January 1950 blizzards firmly frozen in memory of former Everson resident

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 31, 2012 

Jan Jursnich lives in Davis, Calif., where the average low temperature in January is 38 degrees and average high is 54.

That's a far cry from the January she experienced in 1950 while she was a 15-year-old sophomore at Nooksack Valley High School, where her father, Lewis Porter, taught agriculture classes.

The Porters - her father, mother Leona, and Janet and her two sisters, Virginia and Karen - lived near Everson at the time.

Whatcom County has had many major winter storms through the decades, but January 1950 still owns many record-low temperatures, thanks to a chain of arctic storms that battered the Northwest, to put it mildly.

"I know what cold is," Jursnich said of that month 62 years ago. "Living in Davis, we sometimes get a freezing temperature, but not very often."

Jursnich later wrote down her recollections of that memorable month, and is sharing her account after hearing about the county's recent snowstorm.

THE STORM OF THE CENTURY

In 1950, during our first winter in Everson, the western United States was besieged by a series of storms. In our area of Northwest Washington, we had no relief during the entire month of January.

Dad crawled under the house and used an acetylene torch to melt the freezing moisture in the oil line. Virginia, Karen and I dragged our mattresses down from our upstairs bedrooms into the living room. Mom and Dad pulled their mattress in from their adjoining bedroom. We slept like this for most of January, on the floor in the living room, near the oil-burning stove.

For many nights we fell asleep to the howling of the wind and the rattle-rattle noise of the damper flapping in the flue, and the roar of the fire fanned by the wind.

On Monday, Jan. 2, snow blanketed most of the area from northern California through British Columbia. In Whatcom County, winds whipped through our valley, up to 75 mph, blustering down from the Fraser Canyon in British Columbia. The deep snow prevented school buses from traveling the county roads, and the schools, scheduled to reopen on Jan. 3, were closed until Thursday the 5th. They remained open, however, only until the following Tuesday.

A fresh storm of paralyzing proportions hit. It brought 18 inches of fresh snow, and 60-mph winds broke power and phone lines, making the roads impassable once again.

The winds blew down telephone lines throughout the county. Half of all phones didn't work. Crews worked around the clock to restore service, their work complicated by the tangled frozen lines. The crews abandoned a phone company truck, one and one half tons, when it became buried in the snow.

We were cold. Almost every night a thin layer of ice formed in our toilet bowl, melted in the morning by our urine. Small chips of ice formed in the perfume bottles on my upstairs dresser.

We wore warm sweaters indoors, sometimes two at once. We cooked on the wood-burning range in the kitchen and made our breakfast toast in the oven. We heated water on the stove to wash our dishes.

Mom or Dad drove the mile to the Everson grocery a few times for food from the shelves or our frozen food locker. Sometimes, one of us girls walked a couple of blocks to the motor inn, a gas station and mini mart, for bread. As usual, we relied heavily on our supply of Mom's canned goods.

During the long evenings our family played cards - canasta, pinochle or hearts - on our round oak kitchen table, by the light of a kerosene lamp.

The days passed very slowly. We had no electricity for 13 days, and for many days we couldn't leave the house. We had no phone service for most of the month. I missed talking to my friends.

Karen passed the time playing the piano. Virginia and Karen read books checked out at the last bookmobile visit, played in the snow, making a huge smiley-faced snowman, and drank Mom's homemade mulled cider.

I relieved my boredom by reading "Calling All Girls" magazine and "The Valley of Decision," a novel I found in my parent's bookcase. I tried out new recipes and made crème puffs for the first time. I also made an old family favorite, chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.

I wrote letters to friends in Pe Ell and to some from church camp. On days the weather permitted delivery, I took them to our rural mailbox beside the road and propped up the red flag, a signal to the delivery person to stop for outgoing mail.

My friend Nancy Houston lived down the road, a distance of about two city blocks. After choir practice one Thursday evening, Nancy, Ron Kinley and Bill Curtis decided to drive to Lynden, a 10-mile drive, to see Bill's girlfriend, Joene. When Nancy didn't arrive home after choir practice, her mom, Mary Kay, bundled in a heavy wooden coat and wearing gloves and boots, arrived at our back door.

"Janet, Nancy isn't home yet. Do you know where she is?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah!" I answered, casually. "She went to Lynden with Ron and Bill to see Joene."

"Oh, my God! They must be crazy! Look at how it's snowing! And the wind is at it, too!" she shrieked.

She went home to worry and fret until Nancy returned at 1 a.m.

My friends had seen Joene briefly, and when the snow began to fall and the wind blew, they headed for home. They crept along through the storm very slowly in Bill's Buick sedan. Nancy was grounded through February for her indiscretion.

I also spent time at Nancy's house that January. Mary Kay taught us to play canasta to help pass the time. She also taught me to knit. She supplied me with yarn and showed me how to throw the thread with my index finger to form knit and purl stitches. I held the needles awkwardly, lost control of them and dropped stitches, but I persevered and eventually I graduated from the six-inch practice swatch to a scarf and then to solid color socks, and later to the more complicated argyles.

By Friday, Jan. 13, winds reached 75 mph, temperatures hovered around zero and drifts of 10 to 14 feet blocked many roads. This assault was termed "The Storm of the Century."

Using rotary plows, bulldozers and road graders, work crews slowly opened highways and roads to small towns in the county. Grateful folks brought coffee, cocoa and sandwiches to the drivers as the equipment crept slowly past their homes.

In some places the county hired logging trucks to push the snowplows. They chained the two together, old tires tied to the bumpers of the logging trucks to protect both vehicles.

A supply of milk trucks, fuel and baked goods and State Patrol vehicles inched behind two bulldozers from Bellingham, reaching Everson at midnight. The convoy continued to Sumas, passing our house on the way, completing the seven-mile trip in five hours.

Their arrival brought Sumas into the State Patrol's emergency communication system. Previous communication had been through amateur "ham" operators and radios of immigration patrolmen.

Two freight trains hit drifts a mile north of Everson and were abandoned by the crews. By Tuesday, Jan. 17, snowplows had to retrace routes previously cleared in the Everson-Sumas area because new drifts had accumulated.

An enterprising Mary Kay Houston established a routine of cocooning herself in scarf, heavy coat and gloves, walking very slowly and carefully the short distance to their garage, starting the motor of their 1950 Nash and listening to news on the car radio. She did this several times a day, to get the latest information on the weather and the outside world.

Fresh snow fell on Jan. 19, covering the area with two to six inches of snow. Men and machines worked around the clock, stopping only to grease and refuel the equipment.

Efforts to clear the roads were frustrated by the gusty northeaster, which covered the roads again as fast as they were cleared. Snow drifted in many places to 35 feet, reaching the tops of the power poles.

One huge drift near the high school gradually melted and finally disappeared in April, during our spring break. The winds blew out windows and tore off chimneys, forcing some to abandon their homes and to move in with neighbors. Some families had strangers staying with them for several days.

Richard Westergreen, the driver of a Darigold truck, was stranded at the Viggo Nielsen's on the South Pass Road. Richard stayed awake until dawn, several nights in a row, seated in a rocking chair by the Nielsen's wood-burning stove, stoking it with wood.

During the days he slept off and on, and helped with the chores around the farm. The Houstons shared their home with the Schalo family of four, because their all-electric home next door had no source of heat during the power outage.

On Friday, Jan. 20, the temperature, warmed by the southerly Chinook winds, rose to 49 degrees, melting the snow and ice, bringing a silver thaw. The snow and ice melted. If we went outside, we stayed clear of power, phone lines and trees so the ice didn't fall on us.

The gush of water flooded the streets of Lynden. The merchants used shovels to open drains to prevent flooding of their stores. Basements of many Lynden homes, flooded by torrents of water, remained that way until power was restored to operate pumps.

Ice-covered phone and power lines snapped, as the melting ice shattered to the ground, leaving wires in a tangle. Many power and phone poles toppled, and trees and branches crashed to the ground. Icicles two- to three-foot-long, hung from our eaves and trees.

A two-mile logjam, formed by thawing ice, blocked the Nooksack River and threatened flooding. Because we were in a possible disaster area declared by the Red Cross and the State Patrol, many people in Everson and along the river evacuated their homes. Officials in the Whatcom County engineering department succeeded in breaking up the logjam with dynamite, and it gradually moved along the stream, finally spilling into Lummi Bay.

Mother Nature wasn't finished with her nasty business quite yet. A driving rain and then a freeze followed the silver thaw. Another storm cut loose again with renewed energy on Jan. 24, this time with another northeaster and blizzard conditions, bringing eight inches of new snow. On Jan. 25, the thermometer plunged to a record low of minus 2 degrees.

One afternoon, after most of the storm had passed, our 1949 Ford stalled as Dad was driving home from town. The wind knocked him down as he attempted to walk the short distance home. The fall left him with a pinched sciatic nerve, making it impossible for him to stand erectly or to walk without intense pain.

He spent a few days in the Bellingham hospital, where his condition was diagnosed. When he returned home, Mom rented a hospital bed and had it placed in the kitchen, where Dad lay for some days in agony, even with use of the medication prescribed by Doc Green.

He was a grumpy patient, his usual positive disposition warped by pain. After some days, with no improvement, he received a call from one of his Lion's Club friends.

"Lou! It's time you went to see Tarzan! That's what we call him! He's a masseur up in Abbotsford."

Dad was skeptical, "Oh, I don't know, I don't see how a massage could help."

"Well it sure did me a world of good a couple of years ago when my back was giving me such trouble, and it only costs a dollar a visit."

Dad gave in, "I guess at this point, I'll try anything."

"Good. I'll try to get an appointment for you on Monday ... is that OK with you?"

Dad's treatments with Tarzan lasted for several weeks. His friends took him regularly; three times a week at first, then less frequently, until at last he was free of pain and could walk erectly. He was stunned and delighted with the result of the treatments.

Farmers were particularly hard-hit by the storms. Milk trucks from the Arden plant in Everson, and Darigold in Lynden, couldn't travel the roads to pick up milk from dairy farmers. Milking machines, powered by electricity, were inoperable during periods of power failure, but in those days herds were small and could be milked by hand.

Farmers poured the milk into 10-gallon cans where it froze, popping off the lids; stored it in their bathtubs; or just dumped it. They lost several days of production.

On chicken farms, the brooders couldn't be heated and thousands of chicks perished. The Nielsen family provided water for their chickens, drawing it by hand from their wells, pouring it into 10-gallon milk cans and pulling it on a sled to the chicken coop. Their flock was ready to go into production when the first storm hit, but without light or heat, the chickens were forced into molt.

Because of the loss to farmers, President Harry S. Truman declared the area to be in a state of national emergency. The state allowed 15 days of school cancellation without loss of state support. Any additional days were to be made up, or support was lost. The Nooksack Valley schools were closed for just 14 days, so we didn't have to sacrifice any of our summer vacation.

We had no more storms that winter. On Jan. 31, we did have more snow, but the wind behaved. Our schools opened on Monday, Jan. 30, and remained open for the rest of the school year.

I was thrilled to see my friends again! I felt a sense of adventure and excitement over the experience, and we had animated discussions on how we spent the month of January.

Jan Jursnich, nee Janet Porter, was a 15-year-old Nooksack Valley High School student and a resident of Everson during the multiple blizzards and record-low temperatures of January 1950. She now lives in Davis, Calif.

Reach DEAN KAHN atdean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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