Remembering a cold Ohio winter 40 years ago
Friday, January 13, 2017 6:34 PM
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” – Floyd Lawson
This month – the month of January and the month of Janus, that two-faced Roman god – was a real humdinger 40 years ago.
In fact, in southern Ohio and much of the Midwest and Southeast, the month of January 1977 remains the standard-bearer for which all such cold and miserable winter months have been compared for the past four decades.
Has it really been 40 years?
Has it really been 40 years since our average daily low temperature was 2 big ol’ degrees GDF (Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit)?
Has it really been 40 years since the month of my first child’s birth had 16 days with temperatures below zero and a dozen days with almost a foot of snow on the ground?
Has it really been 40 years since a 15-year-old Whiteoak High School sophomore called WSRW Radio’s Willard Parr early one winter morning and identified himself as Bright Local School Superintendent Keith Day and told the Hall of Fame broadcaster: “Willard, Keith Day here. Bright Local schools are closed?”
(That really happened. A short while later on that frigid January morning, the real Superintendent Keith Day called in and officially closed the schools – until further notice. I was just tired of waiting by the radio for the inevitable announcement, which was as plain as two crow droppings on a plow handle on that particular day.)
Has it really been 40 years since Bud, Jack and Mason Estle and my dad and I cut and delivered firewood for a few families in need when the wind-chill factor was 40 below zero?
Yes, it’s been 40 years. And yes, it was cold. Real cold.
“The cold wave of January 1977 produced the only known trace of snow in the Miami area of Florida ever reported,” according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_wave_of_January_1977. “Most notably, the weather system brought snow flurries as far south as Homestead, Fla. on Jan. 19, 1977.
Wikipedia further reports from January 1977: “It was the first time snow had ever been observed at Miami. At Homestead, snow fell at the Homestead Air Force Base and this is regarded as the southernmost location of snowfall in the contiguous U.S. Prior to this event, the southern most U.S. snow record was in Fort Myers, Fla. in February 1899.”
(Take that, HCP Designer and Editor Emeritus Lisa W.!!)
Closer to home in 1977, OhioHistory.org (http://ohsweb.ohiohistory.org/swio/pages/content/1977_blizzard.htm) records show that the “National Weather Service called for a blizzard warning across Ohio early on Friday, Jan. 28, 1977. The cold wave and high winds swept across the state at dawn. Temperatures fell from 20 degrees to 5 to 10 degrees below zero during the day. High winds and blowing snow accompanied the cold wave. Winds of 35 to 45 mph, gusting to 60, blew new snow and snow already on the ground into huge drifts and obscured visibility.”
No kidding. As Ernest T. Bass once said, “I was right out there in it.”
The aforementioned wood cutters had chainsaws and axes working overtime on that particular morning. If I’m not mistaken, Mason’s ears actually froze. After a few hours of working outside, we became so numb from the cold that there wasn’t any frostbite pain whatsoever – unless we’d actually go inside where it was warm. Then, you felt the pain. Here’s another tip: Don’t pour hot water on frost-bit hands.
I remember Bud and my dad built a big fire for all of us to have a “warming station.” I think the flames froze in midair and stayed that way until April. No foolin’.
Since we had one of the few area woods with accessible (and free) firewood, a few people came by and loaded their trucks. But one of the oddest things that I remember from January 1977 was driving from south of the Olde Y Restaurant to Steen’s IGA in Hillsboro and U.S. 62 had only one lane almost the entire 12 miles. There was so much snow and it was so cold that the snow plow drivers couldn’t clear both the northbound and southbound lanes, so they just plowed the middle of the federal highway.
The only other time I remember seeing a federal highway in similar condition was U.S. 23 south of Piketon after the 29-inch snowstorm that covered Scioto County on Martin Luther King Day in 1994.
But January 1994 wasn’t nearly as cold – and not for nearly as long.
In January 1977, there were 26 consecutive days with below-freezing temperatures and three straight record-setting days for cold temperatures:
• Jan. 16, 1977 – 21 degrees below zero;
• Jan. 17, 1977 – 24 degrees below zero; and if that wasn’t enough,
• Jan. 18, 1977 – 25 degrees below zero.
The temperature remained below zero for more than two days.
Our water pipes froze, and we boiled snow for cleaning water. If we’d have had school (thanks to me, we didn’t), we would have walked through the snow uphill both ways to Mowrystown, which is on level ground. School buses weren’t running.
My wife’s Cincinnati family (surely, Pam wasn’t born in 1977?) remembers January 1977 as the time the Ohio River froze and pedestrians walked across from the Queen City to Covington or Newport. Personally, I probably would have headed for Newport. It’s been known to happen.
I remember that winter was so cold that we took the car batteries inside at night so we might be able to start a car the next day. My mother remembers using a hair dryer to warm up a car battery in our garage, probably on our 1967 Dodge Dart.
On one January 1977 afternoon, she and Steve Harper, who surveyed with my dad, drove from our house to his, just off Wildcat Road – at the low end in Adams County.
The road was snow- and ice-covered, and the only way she could get the Dodge back home was for Steve to pull her up the hill with his tractor – on a 20-below zero day.
I also remember Will Parr – who seemed to be on the radio around the clock during the blizzards of 1977-78 – telling motorists to be careful because the highway department’s salt mixture applied to the roads would not help much in such cold temperatures. Willard couldn’t have slept much at all that winter. Every time we turned on WSRW, he was on the air. Thanks, Will. We remember.
That was also the winter I learned to drive in snow with a manual transmission – which is way better than an automatic in such circumstances – down Folsom Hill in Washington Township.
My dad’s rule was this: As you approach the hill’s crest, slow down and downshift into second gear (first gear, if it’s really bad), tap the brakes occasionally on descent, steer around the bend at the bottom of the hill, but never, ever stand on the brakes.
Going uphill was just the opposite: Use all the momentum you could until you reached the top, then ease off the gas and downshift as necessary.
One day, years later, I was in a hurry and forgot about those lessons and slid smack-dab into a large oak tree. The tree won.
January 1977 set that month's record for snowfall with 30 inches.
The record lasted for all of one year.
On Jan. 25, 1978, a blizzard brought seven inches of snow on top of 14 inches already on the ground. It also brought sustained winds of 35 mph with gusts up to 70, and temperatures that dropped to zero.
January 1978 ended with 31.5 inches of snow, and the winter of 1977-78 finished with 53.9 inches.
For southern Ohio, the two winters of 1977 and 1978 were the coldest and snowiest on record.
If you have any memories of those back-to-back winters, I’d love to hear them.
For now, maybe I’ll just put another log on the fire.
Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.