C Notes: Recalling the Blizzard of ’78

January 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: George C. Wilson grew up in “lower Scottville Heights” in the 1960s and 1970s. George C. is the son of “Big George” Wilson. He has taken the helm of leading the Scottville Clown Band on the street and announcing during concerts as Big George has semi-retired from his 60-plus year duties. I would describe George C. as a walking encyclopedia of history, whether it’s world or local. His is a media specialist for Rockford Public Schools but still holds Scottville dear to his heart. His column will reminisce about life growing up in his home town, Scottville (among other topics!).   

 

George C. Wilson

C-Notes

By GEORGE C. WILSON

Hello everyone. I am George C. Wilson. MCC class of 1979. Some of you may know me but most you do know my father Big George Wilson – street leader of the Scottville Clown Band since 1947, former mayor of the city of Scottville and local media personality for many decades in the gem of the west coast of Michigan – Mason County. I am offering up an attempt at a regular feature column for Rob Alway’s revival of the Mason County Press.

 

So let’s get going with this installment of C Notes.

 

The winter of 1977 – 78 was one for the books in Mason County. A staggering amount of snow fell that year. As a junior at MCC that year I was very much attuned to the weather as all students usually are when hopes for snow days fill their heads. The Blizzard of 1978 stands out as the most significant weather event to hit the state during the latter half of the 20th century. What follows is a reminiscence of that magnificent storm.

 

I recall the storm hit mid-week in January. As a member of the MCC wrestling team I was anticipating the big show down match coming up on Thursday. The Spartans were going head to head with the Shelby Tigers. The winner would take a commanding lead in the West Michigan Conference championship race. The Spartans were coached by Mike Keenan who was building a power house wrestling program and teaching earth science. The tale of that team will be a feature in a later column, perhaps.

 

Coach Keenan came to practice Wednesday afternoon with a message for his boys. We had already rolled out the mats in the cafeteria and some of us were glancing out the huge windows looking out over the school courtyard. Snow was falling from a dark gray sky and the wind was stirring up mini tornados of fine flakes. Coach announced “Boys, I don’t think we will be wrestling Shelby tomorrow. In fact we may be out of school for a while.”

 

Reader Mary Beth Nelson submitted this photograph that was taken at her parents' house at the corner of Fitch and Gaylord in Ludingon in 1978.

The excited response had many members of the team asking why. Coach informed us that he had watched his classroom barometer fall farther and faster that afternoon than he had ever seen or even heard of. Needless to say the response from the assembled wrestlers was enthusiastic. Coach, of course, still conducted one of his signature grueling practices and as we left the school almost three hours later we were greeted with the opening blows of the massive blizzard of 78. Walking home with a vicious northwest wind pushing me along I had visions of being out of school for maybe two whole days.

 

In fact it would be much longer than that.

 

My father made it home later that evening. There may have been one of the famous post

work ‘meetings’ of the Ludington Daily News staff at the Elks Club – I don’t recall for sure. Big George is not one for being impressed by weather extremes. But he had an announcement to make about the weather. The tone in his voice was one of awe and exasperation. “We’re in for a bad one. The county trucks are heading in – they can’t keep up.”

 

A bad one indeed. There are many varying reports of the amount of snow that fell. It was more snow than I have ever seen from one storm. There was a fair amount of snow on the ground before it all started and the storm dumped a couple of feet more for sure. I won’t engage in hyperbole – I’ll leave that to coots older than myself. Suffice to say the next day nothing was moving in Mason County. The snow emergency had the roads closed and people hunkered down watching the wind push up enormous drifts that crested over the roofs of two story buildings.

 

Don Klemm submitted this picture from his house, 1978, on South Rowe Street in Ludington.

Like many young boys I was thrilled with the thought of braving the storm so early the next afternoon I insisted on going out. I pulled on all the warm gear I could fit into topped off by a dingy green USAF flight suit Big George had liberated from Uncle Sam 30 years prior. Lastly I put on gloves and a two tone brown acrylic knit winter hat. Side note – I still have that hat and when I pull it out of the closet every winter I always think of the blizzards of my youth. Properly equipped for a polar expedition I exited the front door of the Wilson house on east State Street to be greeted by drift of snow that stood my height encircling the front porch of the old brick cottage. Ma Wilson leaned out the door

calling “Shovel a path through that!”

 

I looked over my shoulder and asked “To where?” I didn’t wait for her response and a shoulder dove through the bank of snow into the front yard.

 

Do you remember the old Michigan license plates that had “Water Winter Wonderland” emblazoned on them? Well what greeted me that afternoon was the winter part. State Street, U.S. 10, was a two track. Huge drifts faced all the houses on the street. Sidewalks were hip deep with snow and nowhere to be seen in a field of white. Heading west towards downtown Scottville I made slow progress. In 20 minutes I covered the two blocks to the corner of State and Main. The wind was staggering and the visibility was near zero. I stood under the Scottville’s only stop light and took in the sights.

 

Downtown Ludington in the winter of '78, submitted by Don Klemm.

No one was about – they all had more sense than a 16-year-old boy. There was a forlorn road closed barricade on north main sticking up out of a growing snow drift. That was all the direction I needed. North I went.

 

The corner of Broadway and Main was nearly drifted shut. Several feet of snow covered the lots of the three gas stations there. The gas station lot on the north east corner had a car parked under all of that snow. It was the mint green Ford Falcon convertible owned by Mark Morton – the oldest of the three Morton boys of south Scott Street – I think he worked at the station at the time and he was forced to leave it there and hoof it home during the storm. I couldn’t see it of course. Neither, apparently, did the guy plowing snow a few days later with a pay loader. He pushed the car up and into the giant snow

mountain that towered all winter long between the station and Broadway Avenue. Those of us who walked to school on Broadway were treated to watching the slow reveal of the mint green car over the course of the spring thaw. It reached the ground sometime in early April. I doubt the old Falcon ever ran again.

 

After about two hours of adventure in the blizzard I made it back home. I spent the rest the afternoon huddled in front of the wall furnace in the Wilson family living room. Ma Wilson spent the day cussing at my little brother Harvey and I to get out and get the walk shoveled. That didn’t occur until much later.

 

The next few days were the stuff of legend for the teen age boys I grew up with. Saturday afternoon I ventured out on my cross country skis east of town. I trudged through the bean field behind the county road commission and the railroad tracks looking to get to the hill we called Greenway – a favorite sledding spot for the kids of the east side of Scottville. I thought skiing down it might be possible. On the way there I followed the edge of the gully that ran from behind old Doc Etchison’s veterinary office down to the river flats.

 

Downtown Ludington in 1978, submitted by Don Klemm.

A good portion of the gully was not guarded by trees and was exposed to the bean field. During the blizzard it had drifted nearly shut. I broke trail on my skis near the edge of what I assumed to be firm ground beneath the snow. Not quite. Above the sound of the wind the cracking noise of a large snow mass giving way could be heard. I instinctively dove away as the drift broke free and avalanched to the bottom of the 30 foot ravine. The crumpled thud sounded like thunder to me.

 

I pulled myself upright and gazed into the chasm. Like all teens who had just narrowly escaped death I was thrilled and uttered a few choice words followed by “Cool!”

 

When I got home I called as many friends as I could. I am a little fuzzy on the members of the gallant band that braved the wind and snow the next day but about a half dozen or more of us stood at the edge of the gully looking down a 20 foot plus snow wall. Present for sure were Mike Drier, Bruce and Barry Gillette and perhaps Jim Lindenau, Tom Urka and my little brother. We spent hours causing avalanches and riding them down the ravine. It was a mixture of pure joy with just enough danger to get the adrenalin going.

 

We pushed ourselves to exhaustion, frost bite and beyond. I don’t think we were in any real danger but a couple of times we had to dig out our companions from a few feet of snow as they cursed and laughed. Where we got the energy to scale up that snow face again and again

 

I haven’t a clue. Every time the wind blew for the next several weeks we would head out through the bean field to check the conditions for more of what we called “drift bustin.”

 

The week following the storm was filled with adventures in the wild white wilderness our hometown had become, including an incident where I was resting in a snow drift in the middle of Broadway Avenue – I think it was during a prolonged snowball fight – when I heard a muffled roar. I popped up out of my snug hole in a five foot drift to be confronted by Scottville Department of Public Works pay loader 20 feet away busting through drifts.

 

I don’t know who was more frightened – me or the driver. I do remember the surprise on his face and him shaking his fist at me as I leapt to safety behind some nearby mail boxes.

 

There was also an evening about a week after the storm hit when a group of us were participating in another hobby we had picked up. We were walking up drifts onto people’s homes and other buildings in town. Sometimes we would leap from the roof into the drifts below. We got it in our head that we could leap from the big black outdoor vinegar tanks at Richter Vinegar Works on south Elm Street.

 

There were five or six of us standing on the tank cover looking down before somebody wised up, Bruce Gillette, I think and he mentioned a 25 foot jump into unknown snow depth could be dangerous. In a rare moment of clarity we all agreed so we trooped back down the access stairs and looked elsewhere for our feats of daring do.

 

Kim Kaines submitted this photo, taken downtown Ludington 1978

Later that evening we climbed a tall drift and walked onto the flat roof of the shingled garage behind the O’Hearn house on the corner of Blaine and East State Streets. The garage was famous in town because it was packed with old jukeboxes the eccentric Mr. O’Hearn had collected. Years later the roof collapsed and all those vintage Jukeboxes were ruined but even then Mr. O’Hearn refused all offers to sell them.

I am sure we would have caught hell if anyone in the house had seen us standing on top of the five feet of snow that covered the roof of the old garage that night.

 

Nothing stirred in the house as we surveyed the view down south Blaine. My brother Harvey was testing the edge of the south side of the garage roof. I warned him he was actually off the roof and he turned to us and said “No, it’s o…” And he was gone. In a move worthy of the Coyote in the Road

 

Runner cartoons he left a perfect hole in the snow ledge hanging on the leeward side of the garage. Mike Drier howled with laughter as we inched out and looked through the hole. Mike always found great humor in the hapless accidents of others. Harvey was ten feet below stuck in a snow drift up to his arm pits. He glanced up at us with a shocked look on his face. We laughed ourselves sick as we dug him out a few minutes later.

 

There are many more stories from that winter I could share but space and time do not permit. As I said it was a storm and a winter to remember. I think we ended up with about 15 snow days that school year.

 

The C&O carferry docks in winter '78, submitted by Don Klemm.

As a school librarian I still get a small thrill when we miss a day due to one of the piddling storms we get now a days. And I do probably sound like an old coot when I tell younger staff members, many of them born well after the great blizzard, that they don’t know anything about real storms. “Now January 1978 – that was a real storm – let me tell you…” Then eyes begin to roll. I just plow ahead – it is a story worth telling.

 

Oh, and the MCC Wrestling team did beat Shelby in the make-up match and win the conference that season.

 

 

 

‘Til next time

 

gcw

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