October is full of surprises

October is full of surprises
Thank goodness we don't live in Buffalo, NY! The folks there got a foot of snow – and winter is weeks away.

I'll take October in South Dakota, thank you. As William Bliss Carman wrote in his A Vagabond Song, "There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir."

Or Helen Hunt Jackson (she died in 1885 when South Dakota wasn't even a state yet) who penned,


"O suns and skies

and clouds of June,

And flowers

of June together,

Ye cannot rival for one hour October's bright

blue weather."

I liked what she wrote, but then I recall reading about the Hard Winter of 1880-81 when the October weather made the people of the prairie forget about the daffodils and hollyhocks of June.

(Now isn't that a sneaky way to start a history lesson?)

On October 15, 1880, a 24-hour snowstorm – unseasonably severe – blanketed eastern Dakota with the white stuff. Folks who had been around for a few years were surprised by the depth of the snow, but they weren't particularly concerned because they knew that warmer weather would come back before Halloween.

Boy, were they wrong!

Not only did the first snowfall fail to go away, but new layers were added to the original ground cover in the days and weeks ahead. It didn't' go away, and more kept coming.

Train service was interrupted as cars were stranded and buried under drifts. Settlers depended on the fuel and foodstuff they carried, especially coal, flour and coffee.

Dwellings were completely covered; telegraph poles just barely peeked out from under the drifts; and a train trying to make it from Sioux Falls to Sioux City – the steam driven locomotive powered by ear corn because there was no coal – was stopped by a pile of snow 400 feet long when the shoveling crew couldn't keep ahead of the drifting.

Folks hadn't heard of El Ni�o yet, and there was no warning as forecasters – a few that were functioning – were caught unaware. Their warnings could not be heard because there was no radio or television. The October storms continued off and on from the 10th month till March. Then springtime weather began to melt what had accumulated during the past five months.

(There followed the Flood of '81 on the Missouri which nearly wiped out Vermillion and I for all intents and purposes, brought an end to the steamboat fleet on the river. But that's another story!)

The Hard Winter lasted until spring – and I'm telling you this so you won't become complacent. Helen's verse is intriguing, but you should be wary.

October is full of surprises, so if your blood is afire – as Carman wrote – you have to be ready for anything.

Me? I'm going to enjoy the falling leaves, the crisp, cool air and not worry about what happened a long, long time ago.

There is so much going on in October: birds flocking together for the long flight south, soy beans and corn being harvested and, of course, pursuing the wily ring-necked pheasant – so relax and enjoy the 10th month, which was named October (for the Latin octo, meaning eight) because it was the eighth month in the old Roman calendar.

Incidentally, October's birthstone is the opal and its flower is the calendua or the cosmos, in case you wanted to know.

© 2006 Robert F. Karolevitz

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