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John Dangel (left) and other downtown Freeman store owners labored to keep their sidewalks open.
John Dangel (left) and other downtown Freeman store owners labored to keep their sidewalks open.
Ken Haar and his dog Bear walked down the center of a residential street during the blizzard.
Ken Haar and his dog Bear walked down the center of a residential street during the blizzard.
As rural customers cancelled appointments, hair stylist Jan Becker called women in town and told them she had free time if they could brave the weather.
As rural customers cancelled appointments, hair stylist Jan Becker called women in town and told them she had free time if they could brave the weather.

Blizzard in a Small Town

A winter storm overwhelms a small town, almost as if the North Wind is flapping a mile-wide blanket of gray goose feathers overhead, rudely muffling all the streets and houses.

The intentions of the few citizens spotted outdoors in a blizzard are immediately obvious. They are walking the dog. Rushing from the grocery store with plastic bags. Shoveling the front steps to maintain the “you’re welcome here anytime” look that’s exhibited on most small town houses in South Dakota. Dawdling is done indoors on days like this.

We waited out such a storm in Freeman (pop. 1,200) and watched the town come to a crawl. Activity was inversely proportionate to the growing speed of the howling wind. Gusts blew to 50 miles per hour, ignoring 30 MPH street signs that poked above the snowdrifts.

The clerk at a variety store on the edge of town lamented that she hadn’t been able to get home to Marion, just a dozen miles away, for two days. She was staying with a cousin. A hair stylist at the Mane Attraction was on the phone, switching appointments from rural people who couldn’t get to town with city dwellers hardy enough to venture a few blocks.

The grocer at Jamboree darted out of the store in a green sweater every hour or so and quickly shoved the snow from his sidewalk. Customers parked near the store’s front door and usually left their engines running as they dashed inside. A desperate thief could have had his pick but no one in Freeman fit the description that particular day.

A little boy in a ski mask came out of the store with two sacks, apparently on an errand for mom. He playfully scaled a 15-foot-high pile of snow in the middle of Main Street before he hustled home to deliver staples to the family kitchen.

Most of the town’s businesses were still open as darkness settled beneath the howling gray blanket. Lights stayed on at the Freeman Courier because it was deadline day and the Waltners were not going to delay the weekly newspaper for a blizzard. The new library was open next door. Flags whipped wildly over a local bank. A snowplow operator skimmed the streets. Fensel’s Motel on the edge of town had rooms available. “Take Number Seven,” said the clerk. “The key is in the door.”

An awful assault of high winds, snow and cold could feel evil to someone suffering its clutches. But a small town is a good place to wait out a storm. Freeman’s citizenry seemed to accept the blizzard as nature’s due for the privilege of living in South Dakota, and that attitude seemed sensible. The storm was a nuisance that would pass. And sure enough, the morning dawned calm and clear.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the January/February 2011 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

Comments

08:28 am - Mon, January 15 2018
Dick Reding said:
I remember when I was a kid growing up in Marion, SD waking up on very snowy winter mornings listening with anticipation to the school closing announcements on WNAX radio. The tension mounted as you heard schools in neighboring towns closing for the day..... surely your school would also be closed... and the relief when the announcement finally came.
11:54 am - Mon, January 15 2018
anonymous said:
I grew up on a farm near Toronto,SD and remember one of those severe blizzards. The wind blew and the snow piled up on the homestead. The cattle were all warm in the barn which could not be seen from the farmhouse due to the white out conditions. We spent much of the day tending to the cattle, feeding them and carrying water from a well for them to drink. We had no TV and little or no connection with the outside world. As the wind began to subside and darkness was soon upon us we could see a glow in the direction of a neighboring farm. We found out the next day that the glow was the embers of the barn which had burned to the ground. It was later revealed that the barn had watering cups for the cattle and they were frozen, so a blowtorch was used to thaw them out. You can guess what the end result of that was. I don’t believe any fire truck ever got to the farm to put out the fire as the roads were inmassable. Fortunately all the cattle were saved and no one was hurt.
11:56 am - Mon, January 15 2018
Duane Mathison said:
Sorry, I forgot to add my name to above story
01:28 pm - Wed, January 17 2018
Jon said:
In Milbank when school was called off because of snow - we would go to the school and sneak in to play basketball (I lived a block away.)

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