Blizzard of ‘78
Anyone living in northwest Ohio in January of 1978 remembers where they were during the big blizzard. The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning Wednesday night, January 25. It had been raining and the roads were wet that night in Williams County, but the weather quickly changed. The snow came hard, the winds blew and drifts formed that blocked driveways, streets, roads, windows and doors all through the next day and into the night.
The weather service says the county received between 14 and 22 inches of snow, depending upon where you were...but there were places where the snow was much deeper than that. They say it snowed 1 to 2 inches an hour for part of the storm.
The weather service also recorded winds running between 35 to 45 mph with higher gusts, which helped to build the big drifts and create whiteouts while dropping visibility to 1/16 of a mile or less at times (The Cleveland airport recorded a gust at 82 mph during the storm!).
For those of you who would like to post some photos of the blizzard in the Stryker/Evansport/Lockport area and add some of your memories, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first story we have concerns the memories of Bill Priest, one of the broadcasters from WBNO radio in Bryan (and one of the trustees of the Stryker Area Heritage Council). Many people tuned into the radio during the blizzard to see what the latest news was or just to keep them company. The story was written by Stryker native Don Allison, Senior Editor of the Bryan Times newspaper, and is reprinted here with their permission. Our thanks to Don (who is also a trustee of the Stryker Area Heritage Council) and the Bryan Times for sharing the story:
Blizzard still stirs memories
By DON ALLISON
Times Senior Editor
Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008
The No. 1 song the week of the Blizzard of ’78, Bill Priest said, was by the Bee Gees — “How Deep is Your Love.”
“When the blizzard, hit, he said, “it could have been, ‘How deep is your drift’.”
Now director of marketing with Quadco, Priest was with radio station WBNO when the blizzard struck Jan. 26, 1978. He spoke to the Bryan Kiwanis Club Wednesday about his experience during the storm.
Communications and weather forecasting were not as well developed 30 years ago, Priest said. The radio station got word of the coming blizzard by teletype the evening before it hit.
The night man at the radio station called to tell him about the blizzard warning and asked what to do, Priest said. “I said you better get a good night’s sleep, because you’re going to need it,” he told club members.
It had been raining that night, and looked nothing like an approaching winter storm. “I remember looking around and saying, ‘A blizzard, yeah’,” Priest said.
When it arrived that night, the storm packed winds of 35 to 45 mph in the county, and snow fell at 1 to 2 inches an hour for several hours.
A total of 14 to 22 inches of snow fell in Williams County, “depending on where you lived,” Priest said. And Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport recorded a wind gust at 86 mph.
Priest, along with fellow announcer J.B. Orendorff, were taken to work by snowmobile, and the late Luke Thaman was brought to the station by four-wheel drive.
Figuring he would be at the station for a while, Priest said, “I packed a suitcase, half of it with clothes and half of it with food.”
When he arrived at the station that morning he put his food beside his desk. By noon, he said, “J.B. had eaten it.”
“I said, ‘What have you done’,” Priest explained, laughing. “He said, “I was hungry.”
There was no harm, however, as station neighbors Bob and Sammy Woodgeard made sure the people manning WBNO were well fed.
Over the next three days, five people at the station kept WBNO on the air 24 hours a day.
“One of the first things we did was be sure people had emergency information,” Priest said. The station ran interviews with the sheriff and Civil Defense Director Mose Mohre, and shared information from emergency centers in the local communities.
Announcers made a point to stress that people trapped in cars shouldn’t leave their vehicles, and no one should be out and about in the storm.
“We really didn’t want to see anybody lose their life because of the storm,” Priest said.
The station monitored how calls for help were being answered — including a woman in Blakeslee who was in labor, and was brought by rescuers to the Bryan hospital before the baby was born.
“The store got hit for the essentials,” he said, “milk, bread, cigarettes, beer and toilet paper.”
And beyond the emergency information, the station provided a way for people to stay connected. “We didn’t have many of the things we have today,” Priest said. “We didn’t have cell phones. We didn’t have computers and the Internet. We didn’t have 100 or more channels on cable.”
To help people pass the time, he said, the radio station took calls from listeners discussing previous storms, sharing recipes or explaining how they were surviving the blizzard.
“We were just trying to make it a better experience for everybody,” he said.
Priest said he was impressed that as the storm progressed, “We started thinking about the people around us — neighbors started checking on neighbors.”
The only place to sleep at the station was on the floor, he said, adding “Consequently, none of us got enough sleep.”
The blizzard hit on a Thursday. “When I finally got home Saturday,” he said, “I slept about 24 hours.”
No deaths were attributed to the blizzard in Williams County, but there were 51 blizzard-related deaths in Ohio, Priest explained. And nine months later, he noted, “there was an explosion of births at the hospital.”
One of the things that came out of the blizzard was the annual WBNO-WQCT Blizzard Sell-a-thon, in which donated items are auctioned to benefit local organizations.
“We’ve raised over $750,000 for organizations right here in Williams County,” Priest said. “I’ve never missed one of those. I’ve always volunteered.’
The week after the blizzard, Priest noted, the Bee Gees still topped the music charts, but with a new song. It was, he said, “Staying Alive.”
From Sue Buehrer (who kept a diary of the blizzard):
Wednesday January 25, 1978:
It started snowing early this morning. A heavy wet snow and by 8:30am about 2 inches covered everything. The roads were a little slick when I went into work, but by noon it had stopped. After work, my niece Lisa and I went to West Unity to my brother John’s basketball game.
On the way home, the weather report on the Ft Wayne radio station had a blizzard warning posted with 4-8 inches overnight and 4 more on Thursday. The wind was supposed to start blowing and cause drifting and whiteouts. About 8:30pm a light snow started to fall and by the time we went to bed around 11:30pm the wind had picked up.
Thursday January 26, 1978:
I woke up about 6:00am to the howl of the wind. My bedroom windows are frosted over and I can not see out side. At 7:45am my clock radio came on and they are in the middle of announcing factory closings, so we know that the schools are closed. Almost everything in the county is closed, factories, stores, schools, banks and grocery stores. On the Bryan and Ft. Wayne radio stations, it sounds like all of Indiana and Ohio are in an emergency situation. Mom is concerned that her sisters are stranded in Chicago on a shopping outing.
Dad, Ken and John went out to get the tractor out to go feed the chickens at my Grandpa’s about 1 to 1 1/2 miles from our house. Dad decided the tractor with the snow blade will not make it through the drifts. He put the tractor back in the barn and came in to warm up.
He is real worried about his father being alone and trying to go out to take care of the chickens, so when Ken and John suggested that they walk over, he did not object. My 2 brothers (age 19 and 14) bundled up for the walk over to Grandpa’s. They are excited to get out in the snow, not thinking about how cold it was. The boys were told to stop at the neighbors along the way to warm up and if it was too cold, to stay put.
It was 10:10 when they left in the blowing snow. About 5 minutes after they left, the radio said the current temperature is 6˚ and the wind-chill factor is -55˚. The Sheriff’s department is asking that everyone stay home unless it is an emergency and then call them and they will try to come and get you. Dad was really regretting letting the 2 boys walk to Grandpa’s. It has been 35 minutes and the boys have not called. The forecast is for 4-6 more inches of snow and the wind is getting stronger. We called my uncle Jack’s and they have not seen Ken and John.
The phones have been real busy this morning. Various Aunts and Uncles have been checking in to make sure everyone is safe and ok.
Everyone says this is the worst storm they can remember since 1918. WBNO has people calling in to tell what they remember about that storm and comparing it to today. The blizzard warning will continue today and tonight.
We just got a call that the boys made it to Grandpa’s ok and will stay at Uncle Jack’s until the storm clears. It took them about 1 hour to walk a little over 1 mile.
Mom has a headache and went to lie down, so Dad and I are looking at what we can fix for lunch. In looking out the north window, you cannot see the woods on the other side of the pond and the wind seems to be worse. One of the neighbors called to see if Ken and John made it ok. They had stopped at her house to warm up on the way and she was worried.
The weather on Toledo TV calls for blizzard warnings today and tonight. The State of Ohio is declared a state of emergency. I tried to take some pictures, but they are just white blurs. The snow on the steps by the house is about 5’ deep.
I called one of my uncles in Defiance and he said Mom’s sisters were stranded in Chicago until the trains are running again. One of their kids lost electricity and they tried to make it to someone else’s house with a 4-wheel drive vehicle but got stuck in the snow and had to go back. The power was off from 4:30AM to 9:00AM. No one is traveling in Defiance.
WBNO radio is asking people to call in and tell what they are doing. It sounds like playing games and making cookies are what most people are doing to pass the time. Grandpa called and reassured Dad that the chickens were ok. The feed delivery man came on Thursday so they will have enough feed to last.
A lady just called WBNO and said she just moved here from California and she thinks the snow is great!
It is now 2:50PM in the afternoon and it has been snowing and blowing steadily since about 3:00AM. I’ll bet it takes us at least 3 days to dig out from this mess. I had the walkie-talkie on for a while and listened to some guy trying to find some fuel oil. WBNO is now having an anniversary party, anyone can call in and wish anyone else happy birthday or happy anniversary.
My sister Robin in Bryan called and said they were staying put. No cars can be on the streets in Bryan unless it is an emergency. You can be fined and put in jail for 6 months if you disregard the warning.
I bundled up and went out to let the dog, Clifford out for a little bit. The wind is so strong; I could hardly walk to the barn and back. I am sure glad Ken and John made it to Grandpa’s. After Dad woke up from his nap, we went out to feed the dogs. We couldn’t even see their coops! I dug Goldie out from under about 4 feet of snow. The snow drifted over the roof of the barn and covered both dogs’ houses. They each had a small section where they could breathe through the drift. We moved them into the barn and fed and watered them and the cats.
We then checked the gas tank for the furnace to make sure the snow wasn’t covering up the regulator and stuff. We checked the gauge and it was only 20% full. Friday is their normal delivery date and Dad is worried that they won’t be able to make it through the snow drifts and we will run out of fuel.
Aunt Joyce called to check on us and said they are all home and ok. The 6:00PM news on TV says the blizzard warnings will be taken down at midnight, but the winds are to keep blowing.
About 8:00pm, I called and talked with Ken. He said the snow was really deep on their way and a couple of times he had to pull John out of a drift. They were dressed warm enough for the walk but the wind was stronger than they anticipated.
Now the Toledo news is saying the blizzard warning will last all night with 2-4 more inches of snow. Mom is on the phone with my oldest brother, Randy who lives over by Archbold. They are in the same situation.
We turned down the thermostat to save fuel, so it is getting a little cool just sitting and reading. Mom and I both are wrapped in a blanket. The path Dad and I dug out to the barn around 5PM is now drifted over.
It is now 11:30PM and the weather has not improved. The bank where I work is closed tomorrow and the weather report says about the same thing; cold, snow and windy.
The last time I looked out, the drifts on the bushes by the door were almost up to the windows. Looking toward the barn, it looks like it is almost up to my car windows. The wind is still blowing.
Friday January 27, 1978:
The wind has died down and the snow has stopped so about 10:00am, Dad, Mom and I went out and dug out the dog’s coops and checked on the gas level. It now shows 18% remaining. Dad tried to get the tractor out be we decided to wait until after lunch. We left the dogs, Bruno and Goldie loose to run in the snow. They were having a blast. Bruno treed a cat so after lunch, Dad tied them up again.
About 1:30pm, Dad got the tractor out and made a path in our drive way. When I went out, we started on the road. Our neighbor Phil Meyers came out to help and we started clearing the road going north to Route 6. The snow was about 2 – 3 feet deep on the road by the pond. Dave Heer was working from his house south. They got within about 20 feet of each other and could not go any farther. Under the snow was a layer of ice. The tractors would just sit and spin.
We came home and got more shovels. Linda Heer, Phil and I shoveled out a big drift on the hill. Dave and Dad tried to go through with the tractors, but go stuck. We shoveled out the tractor and he backed up, turned around and drove through. Once he was through, they could clear the drift from both sides. The road was clear up to Ralph and Lenore Heer’s on the corner.
We went into Heer’s to warm up as they continued to work with the tractors. Dad got stuck again with the tractor, so we went out to help dig out. We had to get some grit to put under the tires to get traction on the ice. We have about 30 yards to go to have County Road 20 cleared out to Route 6. The only traffic we see on Route 6 is snowplows trying to make it through the drifts.
We came home for supper around 6:00PM and were so tired we did not go back out to finish since we could not go anywhere on Route 6 until Saturday.
Saturday January 28, 1978:
When I woke up, Dad was already out with the tractor. I went out to feed the dogs and it was very quiet and calm. Dad came home about noon and our road was cleared out to Route 6. After lunch he wants to check on a couple of elderly neighbors if he can get through with the tractor. We tried to call our gas delivery man and did not get an answer. The radio is buzzing with people running out of groceries, medicine and fuel or having health problems. Many people with snowmobiles are volunteering to help.
Mom and I went out to water the dogs and burn the trash. We cleaned a path around the barn and shoveled out my car. The snow drifts were up to the windows and packed around the front and side of the car. I started the car, but could only move it a couple of feet.
Dad came home and after checking on neighbors, found no one in an emergency, but several were running low on food and fuel. He assured them that if the roads were not cleared, he would come back to bring them over to our house.
We finally got through to our LP gas man and they said we would be ok for an additional 2-3 days, but they would get trucks out as soon as the roads were clear and safe.
The snowplow came through from the north and got stuck south of our house in a drift that was about 8’. They backed out and turned around. They stopped and thanked Dad and Dave for clearing the path with the tractor. The road was cleared from the south so all houses were able to get out, but through traffic on the road was blocked by the big drift for about a week until they got a plow big enough to go through and clear the road. As the snow plows began moving and clearing roads, life in rural Williams County slowly returned to normal.