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Old Man Winter

As winter winds down, and we happily look toward spring, let’s remember a few storms from the past.

In October 1880, sleet, snow and 125-mph winds swept through the area. One of the Great Lakes’ legendary shipwrecks, the sinking of the steamer, Alpena, took place on Lake Michigan and killed 75 passengers.

The winter of 1881 was one to remember. A Sheboygan Press article from February 12, 1994 reported the following: “The storm of March 2-4, brought 36 inches of snow that drifted ‘like great ocean waves of 18 feet or higher’ and would not disappear until July. Two hundred shovelers worked to dig out the city of Sheboygan. It would take days to do so. On Eighth Street, they dug tunnels through drifts between streets and stores. A train was stuck midway between Sheboygan and Sheboygan Falls for two weeks with just its smokestack visible.”

The winter of 1936 remains the standard in this part of the state. The following information came from a 1986 Sheboygan Press article. Three heavy snowstorms hit the county in a little over two weeks that year, on January 22, February 3 and February 8, 1936. Snowfall measured 56 inches in Plymouth. And when it wasn’t snowing, gale force winds shifted the snow into stunning new configurations.

​Some county roads were blocked until March. Farmers got their milk and eggs to market by bobsled, but they had to guide their horses carefully so the animals didn’t trip on telephone lines that barely stretched above the 24-foot snow drifts.
Four people were marooned at Riverdale Golf Club, unsuccessfully calling airports to see if someone could fly over and drop food.

 Along with the snow and wind, temperatures stayed well below normal, nights hitting 20 below zero. .At daybreak on Thursday, February 18, 1936, seven Coast Guardsmen risked their lives to save the crew of an icebound fishing tug, the R.K. Smith, stranded 1 ½ miles off Sheboygan’s north pier. One quote read: ‘With visibility near zero and heavy wind-driven surges of lake water breaking and shifting the thin ice . . . . they walked to the boat dragging a heavy skiff behind them.’

​That winter, area fishermen estimated they lost over a quarter million dollars because they were unable to penetrate the frozen expanse of Lake Michigan. After three days with no mail delivery, Sheboygan Press Editor Charles Broughton, used his clout to get the mail moving. Trucks didn’t work so he telegraphed the Postmaster General, James Farley, asking that the interurban lines be used for sending mail. The trains used rotary plows attached to the front end to make their way. It was often necessary to send a crew on ahead to knock down the biggest drifts.

 Compassion was shown for the seagulls and other birds that were dying of starvation, their food sources buried beneath snow and ice. City workers began carting loads of garbage to the lakefront and dumping it, rather than burning it as usual.”

A 1986 article by Emmitt Feldner of The Review, with research by Mrs. Jean Bohnoff, reported the following:
Maurice “Red” Hughes, 308 Mead Avenue, Plymouth, who worked for the Sheboygan County Highway Department in 1936, remembered that winter well. “They (the County) didn’t have much equipment at that time. There were three Liberty trucks. The top speed was 15 mph. We had a Clintonville four-wheel drive truck and a Monarch 60H crawler-type tractor. We hooked two and three Liberty trucks together at that time. By the time the last town roads were opened in March, Sheboygan County had a power shovel.”

Sheboygan County Historical
​Research Center

518 Water Street
Sheboygan Falls, WI 53085

 (920) 467-4667


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Cascade resident, Art Vanderkin, also worked out of the Cascade shed in 1936. He reported that, “the Liberty trucks we had were from WWI. One had pneumatic tires and the others had hard rubber tires. It was difficult keeping chains on them. There were no heated cabs and just side curtains. To keep the windshield open we used a salt sack. To operate the plow a crank came in below the windshield that you used to wind the cable. They pushed the snow like a bulldozer, didn’t roll it off to the side like now.”

Both men stayed at the shed for much of two weeks. Vanderkin recalls farmers blinking their porch lights at him when he was out plowing after midnight, beckoning him in for a hot meal. Another time Vanderkin and a fellow worker were stranded on Hwy. V near Parnell. He called his foreman, Herb Bartel, for help. Help was a long time in coming. The men stayed in their truck as long as they could. When it got too cold, they went to a nearby barn to stay, the heat from the cows keeping them warm. They were rescued the next afternoon.

Finally, in March, the county Highway Committee called a special meeting and purchased two crawlers RD8 95-horsepower Caterpillar tractors with “V” plows- the kind the U.S. Army used in WWII to build the Military Supply Route to Alaska. Each county shed also got a new truck. They ran day and night until the cleanup was completed.

A number of Plymouth people were on the No. 27 northbound train due in Plymouth at 11:10 on Friday morning. It actually arrived around 4 o’clock Saturday afternoon, after being on the road for 30 ½ hours. At one time there were seven engines stuck between Plymouth and Saukville, requiring the efforts of 100 shovelers and a rotary plow to clear the line.

These are just a few of the dozens of stories and photos of the winter of 1936. .


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