Recalling wild weather in Lacombe’s early years

In 1872 the British magazine Scribner’s Monthly commissioned Christina Rossetti, an English poet, to compose a Christmas poem.

HOWARD FREDEEN

In 1872 the British magazine Scribner’s Monthly commissioned Christina Rossetti, an English poet, to compose a Christmas poem.

Her response was the poem In the Bleak Midwinter. This poem was later set to music by Gustav Holst and became a Christmas carol after its inclusion in the 1906 English Hymnal.

One line of this carol ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’ provides an apt description of the weather Alberta has been experiencing in 2013-2014.

This weather pattern will seem unique to many, but old-timers will tell you “We’ve seen it all before.”

As a starter consider 1887 when Charles Russell sketched the most eloquent statement of a truly epic climatic interlude. That was the winter of ‘86 and ‘87.

An eyewitness account stated that “The first cold front hit in November. More storms followed in December. A foot and a half of snow fell between Thanksgiving and Christmas. What little hay they had, most ranchers fed to their horses. In the meantime, the cattle drifted from the frozen high ranges to the bottom land and the sheltered coulees.

“The only food there was was willows. The first chinook arrived in January, with just enough warming to melt the snow on top. Then it turned cold. On February 3 and 4 one of the worst blizzards in memory set in. The snow crusted. The chinook had succeeded in sealing the ground with a layer of ice which hooves could not penetrate.”

In gray and brown and black colours, Russell painted a single steer with a Bar R branded on its hip. It was standing in deep snow, horns crooked and eyes hollow. Its backbones and every rib were showing.

Russell titled his 1887 painting Waiting for a Chinook (The Last of the 5,000).

Canada did not have a Russell to provide a graphic record of that winter or of those that followed but written records indicate that the same scenario, repeated for several winters during the ensuing decade, and covered a wide ranging sweep of the western grasslands along with the interior of B.C. and Alberta.

Books by Stenger (Wolf Willow) and Robert David Symons (The Broken Snare) tell this story for the entire rangeland across the prairie provinces.

A more personal story was related by my mother who came from Nebraska with her mother and siblings in September 1906 to join their father on his Saskatchewan homestead north of Weyburn.

The first snowflakes were sifting down as they rode the wagon.

By morning the sod house was buried in snow.

So was the barn. The door which had been left open for the cattle was now hidden under a huge snowdrift but inspection via a hole cut through the roof showed that all the cattle were safe inside.

Only the two oxen were missing and it seemed likely that they had drifted ahead of the storm. Hay from an adjacent stack was pitched through the hole, the snow at the door provided an adequate source of water but blowing snow discouraged any thought of searching for the oxen. That would have to wait.

But the weather was unrelenting.

Search for the oxen was abandoned. The family inside the house kept spirits high with music, reading and storytelling and a tunnel dug through drifts gave access to the nearby food storage shed. When food supplies dwindled neighbours joined forces for a trip to Weyburn for flour and other necessities.

A one-day chinook in early April released floods of water. It was followed by a series of blizzards that continued into early May.

To judge from the pioneer stories related in Wagon Trails to Hardtop, Lacombe experienced none of this weather described for southern Saskatchewan.

Indeed the winter of 1906-07, so memorable elsewhere in the west, was mentioned by only one Lacombe pioneer.

His memory was of the cold, the snow, the blizzards and the scarcity of feed for livestock. But that was the only complaint voiced.

Fortunately there was one individual whose journal did provide a detailed weather record of this period beginning with his homestead years in 1896.

The homestead was 11 miles from Lacombe in the community we now know as Joffre. His was Frank Gilbert Roe. The Roe family emigrated from Sheffield, England.

They had been assured the climate here was reasonably uniform, that snowfall ranged from none to several feet, that snow would be gone by April followed by fine weather for seeding crops, a great growing season and a harvest period of six to eight weeks during which there would be no rain.

Roe’s journal entries verified this weather pattern during the years 1896, 1897 and 1898. However, this came to an end at harvest time in 1899 when a mid-August rain was followed by heavy snow which flattened all crops.

From that date onward for the next four years, autumn precipitation, indeed year-round precipitation, in the form of rain or snow, kept the country flooded.

Hay fields and pastures became lakes. Autumns became dismal exercises of harvesting wet crops, frozen- ripe, that yielded virtually no marketable grain.

Roe concluded his account with these words. “The final snowfall began about midnight January 31, 1904. “ It persisted until February 3 when some four feet of snow had fallen. Under a clearing sky the weather turned exceedingly cold ushering in a cold spell that continued to April. Spring finally came, the snow disappeared and a splendid summer followed. The long wet cycle was over. This was two years before the epic winter of 1906-07 and no local accounts have been found to fill that gap.”

Circa 1908 Roe traded farming for railroading, becoming a railway locomotive engineer for the Canadian Northern Railroad.