozen survivors even mentioned prayer. Ordinary folks, sodbusters in the earliest years of homesteading, and it’s almost as if they didn’t pray at all when Lord knows they had cause.

A little girl named Bertha Lawless and two of her siblings stayed alive by holding hands with others through the 50-mile an hour winds and four-foot drifts on her way to a house close by her school. Her father attempted to retrieve his daughters, but his horses refused to face the bitter wind when their eyes froze shut. Imagine the fear those parents felt, alone that night, a locomotive wind finding every crack in the house. Bertha Lawless says when finally all the kids were safe at home, her parents “thanked God for the preservation of their lives.” One of the few mentions of prayer. 

Will Saxton wasn’t at school. He intended to pick up a load of hay in town when that black cloud of madness struck. He turned around forthwith, greatly fearful. But the mules wouldn’t budge against the torrent and flipped the bobsled. When he couldn’t find his way home, he burrowed into a haystack he’d bumped into, dug a hole, and spent a frigid night. Home alone, Ma and Pa Saxton were “crying and praying God to save her boy. The older ones,” one of those remembered, “saw the agony my mother went through.” And then, “I never want to go through an experience like that again.”

Orah Arnold Borer remembers. “Father and mother were of a deeply religious nature. . .. It was natural therefore to kneel around the stove while Father prayed.” His voice, she says, “shivered with emotion while he carried to the Throne of Grace his pleas on behalf of all those who might be suffering on this terrible night.” She says, “Never can I forget the earnestness of that prayer.”

Grace McCoy was teaching in a school with very little coal. She determined early on to keep the children for as long as the blizzard raged, but when the little ones complained about cold fingers, she told the older boys take an axe to the desks–break them up and burn ’em. Somewhere around midnight, snuggled beside her littlest scholars, she gathered all the kids in school, put each on their knees, and prayed together asking God “to keep us through this terrible storm.” They were hungry, but they all were alive and well when help arrived.

On January 12, the Schoolhouse Blizzard took the lives of as many as 230 in the sparsely populated northern Great Plains. But thousands lived through it too, thanks often to unimaginable miracles those survivors recorded.

Still, only a few remembered praying? Really? What’s left of the old pietist in me couldn’t help but furrow a brow. Seems to me Jesus told a parable that featured similar negligence. But I’m often a victim of old hymns that get little play these days, and one of the oldies returned, a line or two anyway: specifically, “unuttered or expressed.” Seems I sang that hymn often as a kid and never really thought much about it. And more too: “the motion of a hidden fire/that trembles in the breast.”

I can’t believe all those moms and dad, all those teachers in whatever light they could create that night– a few candles and whatever glow arose from that big, hot stove, and all those kids, children–I can’t believe there were only six prayers.

Long, long ago, I remember a New Englander named Ralph Waldo Emerson writing somewhere that our most ardent wishes are, in fact, our fervent prayers. The pietist in me had more say when I was 19. Emerson’s grand “oversoul” made him a transcendentalist, thus outside the circle of the elect. ‘Nuff said about that.

But I liked the guy and his gardener Thoreau, and in the late 60s, he stuck too, so today I can’t help but think that what that old dreamer said about prayer isn’t that many furlongs away from the title of that old hymn: “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,” a hymn we sang often in church. 

I don’t know much about the theology of prayer. But no matter what the silences of this odd, old book says or doesn’t say, I can’t help but believe that on this night, January 12, 1888, throughout the northern plains, prayers unuttered or expressed rose from hidden fires trembling in the breast, and together stormed the gates of heaven.


The Great Blizzard of 1888 goes by a number of names, but the story is told comprehensively in David Laskins’s The Children’s Blizzard (2004). At least some of the stories he relates likely come from the older anthology of memories cited here, In All Its Fury: Great Blizzard, 1888 (1947), which, I can’t help thinking was also helpful for Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Ted Koozer, whose collection of poetry Blizzard Voices (1986) uses his own characters to tell the story.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    I had never heard of that particular blizzard until encountering Laskin’s book, which I read through in one sitting—and I followed up with a book on the Galveston Hurricane of the early 20th century (by Erik Larsen?). Both had chapters on how both events were crucial in the development of the US Weather System, initially military outposts reading barometers and telegraphing between posts/RR stations/ships at sea.
    I recall as a Michigan kid the “January thaw”—as dreaded by my farmer Mom as much as the Lake’s “treacherous undertow.”

  • Wesley says:

    My few experiences with Great Plains weather were terrifying enough (golf-ball sized hail). I can’t imagine the ferocity of such a storm and the devastation those who lost their children in it must have experienced.

    Just to add to your conclusion: it seems more than possible to me that many of those who wrote about the blizzard were just not steeped in the particular pietist tradition / language / narratives that those who mentioned prayer were. I grew up steeped in this pietist tradition and we were very suspicious of anyone who did not use the right language, to the point where we didn’t really consider people to be Christians if they didn’t understand what it meant to say you had “given your life to Jesus” or some such. Thank goodness I have come to understand that there is more than one way to follow Jesus!

  • Tim Brown says:

    This is moving and appropriate reading as another great blizzard threatens thousands! Some might not have prayed then but I will now; “Gracious and Living God, send angels of mercy to protect all who are threatened by the fury of our great blizzard—the homeless, the poor, the elderly and those who must get out to help others. Hear every prayer ‘uttered or unexpressed!’ In the name of Jesus. Amen

    Thank you James Schaap!

  • Lynne swets says:

    Yes yes yes. Here just a few blocks from heartside, I fear for so many tonight and especially women when the few beds are always full.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, With the wind blowing outside I can picture this happening. What scenes I can picture with school children being out in the blizzard. Hopefully that will not happen again today in Iowa.

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