SPECIAL REPORT: Iowa's Worst Winter
It's called the "telephone wire winter" when knees, fenders, and fence posts no longer served as adequate comparisons to the mountains of snow that swallowed trains. In a 1936 Des Moines Register article, Jim Pollack wrote that the snow was so deep that Lloyd Keller walked from Clarksville to his job at the State Teachers College in Cedar Falls among drifts so high "he touched telephone wire". And the legend was born.
Officially, the winter of 1936 was the second coldest and fourth snowiest in Iowa history. But, the 36 day stretch from January 18th to February 22nd was the granddaddy of Iowa winters. The statewide average temperature was 2.4 degrees below zero with one blizzard after another. It was the worst stretch of weather since the state began keeping records in 1819.
Newspaper stories that winter said the snow was so extreme that caterpillar tractors couldn't plow the roads, so they were joined by groups of men with scoop shovels. In the midst of the Depression, 1600 men from the Works Progress Administration cleared streets in Des Moines.
As the snow piled higher and temperatures tanked, hardships began to mount. Mail delivery stopped and farmers couldn't transport milk and eggs. By February coal, the primary source of heat, was in short supply because rail lines were shut down, so schools and churches were closed and business hours shortened to conserve fuel.
Come mid-February, 1-3 feet of snow covered Iowa with 10-15 foot drifts a common thing. 100-ton locomotives with plows were no match. Farmers struggled to feed and water livestock which consumed twice as much feed as usual due to the severe cold. Nearly half of Iowa's wildlife died. At its worst, ice on the Iowa River near Iowa Falls was 42" thick.
In time, spring came and Iowans smiled knowing they'd endured the most severe winter in Iowa history. Little did they know, the summer 1936 would be just as memorable -- and just as extreme-- as Iowa's worst winter.