Outside the Classroom - The March 1881 spring snowstorm

by Julie Mecikalski

Nothing excites Wisconsin winter sports enthusiasts more than a good dumping of snow. Whether it is skiing, snowmobiling, or snowshoeing, Wisconsinites do not mind the white stuff blanketing the ground for a few months. That is, with the exception of those who hate the cold and snow. These people dread the winter months and many planned their migrations to the south to those warm, sunny locations at the beginning of the season.

Many people cringe at the thought of snow in March when springtime is creeping upon those who crave the bright, sunny days and put the long dreary periods of time behind them. However, it is Wisconsin, and the climate can easily turn on a dime—and, at times, without warning. In researching spring snowstorms of the past, it is interesting to note there have been numerous historical snowstorms, and in some cases, blizzards in the Juneau County area. The snowstorm/blizzard of March 1881, was considered one of the worst in Wisconsin history.

The earliest spring blizzard on record occurred on March 2- 4, 1881. This storm attacked central and southern Wisconsin dumping a mere two feet of snow with Milwaukee receiving over 28 inches of snow. Drifts in some spots were as high as 20 feet. Between February 24 through March 20, many parts of central and southern Wisconsin saw as much as 63 inches of snow, and none of it was lake-effect.

This storm started with rain on February 26. The rain was pretty much drizzle and it included lightning. Eventually, the rain changed to ice, and then snow which included strong, gusty winds from the northeast. The snow got heavier and blocked streets and sidewalks as well as piling the snow into drifts of six to eight feet high.

Railroads and highways were halted. People stayed home or wherever they happened to be at the time. It seemed to look like a ghost town. Businessmen were shoveling outside their places of business, but women were rarely seen at the time. There were great demands for rubber goods (i.e., boots). Teams of horses had to pull plows to remove snow from the streets.

People in the rural areas reported of digging tunnels from their homes to the barns or to the road. In many places, all forms of communication were cut off. Snow was piled as high as 16 to 20 feet. Food could not be delivered in, so those with cows and chickens made quick work for meals. A past issue of The Wisconsin State Journal observed, “A peculiar fact to be noted, is that the first persons to break a road are the drivers of brewery teams, who rush in where milkmen fear to tread and butchers stand back in mute admiration.” The Wisconsin Historical Society referenced, “The snow crusted so solid that sleighs sailed over fences and new routes evolved between rural towns. In the Northwoods, loggers hauled ox teams on top of the crust and cut off trees at snow level. Years afterward, 15- and 20-foot-tall stumps were still standing in many places.”

May future Juneau County snowstorms in March never be comparable to those in March 1881.