Riverton resident remembers blizzard of 1949

Brothers Richard and Don Strube in January 1949 in the small southeastern Wyoming town of Albin. They had ridden horses from their family's farm into town two days after historic "Blizzard of ’49" cleared the region. Don Strube, right, and a group of 15 other friends and strangers were stranded for days in a tiny rural cabin when the ferocious storm hit. (Photo courtesy of Don Strube)

RIVERTON — There’s no shortage of information about the famous blizzard of 1949, probably the most famous weather event in Wyoming history – but Don Strube's story stands out.

The longtime Riverton resident lived through it, bit it took luck, creativity, and the kindness of strangers. Seventy years later, he remembers it in vivid detail.

Strube reminisced about the storm as its 70th anniversary year came to an end. He and eight schoolmates at Albin High School spent days holed up in a tiny rural cabin after being stranded in the storm miles from home.

He was a senior in high school then, as were several of his companions that day, although some were as young as seventh grade.

Accompanying Strube were Charles Pearson, his sister Jo Ann Pearson, their younger brother Richard Pearson, Mary Jean Boyce, and brothers Gene and John Lemaster.

They had eaten at the caf in Albin owned by Strube's aunt and uncle, Pete and Mary Thomas. It was Sunday, Jan. 2, 1949.

"After lunch, we got into the 1948 Chevrolet that the Pearson family had just bought recently. It was a four-door," Strube recalled. "Then we headed over to Pine Bluffs for a movie."

The world had changed

He no longer remembers the name of the picture, but he recalls that "the sun was shining. It was a nice, balmy day when we left Albin" on the 20-mile drive to Pine Bluffs in the southeast corner of the state. "We went into a matinee at about 1:30 p.m."

When they came out shortly before 3 o'clock, it was as if the entire world had changed.

"We walked out into a roaring blizzard," Strube said.

Not understanding the magnitude of what was happening, the seven friends got back into the car and headed back home for Albin.

Conditions worsened quickly. They were trying to drive during Wyoming's worst winter storm of the 20th century.

"Some of us were hanging out both sides with the windows down, trying to see the road. We got about seven miles from Pine Bluffs when we came upon a stalled car."

Inside they found a couple they knew, Al and Wilma Moore, local grocers. They had their new baby with them, stranded.

The Albin teens opened the doors and made room. The Moores piled into the Strube party's Chevrolet as well.

"Now we had 10 people in our car, and we were still hanging out the window trying to see where we were going."

They crept along the highway for another three miles but then, with darkness gathering and the storm conditions overwhelming, they ran off the road.

The situation was bad, but it might have been worse, Strube said.

"As luck would have it, our car stalled on a farmer's driveway, kind of pointing uphill. It was right at the homestead entrance."

The farm family had three sons, and they saw the stricken vehicle's headlights shining up the hill toward their house. A daughter, a graduate of Albin High School a few years earlier, was home for the holidays from Denver.

"Those boys saw our headlights, and they told their dad. He took a lantern and came down to the car through the snow, maybe about 400 feet."

The farmer's name was Pearl Castor. He remains a hero to Strube to this day.

"All 10 of us got out of the car and managed to get up to the house with Pearl. We didn't have any proper winter clothes on. It had been a nice day when we started out, and we were planning on being in the car and in the movie theater. That was a long walk up that hill."

The Castor farmhouse wasn't much, a small homestead shack with poured concrete walls, two small bedrooms, a tiny front room, and a small kitchen space.

There was no telephone, no running water, no electricity, and no heat except for the kitchen stove, which burned wood. The roof wasn't air-tight.

"There already were six people in that house when we got there," Strube said. "There's a raging blizzard outside, and there were 16 people in that very small house."

The Castors had eaten dinner for the night, and there wasn't enough food to feed the unexpected visitors.

Soon it was time for bed. The roof in the over the small house was so poor that snow had blown inside and piled on Mr. and Mrs. Castor's bed.

"When they went to bed they removed six or eight washtubs of snow on the top of their bed," Strube said. "The three of us boys (the high school seniors) sat in front of the stove with our feet in it. The rest of us tried to rest in the small living room with what little heat came from the stove. The four Castor kids slept in the other bedroom."

All four of the Castor children were of adult age, although Strube recalled that the sons appeared to have a developmental disability that limited their speech.

"There were 16 of us in there. It was cozy," he joked.

A stack of firewood got the group through the night. The snow was so intense, and unremitting through the night, that there was no possibility of even seeing the small outhouse, much less getting to it.

"When we needed to go to the bathroom, we just went right outside," Strube said. "If you got 10 feet from the house you couldn't see anything."

The next morning, the storm continued. The party of 16 needed food.

Pearl Castor opened the door and felt his way out to his barn using a barbed wire fence as his guide. Making his way through the whiteout hand over hand, he reached the barn and was able to feed his cows with hay he had put up. When he got back to the house, he had some chickens.

"We killed those chickens, we dressed them, and then about mid-morning we cooked them. All 10 of us ate at the table the first seating, and the family ate at the second seating."

There was one more mouth to feed - the Castors had a dog, and he licked the Castor sons' plates clean.

With no letup in the storm, Mr. Castor went outside and felt his way along the fence again. Each time he came to a fence post he would uproot it, and brought back several to the house to use as firewood.

"We put those fence posts across chairs, took a handsaw, and cut them down to size so we could put them in the cook stove," Strube said.

Even so, it was freezing in the house.

"I had a glass of water," said Strube, "and I put that glass down beside my chair and set it on the floor, and it froze right to the floor."

Another run to the barn spelled doom for a couple more chickens, and the 16-person group had a small chicken supper.

Another night loomed. The Castors filled up the washtubs again with snow that had accumulated on the bedspread.

"We really didn't get any sleep," said Strube. "We just sat there all night long, stoked wood in that fire until Tuesday morning. If that fire went out, we were in trouble."

Tuesday dawned bitterly cold, with snow blowing horizontally.

"It was 15 or 20 below zero," said Strube. "There was nothing we could do. We sat there in the little house and got through that day."

There was just one meal -- chicken again.

By mid-morning Wednesday, "the storm broke a little bit," said Strube. "It cleared enough that you could see out to the road. After a while we looked out and saw two people coming up the road."

It was Strube's uncle Pete Thomas, the caf owner, and cousin Bob Sorenson. Strube walked out to the road to greet them in the cold.

"I had on overalls, my shirt, and my little FFA jacket, unlined," he recalled. "I had on a little filling station cap and low-top shoes. Everyone was dressed about like that."

At the end of the cold walk, uncle Pete provided some information about the storm. There were many people stranded or unaccounted for.

Strube's uncle said the Castors were the only household along the road Albin and Pine Bluffs without a telephone. By process of elimination, the two men concluded that the missing youths probably were at the Castor place.

"So they walked out to the Castors and found us," said Strube.

At about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Strube and his two relatives began walking back to town -- six miles. Finally in a warm home, Strube spent the night at his aunt and uncle's house.

They fed him a good meal -- no chicken.

On the way into Albin, they encountered a farmer about a mile from town. He and a helper had hooked up a manure spreader to a couple of tractors and drove house to house looking for stranded people. He came to the Castor place and hauled the remaining party back to Albin on the spreader.

That farmer's name, Oden Hogerson, also remains fresh in Strube's memory 70 years later.

Strube wasn't home yet. His family lived on a farm six miles out of town the other direction. Normal automobile traffic was impossible, "so I walked to our farm," said Strube.

He happened to arrive home on foot about the same time as his brother Richard, who had been stranded about five miles south of home. He sat out the worst of the storm in a different house and made it home on foot safely.

"When we got home, our barn was covered with snow," recalled Strube said. "Cattle were trapped in one barn, horses in the other. So that afternoon, which was Thursday, we dug a tunnel to the cow barn. We got the cows some water and fed them some oats, with the same for the horses."

The family got an oil stove going in a two-room center section of the house, and things heated up.

"It was hard to believe how deep the snow was," Strube said. "We opened the door and the snow had blown through the keyhole and formed waist high against the wall."

Friday arrived, and the Strube boys were determined to help if they could.

"We got up, saddled our horses, and rode back to Albin. A lot of the time, our horses hooves were level with the rooftops of the houses."

Stranded vehicles were everywhere. A county road grader on the outskirts of town had a bad tire and couldn't move.

"Later in the day, an airplane flew over and dropped a new tire for the road grader," Strube said. "Then it made another pass and threw big packages of baloney. It landed on the hillside, and people started picking it up."

The plane circled around again. The cargo door opened, and out came boxes which came apart in the air, revealing loaves of bread. Hungry residents could make baloney sandwiches.

The Strube brothers went back home. They had hogs as well, and were able to dig them out and feed them. An automated water dispenser kept the animals more comfortable. Other farmers were not so fortunate. News accounts of the day show that livestock losses were extensive.

"The only thing we lost were three geese," said Strube.

Weather conditions stabilized in the coming days. By Saturday, the family managed to get to Denver with some cattle to sell, although there was difficulty getting home. Strube's dad had to ride in a U.S. Army snow-cat vehicle known as a weasel to get through the worst parts of the trip home. His mother stayed in Pine Bluffs for several days.

Anecdotes from the storm stick in his memory.

"There was one farm south of us that had a large windbreak of some big trees. The blizzard and the wind completely filled that windbreak. There were 26 cows that walked under it for shelter like they always did, and the snow collapsed and smothered them all."

A local school teacher got stranded 14 miles west of Albin, holed up in a car with her brother for three days. They had brought extra clothes and had some food in the car. When the weather cleared they realized they were right outside of a farm where they could have sought assistance, but the conditions were so blinding that they never realized it.

Between Cheyenne and Wellington, Colorado, said Strube, "there was a couple with two children who went to their friends' for New Year's, and they stayed pretty late. They tried to get home in the storm, but they only made it about a mile before they stalled. They froze to death right in their car."

Outside help was slow in coming, other than the air drop of baloney and bread.

"The trains stalled in Pine Bluffs through the blizzard. Those trains were completely covered up with snow in some places. The people to stayed inside, and when they could they were taken out and into town and stayed in houses with the people in Pine Bluffs. The railroad would come in and dig out the track one day, then it would get completely blown over again at night."

Authorities eventually confirmed 12 deaths in Wyoming due to the storm. Another 28 people were confirmed dead in western Nebraska, northeastern Colorado and southwestern South Dakota.

Even after the storm cleared, the remaining winter was unseasonably cold and snowy. A combination of local, state, military and federal government authorities took charge of rescue operations, and that work was not declared complete until March 1.

Repairs to roads, railroads, fences, air strips, homes, businesses and school infrastructure took more months to complete.

Strube said the experience brought out the best of his rural farm and small-town neighbors -- and there was even one positive to come from the experience.

"The roads were closed, and the school buses couldn't get through. There was no school for five weeks."