Looking back at memorable winter weather in the Lakes area
Photography / Antiquarian and HIistorical Society of Culver
Whatever dreams area residents may have each year for a white Christmas, most know it’s this time of year — February and January — when the real winter weather is most likely to set in.
Late last year provided at least one exception in that the South Bend area saw the most Christmas (that is, eve and day of) snowfall on record (12.8 inches), though most Lakes Magazine readers saw very little of the white stuff.
Looking back at historic winter weather, of course lake effect conditions cause enough variance in snowfall that Lakes Magazine readers may have considerably different recollections of a given winter from, say, northern Starke County to Rochester, for example.
That said, South Bend is officially Indiana’s snowiest city, averaging more than 70 inches per year of snowfall.
In terms of temperature, the coldest officially recorded in Northern Indiana was -24 on January 12, 1918. The coldest full day on record was January 20, 1985 with a low of -22 and a high of -11, part of an arctic wave that swept the entire US. Wind chill factors read more than 50 below, and temperatures slid nearly that low during the winter of 1983-84..
The coldest temperature officially on record in Indiana as a whole was -36 on Jan. 19, 1994 (it was recorded in New Whiteland, south of Indianapolis, if you were curious).
On January 1, 1864, several Indiana newspapers reported that temperature had dropped 88 degrees in 12 hours, from 60 degrees above zero Dec. 31, to 28 degrees below zero the next morning.
Inasmuch as ice on the lake is a measure of winter weather, it might be worth noting that in March, 1885, Lake Maxinkuckee was covered with 18-inch ice, remaining ice-bound until April 7 of that year.
On the early date of October 13, 1907, the lake was completely frozen over. In January-February, 1912, there were 17 days with below zero temperatures. A mid-November snowstorm in 1918 blocked all roads and caused a tragic Nickel Plate train wreck at Burr Oak.
Noted in a now-defunct Indiana history online blog originating in Wayne County were some interesting tidbits from nearby Cass County, Indiana — near enough, of course, that Lakes Magazine readership areas almost certainly experienced virtually the same weather:
“According to a diary kept in the Elfreth family…the coldest winter in the past 122 years was in 1812. The coldest summer was that of 1816…The greatest snow storm ever experienced in the United States was in February, 1817. The coldest winter in Cass county of which we have records, was that of 1842-43. The winter set in on November 6 with a heavy snow and zero temperature and with the exception of a slight January thaw, never let up until the middle of April.”
On a bit more cheerful note: “The warmest winter (in Cass County) was probably that of 1875-76. New Year’s day, 1876, the mercury registered 72 degrees; the sun shone brightly, the grass was green, and it had more the appearance of a June day than New Year’s.”
The site also describes the uncanny 4th of July of 1873, when an excursion celebrating the newly-completed railroad line between Logansport and Crawfordsville resulted in the three of four passengers dying, as the train’s open flat cars provided no protection against the near-freezing air temperature and people, of course, were dressed only for typical July heat.
As alluded to in part of the quote above, 1816 became known in Europe and North America as “The Year Without a Summer.” Numerous crops were killed, whether by frost or a lack of sunshine, and food prices rose, preventing a more serious crisis than the actual weather conditions for people, which many scientists today blame on a volcanic eruption of the previous year.
Of potential interest to Lakes area readers, 1816’s weather is believed to have had an impact in shifting the still-young country’s population towards the Midwest from the then more populous east coast, as many left New England seeking better crop growing conditions. By December, 1816, Indiana had gained its statehood (Illinois followed a few years later), arguably due indirectly and at least in part to winter weather conditions!
In much more recent experience, most readers of a certain age (and residents of multiple US states, for that matter), have vivid memories of the infamous blizzard of late January, 1978, the worst snowstorm in recorded Hoosier history, which dumped up to 20 inches of snow all across the Midwest.
Roaring winds and wind chills of 40 to 50 below zero created snow drifts of 10 to 20 feet. Indiana Governor Otis R. Bowen declared a snow emergency throughout Indiana, and the National Weather Service declared the storm “monstrous” and “of extremely dangerous magnitude.”
All area schools and most businesses were closed for at least a few days, and a number of structures, like the Argos Lumber Company warehouse and the office of Hehr International in Plymouth, saw their roofs collapse under the weight of the snow.
Memorable stories of the blizzard abound, though one remarkable incident reported in the Plymouth newspaper involved rural Argos resident Mrs. Kenny Nifong, who went into labor during the worst period of immobility following the storm itself (even Marshall County’s 4-wheel-drive vehicles weren’t up to the task). A snowmobile was recruited to take Nifong to Parkview hospital — a 90-minute ride in those conditions — and her daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, was born on Jan. 28.
By that same day, tragically, 11 deaths had been reported in Indiana due to the storm. One area school, Culver Academies, made headlines during the blizzard’s aftermath as the only school in Indiana not to cancel classes, though it did go so far as to declare a sleep-in for one day for students!
Academies officials, knowing the storm was coming, had kept snowplows busy as the snow fell and food services staff camped out on campus. Some teachers walked more than two miles around part of Lake Maxinkuckee, and some walked across the ice from its east shore, in order to teach classes.
Perhaps ironically, a much less severe winter storm, that of early 2014, facilitated a historic first for Culver Acadmies, which canceled classes due to weather for three consecutive days, the first in its long history, though in fact the move was made since a number of students were prevented from returning to the area from holiday break, due to the storm.
Heavy blizzards and extreme cold also marked the winters of 1930, ‘34, ‘37, ‘50 and 1967 (in fact, the thickness of the ice on Maxinkuckee during the winter of 1936 caused major problems with the annual ice harvest at the Medbourn ice house on East Jefferson Street).
As of this writing, the severity of the winter of 2021 still remains a matter of speculation, but severe winter weather, and the famously unpredictable nature of “Indiana weather,” never seem to lose their fascination for us, perhaps as one of the few manifestations of nature that our technology, advanced though it be, still hasn’t been able to control. That, along with its juxtaposition of its potential for simultaneous beauty and threat, leave many Lakes Magazine area readers always ready, in the wintertime, to talk about the weather.