Lost in a Blizzard
Sudden Storm Causes Terror
"Lost in a Blizzard." Prairies 7, no. 7: June/July 1984, 13-18.
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What would you do if your small daughter were lost somewhere out in the country during a raging blizzard?
Such a harrowing incident happened to Katherina George in 1912.
Her seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was in her first year of country school. The George family lived on a farm about 13 miles east of Ashley, and Elizabeth was a very happy little girl when she could finally join her older brothers and sisters and go off to school.
The little country school was about three miles away from Emmanuel and Katherina’s farm. When the weather was warm, the George children often hiked. As it grew colder, they rode in wagons and then sleds, bundled up as much as possible to protect them from the biting wind and cold.
The terrible blizzard which had such a devastating effect on the young Elizabeth occurred in January. The storm came suddenly, like a racing locomotive.
The teacher at Coldwater District School, Amanda Ramhold, became frightened when none of the men came to school to fetch the children, which was the normal procedure during a blizzard emergency. As the storm’s intensity increased, the terrified young woman made her tragic error: she dismissed school and took the children to a neighboring farm a few miles away, the Keppert farm. If she had waited just a little longer, men from the children’s families would have reached the school. But the teacher had no way of knowing that.
Despite fierce winds and blinding snow, she struggled with a horse and sled, eventually arriving at the Keppert farm with all the children safe. However, at the farm, the teacher faced a new calamity. Keppert was gravely ill and could offer little assistance.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s older brother, Jake, stumbled into the schoolhouse, only to find it empty! Panic-stricken, he feared his younger sisters had ventured out into the storm and had become lost. Searching everywhere along the way as he trudged homeward, he desperately sought for some sign of the little girls—but they were nowhere to be found.
When Jake, nearly half frozen, finally reached home with his dismaying report, another brother, Phillip, quickly hitched up a sled to begin the frantic search anew.
In the meantime, Elizabeth’s older sisters, Christina and Katy decided they should try to trek through the hills themselves.
They took Elizabeth with them, and braved the howling storm. It was a terrifying ordeal. The cruel wind buffeted the little girls as if they were made of chaff. Snow swirled everywhere, almost engulfing them at times. The fierce cold was numbing.
Exhausted, Elizabeth wanted to stop to rest.
“I was so tired,” she said.
“No,” screamed Christina. “We’ll freeze to death if we stop. The blizzard will shut us in, and they’ll never find us!”
The girls painfully made their way through two hills and struggled onward into the snowy masses. Then, miraculously, they spied Phillip, his horses’ nose covered with icicles.
He leaped off the sled, terrified and angry at the same time. Not knowing at the time how badly the girls were hurt, he shouted wrathfully, “Just wait till you get home!”
But it was too late. Little Elizabeth’s hands were frozen solid. “It was the most pain I’ve ever had,” she said.
By the time the desperate group fell into their mother’s arms in the safety of their home, Elizabeth was in great misery. They rushed to thaw out her hands and arms with snow, but it hurt Elizabeth so much that they couldn’t continue.
A Strange Remedy
The old people had another remedy to try to stave off freezing, and that was to apply patches of sauerkraut onto the frozen limb. That is what they did to Elizabeth.
Great lumps of sauerkraut were hastily scooped out of barrels and placed onto Elizabeth’s hands and arms. When they removed the sauerkraut, the little girl’s hands had been so badly frozen that the sauerkraut itself was frozen!
Soon, most of the flesh from her hands all the way up to her shoulders dropped off to the very bone. It was terrible. The anguished mother was alone with her children because Emmanuel had ridden the train to Lehr a few days before the storm to be with his father, who was dying. After the blizzard, when he heard the frightful news about Elizabeth, he rushed back home, again by the train. But there was nothing he could do.
“My mother was brave,” said Elizabeth, who survived, and will celebrate her 80th birthday in October. “Whatever she did, it helped.”
Elizabeth remembers her mother as a devout woman. She prayed a
lot. And by some miracle, no gangrene set in.
One of the mother’s biggest fears was that her daughter’s arms would have to be amputated. And then how would the little girl be able to live, especially after the time when the mother herself would die and the armless girl would be by herself?!
Anguishing over this decision, Katherina decided she would try everything in order to save her little girl’s arms.
Someone brought a newspaper clipping which told about how a man had frozen his feet and what was done to save his feet. According to the article, the people had mixed fresh butter made from cream (it was important not to wash the butter out with water) together with a whole egg and Z.M.O. Oil, which the Georges bought at the Ashley drug store. The salve made from those ingredients was then put on Elizabeth’s hands and arms, which were kept bound with clean cloth at all times.
Elizabeth remembers they put the salve on here twice a day, in the mornings and evenings. It was not an easy solution. It took a lot of butter and eggs. And to find sufficient eggs in the winter-time was difficult when the chickens didn’t lay very much.
But the Georges somehow managed. Neighbors also helped a lot. Said Elizabeth: “They were only too glad to save my arms.”
Everyone was gentle with brave little Elizabeth. The teacher felt so bad that she sat on the school’s steps and wept, Elizabeth was told later.
As was expected, the young girl’s recovery was long and grueling. Not able to walk, Elizabeth was gently carried about the small house for the rest of the winter and early spring. She remembers being carried to the windows so that she could laugh at the little calves walking and see the new, green grass.
“They carried me around just like a little kid,” Elizabeth says lovingly of her parents, brothers, and sisters. As she gradually regained her strength, Elizabeth had to learn how to walk again.
The healing took a surprising direction.
Slowly, small bits of red flesh began to appear on Elizabeth’s arms and hands. This was followed by the skin. Eventually her arms were completely healed along with her hands, except for the later remaining somewhat stunted.
In Elizabeth’s case, a mother’s perseverance had won.
Unfortunately, the mother was not as successful with her young son, Phillip, who had rescued the girls during the blizzard.
When Phillip was 19 and was plowing with horses, a bolt on the plow came loose. He tightened it with a wrench, but then the wrench slipped, hitting him on the knee. It seemed like just a harmless accident. Phillip merely rubbed it, and resumed his plowing.
But a painful lump developed, and Phillip’s parents took him to Bismarck to have specialists there treat it.
The doctor’s there were over-zealous in researching the structure of the bone marrow, Elizabeth believes, because they needlessly chiseled a hole into her brother’s bone. After covering the hole with the original bone, the hole became infected.
It filled with pus and blood poison spread throughout Phillip’s body. He suffered a lot, recalls Elizabeth. The flesh on his leg swelled up, and he couldn’t straighten it.
Katherina tried to keep the leg clean at all times, but since it was infected from within, there was little she could do.
To this day, Elizabeth is convinced that if the doctors had just left the bone alone, Phillip would have been alright. The accident happened in the spring and he died in July.
Two additional tragedies confronted the Georges. Katherina became ill and so the children took on extra duties to help the parents.
It was Emmanuel’s custom to take a load of wheat to the Kulm Mill and then bring 1,000 lbs. of flour home. When he brought the supply home, the flour bags were stored in the pantry.
“On this particular day, I helped Dad take the flour in,” said Elizabeth. “He carried the 100-lb. bags and I carried the 50-lb. bags.”
During the process, a 100-lb. bag fell on Elizabeth. It injured her, but she didn’t think too much of it.
Not too many days after the accident, Elizabeth’s mother died. During all of the unsettling events that followed Elizabeth made no mention of the persistent pain in her left side.
It was not until some time later that Selma Strobel and Selma Wagner form neighboring farms who periodically visited the George home to help out in various ways, noticed that something was wrong with Elizabeth.
“Emmanuel,” they told the father, “you have to take Elizabeth to the doctor.”
By the time, the young Elizabeth was in great pain.
“My father took me to a Mrs. Volk, who lived in Wishek. I don’t member her first name,” recalls Elizabeth. “Many people went to her. ‘Your kidney is out of place,’ she said. She massaged it and pushed it back.”
Volk insisted that Elizabeth wear a band tightly bound across her waist. “It’ll keep your kidney from going out again,” she said.
She wore the band a little more than a year. That was in 1918. She has had no further troubles with it since that time.
Accidents and illnesses took their pitiless toll upon the early
pioneers of McIntosh County. But like the George family, many survived
by sheer determination, intelligent home remedies, and a belief,
that somehow, with God’s help, they would succeed.