CROFTON, Neb. — For Sophia Wortmann and Rylie Arens, a blizzard often means little more than a day off from school.
So the two St. Rose students were stunned to learn about pioneers who were trapped and even died in such a storm — a number of them not far from the girls’ hometown of Crofton.
The Blizzard of 1888, which occurred Jan. 12 of that year, claimed 235 lives, as residents had no forewarning of one of the worst snowstorms in Great Plains history. The event is often called the “Children’s Blizzard” because many youngsters died when they became lost and disoriented trying to reach home in the storm.
“Communication would have made such a difference, but they had no way of knowing about the storm,” Arens said. “The morning was calm and perfect. Then they looked out the window (around noon) and it was shocking to them. It was like a white sheet and they couldn’t see out.”
More than a century later, Wortmann and Arens have given those unfortunate souls a voice, and it has reached a national audience.
The St. Rose School duo recently claimed top honors in the National History Day competition with their production of a 10-minute video on the Children’s Blizzard of 1888.
They were chosen as the best project in any category, junior or senior division, focused on the history of agriculture and/or rural life in any country or time. This year’s national contest was conducted virtually because of the pandemic.
St. Rose history/religion teacher Ginger Schieffer said the girls’ award marks the school’s seventh national honor. Of that number, six were performances and one was a website.
DOING THE RESEARCH
The two girls researched and worked on their project since last October, Schieffer said. The girls learned about area residents affected by the Blizzard of 1888 and based their entry around their stories.
“We were able to find the stories of local people, including a Wausa boy and a Stanton teacher,” Schieffer said. “For us, learning these stories is a big part of the experience. History is about more than memorizing dates and battles.”
Arens and Wortmann had read the book “In All Its Fury,” based on the real-life events, and found it a compelling story. They were interested to see how it affected the Great Plains, including the present-day Dakotas and Nebraska.
But mostly, they were fascinated at the events that created so much of the tragedy and the way in which the pioneers, including children, responded to the terrifying conditions around them.
For their video, Wortmann and Arens teamed up to portray four persons: 19-year-old Peter William Holst of Wausa, Nebraska; Emily Vail, a rural schoolteacher from Stanton, Nebraska; 10-year-old Paul James from Santee, Nebraska; and First Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff, the man in charge of the St. Paul, Minnesota, office of the U.S. Weather Service.
The girls received assistance from Sam Herley, curator at the Oral History Center on the University of South Dakota campus in Vermillion. Herley had also assisted Sophia’s sister, Elizabeth Wortmann, with her National History Day winning project on Wounded Knee.
The two girls also held a Zoom meeting with Nebraska State Climatologist Al Dutcher, who explained the 1888 storm along with the weather prediction techniques of the time. Lacking anything resembling modern technology, the forecasting methods included weather vanes, the look of the sky and even animals’ behavior.
Arens and Wortmann explained the conditions that led to the surprise storm.
The blizzard caught the prairie residents off guard because the day started so warm, with many of them wearing light clothing. Around noon, a Canadian weather front roared across the prairie, bringing with it a sudden major drop in temperatures. The storm brought several inches of heavy snowflakes and winds gusting to 54 miles per hour.
“The morning was very calm. It was a nice day, one of those first days back in school because they had been working in the field,” Wortmann said. “Unlike today, they went to school when they were done with the crops. Some parts of the year, they might go to school twice a month.”
SHARING THEIR VOICES
Arens and Wortmann created a script and shot their video at Marian Auditorium on the Mount Marty University campus. They alternated the four roles and received technical assistance on the video from MMU stage director Jim Hovland.
Holst, the 19-year-old, was one of those students trapped at the Wausa schoolhouse during the blizzard. He intended to stay at the school but instead set off for his nearby farm to retrieve food for the hungry children.
He soon discovered that he had become disoriented in the blinding storm and had lost track of his location. He struggled to return to the school.
“He would take 10 steps in one direction and put out his arm to see if he could feel the building,” Schieffer said. “When he didn’t feel anything, he took the 10 steps back and starting moving in another direction until he returned safely.”
In the video, Holst’s character said it was his last day at school, and he would never return.
Vail, the Stanton teacher, opened the front door to the schoolhouse and was horrified at the blinding conditions. She decided to keep her students inside until the storm passed, which proved to be a life-saving decision.
However, she faced the prospect of keeping the students calm, warm and safe during the overnight hours. When the blizzard subsided, she was greeted the next morning by distraught parents anxious to learn their children’s fate.
“She had it really hard with the students overnight, but you also had these parents who had no idea if their children were still alive,” Schieffer said.
The wrong decision cost many people their lives, Wortmann said. “Many of those who tried to walk to their farms never made it home,” she said.
James, the 10-year-old boy, was riding with his parents by ox cart to Santee where they would pick up government rations from the federal agency. However, they were caught without warning and their oxen refusing to move in the blinding storm.
The family made it to a friend’s home, where James and his mother stayed for two weeks. James’ father left for home after two days to care for the remaining children at home, who he found safe.
The younger James described the sight of six horses who died buried in snow while the seventh horse was found fighting to keep its head above the snowbank.
Woodruff, the man in charge of the federal weather service in St. Paul, was new to the job at an agency in its infancy. Without any media at the time, weather reports and outlooks were sent by telegraph tacked up at post offices. In terms of the upcoming blizzard, he put out what was perceived as a milder prediction.
“The communication wasn’t the best, definitely not of today’s standards,” Schieffer said.
At the conclusion of their video, Arens and Wortmann delivered a message in alternating style.
“Communication was the key that could have prevented a sad and horrible night. The Blizzard of 1888 was a horrible experience,” they said. “For many, a blizzard is not just a storm. To a pioneer, when it descends without warning, it often brings with it fear, sorrow, loss, cold and hunger.”
As a result of the project, Arens expressed gratitude for today’s technology.
“This makes you realize how fortunate we are to have cars, roads, GPS and the ability to text message in seconds,” she said.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.