Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick



About once each decade, Iowa is plagued by what is termed an “old fashioned winter,” with long-lasting deep snow and cold.  Older people say that the winters of today are milder than those of the past, and statistics reinforce these statements.

From 1800 through World War I, heavy snows and cold temperatures swept across the heartland year after year.  This period is sometimes referred to as a “mini-Ice Age.” However, according to Otto W. Knauth (Annals of Iowa, Spring 1960, pp. 288-293,) not even in pioneer days did record snows and sustained cold exceed those of the winter of 1935-1936, considered to be the worst in Iowa history.

The winter started out mild. December was an average month and the first half of January was warm and pleasant. But bitter, ruthless winter gripped the entire state from January 16 through March 2. Snow that fell on January 16 remained on the ground 72 days, a figure unequalled in Des Moines until the winter of 1959-1960. During the period, a statewide average of 15 days saw temperatures dipping below zero. In northwest Iowa, 35 mornings were below zero, and there were long stretches sustaining up to 72 hours below zero.

The most disastrous blizzards came January 16-18, February 8-9 (one of the worst ever to hit Iowa,) and Feb. 26, with fierce snowstorms also on January 22, January 30 and Feb. 3.

When the February 8 storm hit, nothing moved in Iowa for 2 days and it took a week for transportation to get back to normal. High winds drifted the snow during and after the storms, isolating half of the Iowa farmers for up to seven weeks.

January’s statewide snowfall average of 19.4” was three times normal, and February followed with a statewide average of 15.9 inches. The January 16-18 storm ranged from a snow depth of only 3” in northern Iowa to an average of 20” in southern counties. February alone produced 35.5” of snow in Algona and Forest City. Statewide, the winter’s 42.9” of snow was a record amount. 

By February 4, Glenwood had 27.5” on the ground.  The average snow depth in southern Iowa was now 25”; north central Iowa had 20-25”; central Iowa 15-20”; with 10-15” reported in extreme eastern and northwestern Iowa.  On February 8, 30-40 mph winds drifted snow 20 feet deep in many locations!

By February 6, 22 deaths in Iowa were attributed to the nasty winter as polar winds continued to whip across Iowa with severe, arctic cold. The statewide average temperature that winter was 12.6 degrees. Only 1874-1875 was colder, when the average Iowa temperature was a frigid 11.8 deg.

January’s statewide average of 9.5 deg. was a full 9 degrees below normal! On January 22, temperatures ranged from 22 below zero in southern Iowa to 33 below zero in the north. In February, it reached 35 below at Sibley.

Ice skating on Iowa ponds and rivers had been a popular winter sport during the "mini-Ice Age" of earlier years.  I am told that the Mississippi often froze hard enough to allow skating as far south as Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In 1936, skating was made possible throughout Iowa from mid-January until early March. In February, ice was 42” thick on the Iowa River at Iowa Falls. At Council Bluffs, ice on the Missouri River was 25” thick, the most ever! Although ice depths of more than a foot on the Mississippi River are rare, Dubuque reported ice 23” thick.

There have been days in Iowa history when it was colder, and at times greater snow depths have been recorded. Official records show that it reached 30 below in Ottumwa at least once during the 1950s, and again in the early 1960s. Emergency rescue workers were dispatched to reach people at a truck stop near the Hedrick Y north of Ottumwa during a freak storm in 1958 when high winds drifted snow that isolated the cafe, stranding truckers and motorists. Heavy snow and winds during the 1978-1979 winter also stranded hundreds of farmers because roads drifted shut for more than three weeks in rural areas. Twenty below zero cold was common. Iowa’s old 1912 all-time record of 47 degrees below zero was equaled on Feb. 3, 1996 in Elkader--actual temperature, not wind-chill!

In spite of all existing bitter records, when this cold wave broke on March 2, 1936 the entire state of Iowa had suffered a winter unequalled in duration and frigid conditions. As bad as some winters were before and have been since, nothing quite equals or compares, thus the winter season of 1935-1936 continues to be the worst in living memory.

- -
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick