It began as a placid spring day. By afternoon, it had begun to rain and then to sleet. And then the great plains showed what they were truly capable of, whether it was meant to be “spring” or not.
A winter storm is a fearsome thing to be sure, but you know to be on your guard in the winter. The problem with a spring storm is that you don’t expect it. It’s rather like being blindsided by a vicious hit in a football match.
That’s what happened on May 2, 1919. The unlooked for blizzard went raging through southern Alberta and left devastation in its wake. Mrs. Dorothy Wright of Keoma, Alberta recorded this in her diary:
“Worst blizzard I have ever seen. Rained during the night and turned to snow this morning. Storm getting worse tonight. Awful night on cattle. Snow drifting badly.”
Worse was to come. On Saturday, May 3rd, Dorothy recorded:
“Drifts between here and the well are are ten feet high…. Cattle lying dead in drifts. Nothing but horns and hooves sticking out. Some of the herd missing.” Incredibly, she reported, “Two calves born in the storm. Mother of one okay and other mother and calf okay. A perfect wonder!”
George Boyack recalled, “The second and third of May 1919 saw the worst storm to hit Alberta with a roaring blizzard out of the northwest. Thousands of cattle were lost as they drifted and perished in the huge snowdrifts.”
The cattle and horses that had been turned out to pasture drifted before the fierce wind with no shelter to be had. It was a catastrophic loss of life and a financial disaster for many ranchers.
By May 4th, the storm was past and everyone was grimly taking account of the damages — and they were calamitous. Hauling dead cattle and horses out of drifts and skinning them for the hides was the order of business over the next few days.
By Tuesday, 6 May, beautiful weather had been restored but Dorothy Wright reported the losses of her neighbour’s cattle:
- Fred Davis — about one half of 600 head.
- Percy Hallam — about 3/4 of 250 head.
- Ben Wilson — 1/3 of 30 head.
- Houston Wray — around 20 head.
- Copleys — 100 head lost.
Just a few miles away from where Dorothy lived, my great-grandparents were coming to grips with the situation. They had pastured cattle and horses on their land at Delacour just a few days before the storm hit.
Two hundred young steers died, along with many horses. It was a crushing blow and my great-grandfather experienced an episode of what we would now recognize as severe depression. It is disputed as to whether it was a neighbour or his wife who sternly informed him, “George, your cattle are dead, your horses are dead, but you’re not dead! Get up and get back to work!” At the time, it was the only mental health support that anyone had to offer.
It is one hundred years on, and we recently had our own spring storm. We experienced for ourselves the unbridled power and force of nature. Now, we do have more protection from storms — but cattle still perish despite the best efforts of dedicated ranchers, and all we can do is watch helplessly as the technology we have come to rely on is rendered useless (electricity is knocked out, our four wheel drive vehicles go sailing into the ditch and our cell phones can only record the disaster).
If anyone is interested, a fascinating read that explores the topic of settlers and the great plains and its violent storms getting to know each other, I highly recommend The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. It’s excellent.