By Michael Swanger
Iowans like to talk about the weather. It’s part of our daily routine.
Occasionally, we also reminisce about extreme weather events like blizzards, floods, heat, droughts and tornadoes. Fortunately, for most of us, that includes having survived singular events scattered over the course of several years.
Few Iowans, perhaps, weathered more extreme climate conditions in one year than did those who were here in 1936. As if life during the Great Depression wasn’t daunting enough, Iowans also endured a blizzard, drought, grasshoppers and the Dust Bowl during what many experts believe to be the worst year of Iowa weather on record 80 years ago.
It began with the “blizzard of the century” during the winter of 1936. With exception of one day, temperatures remained below 20 degrees during January and February. In northern Iowa, the mercury fell to 36 degrees below zero at one point and in Des Moines it dipped to minus 22 degrees on Jan. 22.
What’s more, a blinding blizzard on Feb. 8, complete with 40-mile-per-hour winds that created snowdrifts 10 to 15 feet high, brought statewide traffic to a halt. Even trains were unable to muscle their way through large snowdrifts on the tracks for 36 to 72 hours and had to be dug out.
Conditions were so bad that towns were isolated; farmers relied on bobsleds and wagon teams to get to town; supplies of coal ran low; schools were closed; families couldn’t afford to heat their entire homes; and two deaths from exposure were reported.
On Feb. 25-26, another severe blizzard struck northern and northwestern Iowa with heavy snow and high winds that made travel nearly impossible. Snowfall totals measured between seven and 10 inches in towns like LeMars, New Hampton, Storm Lake and Algona. Snowfall was so frequent that winter that on Feb. 20-22, Sioux Center reported a state record snow depth of 42 inches on the ground.
State Climatologist Harry Hillaker was quoted by the Des Moines Register as saying, “The whole winter caused a lot of problems. The weather report told how the oldest inhabitants in the state felt 1936 was the worst winter in 50 years.”
Iowans hoping for a more merciful spring and summer, however, were about to be disappointed again by Mother Nature. As the weather warmed up, black clouds produced lightning and thunder, but little to no rain. The drought wreaked havoc on the state’s corn crop and by July 4, one farmer remembered, “The corn was just as tall as the wheel on the cultivator. And by a month later it was as though someone had pulled it back into the ground.”
Though the Dust Bowl is most commonly associated with the southwestern plains of the United States, it also hit Iowa in 1936. High winds picked up loose soil that was no longer held in place by plants and created swirling clouds of dust that disoriented cattle, drifted two or three feet high around buildings and sifted into homes from late summer into the fall.
Crops that managed to survive the drought and Dust Bowl of 1936, however, had one final hurdle to clear that year to make it to harvest — grasshoppers. The insects, which thrive in dry and hot weather, were so prevalent in 1936 that one Crawford County farmer recalled how he left a pitchfork outside and he could see where the grasshoppers chewed into the wood of it.
No doubt, stories of extreme weather in Iowa abound. The next time you hear someone sharing one, don’t forget 1936.
Thanks for reading!