Looking back at the blizzard of 1971 in Huron County
BY DENNY SCOTT
The last few days of January marked 50 years since a blizzard of epic proportions rolled through the area, shutting down roads, knocking out services and resulting in students being storm-stayed at schools for days.
To mark the anniversary of one of the most significant storms to ever hit Huron County, The Citizen reached out to some of the people who lived through it to get their recollections of the great storm of 1971, which began on Jan. 26 at around 10 a.m.
Karen Webster was a Kindergarten teacher at Colborne Central Public School when the storm hit and she found herself storm-stayed with the entire student body and her fellow teachers for four straight days.
“We drove to the school on Tuesday, and you could hardly see,” she said. “It was probably a bad idea.”
She said that, in 1971, buses were left at the school and bus drivers were usually picked up and driven home when school was in session. The result was that, while the buses were at the school that fateful Tuesday, the drivers wouldn’t be able to make it back due to the weather.
It could have been a dire situation as there was little in terms of supplies at the school, Webster said, however the community made sure the students didn’t suffer more than necessary.
“There was a little grocery store in Carlow at the time, and, through snowmobilers, they brought in food,” she said. “The dairy next door to the school, owned by Mr. Treble, provided milk in cans.”
She said that, while some students at schools in urban environments could get home, specifically pointing to communities like Blyth and Londesborough, Colborne was located at a country road intersection, making getting supplies to the school or removing students and sending them home a daunting task at best.
Students ate out of cups and saucers, as that’s what the school had available, enjoying meals like spaghetti, pork and beans or soup from dishes that were intended for social events, Webster said.
Gym mats, drapes, coats and snowmobile suits or, in the case of Kindergarten students, their own blankets brought from home, served as beds, Webster said, and everyone worked together to make sure things went as well as possible.
“We were lucky the hydro and heat were on, and the toilets stayed running,” she said, adding the school had one television and two phones, all of which continued to operate throughout the ordeal. That luck carried through to seeing several students who normally needed daily medication get by without. “Everyone was safe and well throughout the event,” Webster said.
By day, students attended classes just as they normally would, with the exception of music class because the music teacher had become the head chef for the school.
The older students helped out, though Webster does remember the senior girls making the mistake of trying to wash their hair with hand-soap in the bathroom sinks.
“The students were good,” she said. “There were a few sad faces, but we kept them busy. I don’t recall any problems.”
After arriving on Tuesday, Webster was finally able to leave Friday at noon. When she got home, she said she threw out the clothes she had worn for four days, never wanting to see them again.
The school board made some changes as a result of the unexpected event, Webster said, including keeping long-lasting food on hand at the schools in case a similar situation ever arose. The food, however, ended up being thrown out after hitting its expiry date.
Webster said that she’s never seen anything like it and doesn’t expect it would happen again, even if such a “freak” storm made its way through Huron County.
“I find now the schools close a lot quicker if there’re concerns,” she said, though she admits that, even in the 1970s, the storm was an outlier and not expected.
THE DELIVERY SERVICE
While Tom and Cheryl Cronin didn’t officially run a delivery service in the 1970s, they certainly took to the mantle during the storm, making sure everything from electricity to groceries to veterinarians got where they needed to be.
Cheryl, an educator by trade, was on maternity leave with a four-week-old baby at home, and she and Tom owned the Home Hardware in town, located where the Wild Goose Studio is currently located. The couple lived above the store.
“Tuesday morning was about the time the weather man was starting to talk about flurries coming in,” Cheryl said. “One thing I remember in particular was looking to the north end of Blyth and I could see the weather was definitely changing.”
At the time, Cheryl said, her mother was the principal at Walton Public School, and Cheryl called her encouraging her to send the children home as soon as possible.
“She did, and she and the students got home,” Cheryl said of her mother. “I think it was one of the few rural schools that did not have to billet or keep children overnight at the school. That was good news there.”
Cheryl and Tom watched the storm hit all day and it didn’t take long for Queen Street to be completely filled up with snow. She said she remembers seeing a picture of a utility truck being buried to the cab at the north end of the village. As a result, a utility crew ended up stuck in the village overnight, which proved to be serendipitous.
“In the middle of the night, at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, I woke up and our bedroom was really cold,” Cheryl recalls. We had this new baby, so it was a concern. We realized there was no [electricity].”
Tom immediately started to look to see if he could find the problem, going to get town foreman Billy Thuell to assess the problem.
The two started looking for the cause, ruling out blown transformers before, via snowmobile, travelling to the village’s substation, located where the Millstone elevators are now located at Walton Road and Elevator Line.
After identifying the problem, Tom and Thuell returned to town and enlisted the help of the stranded utility crew to repair the site, alongside Murray Govier, who helped Tom transport the crew to the substation. The crew then returned to the Cronin home where, thanks to an early shopping trip, they enjoyed a 5 a.m. breakfast.
After breakfast, Tom and Thuell then utilized Tom’s snowmobile again to check on the electricity all the way to Londesborough to make sure students at Hullett Central Public School wouldn’t go without.
“Snowmobilers in town just sort of teamed up in groups of two or three and they were constantly helping people,” she said, adding that local radio station CKNX and its staff helped to co-ordinate efforts.
Tom, meanwhile, was delivering medicine to a nearby farm as a young child needed insulin. From there he travelled south of Londesborough to the Greidanus farm to pick up veterinarian Dr. Ken Jackson.
“He had been called out to the Greidanus farm on Tuesday and was storm-stayed and he needed to get back to Blyth,” Tom said. “His son Graham was storm-stayed in Wroxeter, so there was no one to do the chores. I went and got him and brought him back to Blyth… after stopping in Londesborough for some heavier clothes for Jackson from Mr. Radford.”
Between his impromptu delivery/taxi service and Cheryl’s bird’s eye view of the community, the two saw some real dangers as a result of the storm.
“Tom remembers travelling on the snowmobile was like a roller coaster, with huge mounds and valleys,” Cheryl said.
Tom said that was the way of it, mentioning that on his travels with Dr. Jackson, there were some deep hollows that took time to traverse.
Tom also took Gaye Datema, an employee of the Cronin’s Home Hardware store, back home as a result of the storm, and said the trip was difficult.
“There were lots of trips to take people where they needed to go,” Cheryl said.
While they didn’t change much about their lives as a result of their storm experience, Cheryl said there were a number of things that were modified going forward.
“Principals were in charge of closing down their own schools at the time,” she said. “As a result of that storm, they were quicker to check out the weather and call the buses off and close the school.”
She also said the storm proved the usefulness of snowmobiles, as the people who were helping to deliver goods and stranded people were lauded as heroes in a way.
“Up until that time, they were mostly for winter [recreational] activities,” Cheryl said. “People really saw the value in them after that.”
She said proof of that came in a thank-you that the local Ontario Provincial Police posted in The Blyth Standard after the blizzard. Provincial Constable H. A. Tighe wrote that, before the storm, people were asking for snowmobiles to be banned, or saying they were nuisances.
“I think you will agree, these are a far cry from the remarks made during the storm,” Tighe wrote, going on to thank everyone who assisted the OPP and the community during the recent storm.
When the storm started to roll in, Frank and Marian Hallahan, alongside their oldest son Steve, at the time, just a toddler at seven months old, were living on Currie Line. Marian remembers that, even the day before the storm hit, life was pretty normal.
“Monday was not a bad day,” Marian said of Jan. 25, 1971. “The radio kept talking about the barometer dropping, but no one was listening. Tuesday morning started light, but then wham, it was like pulling a white blind down in front of you as the storm started.”
The couple lived on a small acreage at the time with beef cattle, but even the barn, which was a short walk from the house, was completely hidden by the sudden storm, Marian said.
“Frank had old milk cans, so he filled them all up with water, just in case we lost [electricity],” she said. “We were very lucky we didn’t and the telephone didn’t go out. But we had water in case we needed it.”
The couple was fortunate, Marian said, in that they had unknowingly prepared for the big storm.
“We had lots of heating oil and the wood stove,” she said. “I had done a big grocery shopping trip on the weekend prior, so we had lots of groceries and the freezer.”
She said, when people talk about the storm, no one realized it would blow in so fast, so her family was fortunate to have stocked up on supplies beforehand.
The family, aside from having meals and Frank heading out to the barn when possible, stayed glued to the radio.
“Back then, you really interacted with the radio station, “ she said. “You could phone in and find out things.”
The family also spent some time watching television as, for over three days, their property was completely isolated by the blizzard.
Frank’s trips to the barn were at 3 p.m., because it was a little bit brighter then, Marian said.
“He had to be back in before dark,” she said. “I’d never let him go out after dark in that. It’s too easy to get turned around in the snow.”
Frank explained he had to take hot water with him to thaw the water lines in the barn, then hook the hose up to provide water to the animals before feeding with grain and hay.
“When the wind finally died down, after three days, we could see the neighbours’ fields and trees,” she said.
Their neighbour, Brian Black, had a snowmobile and reached out to offer his services in picking up supplies. The Hallahans also kept in touch with their elderly neighbours to make sure they were faring well through the event.
While the blizzard lasted over three days, it would take more than a week after that before the family could leave the farm, Marian said.
“The way the snow blew in, it took a long time for the road to be cleared,” she said. “Eight days later, we saw Harold Kerr’s big bulldozer clearing the road.”
She said, living on a rural side road, it took some time before they were able to get out, however the family was doing well compared to people who had been storm-stayed somewhere away from home.
“We were lucky,” she said. “It was just a challenge that we were able to meet.”
Marian said there were some amazing stories that came out of the blizzard, like the women from Belgrave coming together to help the students storm-stayed at East Wawanosh Public School.
“They baked like crazy,” she said. “[Snowmobilers] took the food to the school.”
She also said there were some harrowing tales, like those from her own siblings, students at Goderich District Collegiate Institute at the time, who had to walk a country mile in the blizzard because their school bus couldn’t get them further than Auburn. Her younger siblings were attending school in Kingsbridge, and were able to be dropped off at home.
The family changed some habits as a result of the storm, Marian said, including becoming more aware of the weather in general.
“With school buses, we really pay attention to the barometer,” she said. “I had a barometer and watched it and knew not to send the kids to school if it was dropping…. We also kept the pantry full.”
Marian said she’s had a fair bit of experience with storms, having been born during the blizzard of 1947, and then living through the 1971 blizzard.
Bill Black, a principal who spent years at local schools, including Blyth Public School, was a principal at Colborne Central Public School when the blizzard hit and he remembers it as being full of unique challenges.
When he arrived at work on Jan. 26, he said it felt like a normal day with some wet snow, or even rain, in the morning.
He received a call early in the day from a local person who said the barometer was “dropping off the wall” and added a storm had just hit Chicago, which usually means it would hit Huron County shortly after. The caller suggested sending kids home, however the bus drivers couldn’t make it in.
“The buses, which were left in the parking lot, were without operators, meaning that the students couldn’t really go anywhere,” Black said.
After some bus operators tried to make it in but couldn’t, Black received a call from a representative of the local school board saying the students were likely stuck there until the next day. “It was quite an experience,” Black said.
The first day wasn’t bad, he said, as students had their lunches, but the staff had to start preparing for the impromptu sleepover at the school.
“We took the drapes off the windows,” he said, while lauding the physical education teacher for having ordered plenty of extra gym mats. “Thank goodness, the [electricity] stayed on, or else we wouldn’t have had water.”
He said the community really came together to help the students, starting with a local farmer with a four-wheel-drive tractor coming to pick up his children, while also delivering food from the Carlow grocery store.
Thanks to efforts like that, the students had plenty of supplies to get them through, Black said, though there was plenty of work for everyone to do, including Black who was pulling triple-duty.
Due to some staff that weren’t in, he was teaching Grade 8 classes, overseeing some students managing the phones for the school and doing his job as principal.
He also helped lead a couple sing-songs, playing along on his guitar, and ran some volleyball games to help keep the kids busy.
“The students were quite good,” he said. “Those who were having a tough time of it could talk to their parents on the school phones.”
He was also keeping an eye on two students who were epileptic, which kept him awake for most of the three days the students were at the school.
“There wasn’t a lot of sleep for the adults,” he said.
Wednesday rolled around and there wasn’t much change in the weather. Fortunately, due to the accumulating snow, there was only one way to exit the school, which made it easy to make sure no one was coming or going without being noticed. The buses were completely covered in snow, he said, so it was obvious the sleep-over was going to continue at the school for another day.
More supplies came via snowmobilers, but, due to the hills and valleys created by the natural geography and compounded by the snow, some of the supplies ended up strewn across fields between the grocery stores and the school, Black said.
Thursday, the weather cleared a little and a bus from Brookside Public School was able to take some students home. Others were picked up by snowmobiles, but then the weather took a turn for the worse, keeping the rest of the students at the school.
Come Friday, everyone was ready to go home and fortunately the storm had cleared. Black said he spent most of the day on the phone with bus operators and families making sure everyone was going to get home that day.
The ordeal was over, Black said, and he was happy to get home and get into a change of clothes before he slept most of the weekend to make up for the rest he’d missed while leading the school.
The Blyth Standard for Feb. 3, 1971, had several stories about the storm that locked down the county, covering everything from how the schools had fared to the fact that the newspaper was a bit slimmer than normal.
The staff at The Standard said the “abbreviated edition” was due to the storm, which not only prevented work on the publication but also limited the events to be covered. The impact of the storm also had the staff of The Standard debating whether an issue would even be possible with the storm having prevented the previous week’s issue from being delivered and the bad weather continuing to Monday.
“There just isn’t that much news to fill the regular pages, or for that matter, much time to do printing,” the article said. “But anyway, we have decided to publish as much as possible.”
The article also detailed the innovations that occurred as a result of the storm, including snowmobile owners and operators being lauded for their efforts.
An article also details how East Wawanosh Public School became a temporary home for 90 students and numerous staff members, including a ditto machine repair-man.
Articles also detailed how the storm was weathered in Londesborough and Auburn.