‘Yes, it was over-our-heads deep’

By Jason Ferguson

A Willys Jeep makes its way down a barely plowed old Highway 79 on the northwest side of Buffalo Gap in the aftermath of the Jan. 2-5, 1949 blizzard that paralyzed the northern plains. A caption on the back of the photo identifies the structure in the picture as “the old Bondurant house.”

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

Custer resident Jim Hattervig was a child living on the family farm four miles west of Viborg in southeastern South Dakota when the infamous Blizzard of 1949 struck South Dakota.

Hattervig and his sister, Mary Ann, attended a one-room country school two miles from their farm. The day the blizzard started, for reasons he can’t quite remember, all of the childrens’ mothers were at the school. At one point, a man came to get his children from school, unhappy that anybody was still in the school with the weather rapidly deteriorating.

Hattervig’s mother piled her children, her neighbor and her children into the family’s 1936 Ford to make the two-mile trek to the house. It’s a trek the old Ford wouldn’t be able to make.

“The wind was blowing and snow was drifting bad. Mother was having a hard time driving,” Hattervig said, pointing out there was no front-wheel drive back then, let alone four-wheel drive.

“The old Ford was doing the best it could, but it just couldn’t make it,” Hattervig said.

A mile from home, the car stalled.

Fortunately for its occupants, the group was only 200 yards from one of the neighbors homes. The group joined hands, and unable to see anything but white while feeling the sting of the snow and wind on their faces, they followed a fence line to the neighbors’ home.

The neighbor wanted the family to stay at his home, but Hattervig’s mother wanted to get home, afraid her husband would be worried. So, she bundled up her children in clothing borrowed from the neighbors and headed out. The plan was to go to the fence line, where the mother would hold the fence, Mary Ann would hold her hand and Jim would hold onto his sister’s hand.

“There are some experiences growing up that really stick in your mind, and for me this is one that sticks with me,” Hattervig said.

It seemed like the walk took forever, Hattervig recalls, but the three eventually made it home. When they arrived, their school teacher and a trucker were both in the home, their vehicles both consumed by the behemoth blizzard.

“We all made some adjustments and we had some guests until the storm calmed down,” Hattervig said.

When the storm calmed down enough Hattervig’s father climbed on a tractor and pulled the trucker out of a snow bank, then the teacher, then the family car. Snow had to be removed from the engine of the car before it would start.

Jim’s future wife, Pat, was experiencing the blizzard across the state in Custer. She recalls the blizzard made it difficult to go outside to the outhouse. Her father tied a rope from the back door of the home to the door of the outhouse, but also allowed family members to use a slop pot to relieve themselves without going into the teeth of the storm.

The family lived next to the JD Conoco station, where Lynn’s Dakotamart is now located. There were three homes and a grocery store across the street to the north, Pat said, and she couldn’t see them.

“Crews plowed large piles in the middle of the street,” she said. “You couldn’t see over them and you had to go to an intersection to cross.”

Pat, in first grade at the time, recalls she had received a new gray wool coat for Christmas and was anxious to wear it to school when classes resumed.

“The snow seemed to last forever,” she said.

Recently-retired Custer County Planning Department director Rex Harris was 6 when the blizzard hit, and he recalls the large drifts and deep snow it left at his family’s home at Medicine Mountain Ranch.

“We could not get the tractor up to the north pasture and my uncle had to carry a salt block over a half mile to the cows,” he said. “The road into the ranch was closed for about a week before we could get it open and get to town.”

At the time all of the family’s water came from Spring Creek, which was about 50 yards from the house. Getting to the creek to retrieve the water proved difficult until the family was able to open up a path.

The family kept the milk cows close and had wood close to the house, so staying warm wasn’t an issue.

“Life was quite primitive at that time so you don’t miss things you never had, like electricity,” he said.

Ruth Ann Ferguson was 5 when the blizzard hit. She recalls standing in front of the large windows at her home on 7th and Harney streets watching the snow twist by thanks to the howling wind. The branches in the big willows bent under the sheer force of the wind, and the snow continued for three days. Three long days, she said.

“Mother was doing motherly things, like baking cookies, cleaning and trying to keep us occupied,” she said. “I had my doll. Bob his trucks. We didn’t have television then, just radio. I remember the radio was playing and there were news reports about the storm.”

The real fun started for the Ferguson children after the storm ended. The snow had blown all the way to the top of the garage roof, and the stairway came down to the front door so it was easy to sneak in and out of the front door. She and her brother created a slide down the mountain of snow. They would climb out the bathroom window and go down that hill of snow repeatedly. Then came the digging of a tunnel through the big snow bank. After going down the hill they would run through the tunnel, around to the front door and do it again.

“Custer was pretty much shut down during those three days,” Ferguson said. “There were some very hardy folks who did try to go to work. Oh, and we finally did get caught by mother running into the house from going down the hill of snow at the garage.”

Colleen Mahrt lived about a mile from Pringle when the blizzard hit, which she said was normally an easy walk along the highway. At the time of the blizzard, Pringle had three grocery stores (Zeimets, LaFolletts and Brays) and the owners lived in the same building as their business, so it was understood that all someone had to do was make it to town if they needed anything.

“We didn’t have electricity at our house yet, so we weren’t inconvenienced in that respect,” Mahrt said.

Everyone was self-sufficient in those days, she said, but the family was concerned about running out of bread, as there was no yeast at the home.

The family melted snow for water and dug its way to the well for drinking water, which she recalls was particularly difficult since it was completely buried and wasn’t marked. Getting to the cellar was easier, and there was plenty of food stored there.

The family made its living by selling milk, butter and cream, so getting to and taking care of the milk cows was of paramount concern. Getting to the wood pile, chicken coop and outhouse proved to be a chore as well.

“I remember my uncle trudged to town, which took him most of the day, but he came home with yeast and some chocolate candy bars,” Mahrt said. “We missed a few days of school but we survived like everyone else.

“Yes, it was over-our-heads deep!”

Colleen’s future husband, Marty, lived in a small house in Pleasant Valley the couple now rents out.

Marty recalls another family, the Weltys, lived just west of the Mahrts and the two families were good friends. A day or two after the blizzard there was no way to get to town.

Harvey Mahrt, a smoker, realized he had no cigarettes, and devised a plan to invite the Weltys to dinner with an ulterior motive to get cigarettes from Charlie Welty. Unfortunately for Harvey, Charlie didn’t have any cigarettes.

Marty did, however. Well, his brother, Donnie, did, anyway.

Marty knew his brother had been secretly smoking and hid the butts of the cigarettes in a doll he had won at the Gold Discovery Days carnival.

The hole Donnie made in his doll to keep his vice undetected got bigger, and soon all the butts were retrieved and Harvey and Charley were able to roll their own cigarettes.

“No one got in trouble for their misdeeds, and it makes a pretty good story,” Marty said.


  1. Our family was snowbound at Blue Bell Lodge during that blizzard. For almost a week, there was no way to get plows to the lodge from either end of Highway 87. Of course, we also had a few prolonged “snow-days” from classes at Custer State Park School.