Airborne deliveries to cows and kids

By Ron Burtz

Snowdrifts block the entrance to the Custer Post Office as the community digs out from the Blizzard of 1949. But while mail service was temporarily delayed in Custer, many across South Dakota and Nebraska had to wait weeks for the mail to come through. In places airplanes were used to transport mail from one community to another. Scan this photo using the My Black Hills Country app on your smart phone to see old video footage of the aftermath of the storm.

This is the fifth in a five-part series on the Blizzard of 1949 and recollections and stories from the people who lived through it.

While the Blizzard of January 1949 caused much human suffering, it was livestock, especially cattle and horses, that was hardest hit. However, hard figures on actual losses are hard to come by. 

The Jan. 6, 1949 edition of the Custer County Chronicle—dubbed by its then editor “The Blizzard Edition”—predicted heavy livestock losses but subsequent papers indicate losses were only in the one to two-percent range for Custer County. Other areas in the path of the storm were not so fortunate.

One Wall-area rancher reported losing about 25 head of cattle which either died in the storm or shortly afterward due to frozen extremities. He ended up selling the dead animals to a rendering plant for $3 a head. He said it was “the cheapest load of cattle that I ever sold.” 

The same rancher, Willard Bloom, also reported a strange story about a cow up a tree. In the book “The Blizzard of ‛49” Bloom wrote, “When we did get out, we rode north on the creek and found a cow in the top of a plum tree with snow 20 feet under her. She had a place to stand and lie down in. She had been there 14 days with nothing to eat. I had to get off my horse and walk out to this cow to try to scare her out. She was on the fight and took after me. She chased me to my horse, but I got her out…”

Because of the large numbers of cattle that were stranded by the storm, unable to reach food and water, Governor George Mickelson signed a $100,000 appropriations bill for relief operations which included getting feed to livestock. However, since roads were clogged by hard packed and nearly impenetrable drifts a more innovative form of transporting hay had to be called on—airplanes.

All across the impacted area, aircraft were used to drop hay to hungry cattle. The first deliveries in the “hay lift” were made Jan. 11 when one-and-a-half tons of hay and 200 pounds of cubes were dropped on a ranch east of New Underwood and 1,000 pounds of cubes were airlifted to the S.S. Swanson ranch near Caputa. 

But livestock feed wasn’t the only thing delivered by air in the aftermath of the storm.

Custer resident Diane (Arp) Geeting writes: “My hometown of Winner was virtually isolated…during blizzard weeks. With no television and limited REA communication, all news came by radio, which we followed closely from our homes. Many routes from drifted homes had actual tunnels to reach the streets.” 

“My grandfather owned and ran the small Pierre-Winner bus line that provided both passenger and mail services several times a week to Presho, Vivian and Pierre. The bus service was grounded due to snow depth. My dad, Wayne Arp, was a postal clerk in Winner. He was part-owner and piloted a two-seater, single-engine Luscombe airplane.” 

Geeting, who was 8 years old at the time, recalls accompanying her father as he loaded mail sacks from the post office and boxes of provisions into the tiny plane, the wheels of which had been replaced with skis. Taking off from the snow-packed grass airstrip at the Winner Airport the pair left for Presho. 

“Even from about 2,500 feet above, all we could see was a vast snow wilderness in every direction,” Geeting recalls. “We landed on skis in the snow outside Presho, dropped our mail sack and collected theirs. At Pierre, more mail sacks were exchanged.” 

Geeting says on the return trip they landed at her uncle Jerry Jares’ farm to drop off some needed medications, food and mail for them and a neighboring farm. 

“The ski-plane glided down their driveway and stopped in their yard,” she says, “then it took off down the same lane.” 

“At my age, this was more adventure than inconvenience,” she says, “I was proud of my dad for keeping mail service running—via airmail!”

June Johnston has lived in Custer since 1961, but grew up on a farm in southeastern Nebraska between the communities of Blue Hill and Red Cloud. 

The blizzard which hit western South Dakota on Sunday, Jan. 2, didn’t begin in her area until sometime Monday, so she and her sister were in class at their one-room country school when the snow began. 

“Normally we walked to school,” said Johnston, “but on that day the wind was blowing fiercely and my father came to get us in the car from school.” Then, she says, it was off to the community sewing circle to pick up her mother.

By then, she says, “the wind was blowing so hard my father had to push the door of the car closed.” 

Johnston says she doesn’t remember much about the storm itself because her mother wouldn’t let them out of the house. 

“My dad had the horse and milk cow in the cow barn,” she said, “but I don’t remember how he got to the barn.” 

For the next several days Johnston says everyone in the whole countryside was snowbound, but slowly they began to dig out using big farm tractors and even a pair of Belgian horses owned by a neighbor which she says “were used a lot.”

In the weeks following the storm Johnston remembers sliding down a huge drift that was “clear to the top” of the two-story barn.

While Johnston doesn’t recall seeing any airplanes being used to drop hay to cattle, she fondly remembers how a plane was used to deliver something important to her. 

She says one day in the weeks after the storm a little yellow airplane came flying over the farm. The plane circled around and the children went outside to watch it. As they watched, something was dropped out of the cockpit and came spiraling down into the snow. 

When they ran to see what it was, they discovered it was a Sunday newspaper complete with the color comics. 

“That was the very best thing,” says Johnston of the Blizzard of ’49, “That little yellow airplane circling and down would come the paper.”