GREENFIELD — By the time it was over, the worst storm in Indiana history had claimed the lives of 70 people, three of them from Hancock County. It left residents stranded for days without power and made roadways impassable, with some cars left abandoned only to be overtaken by the snow drifts.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78, which hit January 25, 1978, and shrouded the state under an oppressive blanket of snow and ice, closing down schools and workplaces for weeks.
The Daily Reporter invited Hancock Countians past and present to look back on the historic event and share their memories of living through the storm.
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She was certain the weathermen were exaggerating. There was no way it would be as bad as they said — it never was.
And, so what if it was, she’d thought: they still had 10 days until the baby was due to be born, and all her other children came late. The bump under Denise Shields’ sweater was surely going to stay put until the worst of the snow had passed.
Surely, it would.
But Denise Shields woke up that morning in ’78, three days into the storm, and she knew. She told her husband right away it was time. Her son, Clint, was on his way, and he didn’t care that they were stranded on their little farm just outside of Maxwell with no way to get to the hospital safely.
They borrowed a neighbor’s tractor, but it wasn’t strong enough to clear the heavy snow from their driveway, Shields said. The drifts were so high by that point, they’d completely covered the fence around their property. The cattle had walked right off.
She called her doctor, and he said to stay put, laughed at her idea of climbing onto a snowmobile to head for the hospital. If worse came to worst, he’d drive to her home and they’d deliver the baby in the living room, the doctor told her; but she wasn’t to venture out on her own.
Shields thinks the doctor ended up calling the county highway department and requesting that a snowplow and an ambulance pick her up and bring her to the hospital.
They did just that and made it with plenty of time to spare, she said. Her son was born happy and healthy, and they stayed in the hospital for a few days until it was safe to go home.
And every year, as the end of January draws nearer, her family sits together and recalls that little adventure, Shields said.
Her son, Clint, turned out to love the snow and still does. He played hockey for years as a child. He’ll celebrate his 40th birthday this week.
On the road
It was just like those desert winds you see in the movies, the sandstorm so thick, the hero can’t see his own hand in front of his face. That’s what navigating the blizzard felt like, Dennis Smith said.
Smith of Greenfield scanned the pure-white landscape through the frosted windshield of his 1971 International Harvester. The amateur snow plow driver strained his eyes, desperately looking for the right intersection as he plowed along County Road 600N, which at the time was covered with a stack of snow more than 3 feet high.
The CB radio Smith kept in his cab crackled to life, repeating the distress call from a friend he’d heard broadcast hours before. Aggressive snow drifts battered the vehicle relentlessly, but despite the slick road conditions and limited visibility, he carried on with his search.
In the distance, Smith spotted a faint blinking yellow light through the icy mist — his friend’s hazard lights. Found him.
The storm had hit on a Wednesday, and Smith immediately hopped in his truck and started driving around Hancock County, plowing snow.
He took people in need to the hospital, aided police in picking up stranded motorists. He never had to go far to find someone in trouble.
Smith slept in his truck a few hours here and there where he could before hitting the road again in search of more people in need of help.
“You see some little guy out digging in his driveway; you don’t want them to have a heart attack, so you just help them out,” Smith said.
Smith came prepared for the various rescue ops; his four-wheel-drive truck was armed with a plow and snow chains, and he had enough water and rations stocked up to keep himself alive for the rest of the storm. He volunteered his time and efforts until Sunday, when he finally went home for some well-earned sleep.
Linda Wright remembers that bright red mark on her then 3-year-old daughter’s hand.
The little one had gone out to play in the winter wonderland that had appeared in their backyard overnight when the blizzard hit. But when she came back inside to warm up, Wright realized her daughter had taken her gloves off while out in the cold.
Wright looked away for a moment, no doubt distracted caring for her newborn child, when her eldest stuck her hand to the metal storm-door knob.
The mark the frozen lever left on the child’s skin looked just like a burn, Wright said.
“It was kind of like that kid from ‘A Christmas Story’ with his tongue on the flag pole,” she said, recalling the tale 40 years later.
It was incredible how the temperatures plummeted so quickly, and the snow fell so fast, Wright said. They were lucky not to lose power during the storm — one fewer stress on the family, holed up in a house near the Hancock-Madison county line with two young children to care for.
Braving the storm
Kenneth Saunders had never been on a snowmobile before. But that winter, he was going stir crazy.
Saunders of Pendleton still lives in the Hancock County home on County Road 1000N, just east of State Road 9, that weathered the historic 1978 storm.
He remembers hopping on a neighbor’s snowmobile alongside his brother-in-law and braving the wind to drive to nearby Fortville, carrying the grocery list of everyone within shouting distance.
The streets were deadly quiet.
“Fortville was basically a ghost town,” he said.
Back home, his wife and their two children, ages 3 and 10, were huddled by the fire.
They hanged blankets in the hallway, cordoning off the front family room to keep the heat in, when the power went out. And that’s where they stayed to keep warm, sleeping together in the front living room and pretending it was all a game so the little ones wouldn’t be scared.
Saunders chuckles now when he hears people grouse about Indiana winters. They have no idea.
“When we have a bad winter, it is kind of comical to hear people — ‘Oh, my gosh, how terrible,’” he said. “Nothing quite compares to that winter of ’78.”
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The Daily Reporter asked its Facebook followers: What do you remember about the Blizzard of ’78?
“Snow drifts as high as the roof on our house. …Going down State Road 9 and County Road 1000N was like going through snow tunnels, and we lost power for days.”
– Lora Cole
“I lived in Marshall County, and we were members of a snowmobile club. We delivered food and medication to people who could not get out. But the best memory was when one member of our club transported a woman in labor, on the back of a snowmobile, to the hospital to deliver.”
– Susan Nichter
“I was in college at Purdue. We had no idea it was even supposed to snow. I walked to the store for groceries. Halfway there, I saw something bright red on the ground. I wondered what it could be, so I brushed away some of the snow and realized I was standing on top of a car.”
– Debbie Horn
“I was in second grade. We missed two weeks of school (back when you didn’t have to make it up!).”
– Anne Tilley
– I was 5 years old and had a little red snowsuit. My three older brothers and I played in all the snow with our two family dogs. I didn’t know it then, but Mom was told to keep two suitcases packed — one for me, and one for her — in case we couldn’t make it from Belleville to Riley for my next chemo treatment, and they had to send a helicopter. But when the time came, we made it.
– Anne Durham Smith (Daily Reporter staff writer)
“Being the only one to go to work because I lived 2 blocks from my job!”
– Michele Lash
“15-foot snow drifts all the way across property lines.”
– Eric Danielson
“… We had to walk to the A&P (only a block away). The lady at the store double-bagged all of our groceries, but my younger sister’s bag was heavy, and she kept setting it on the snow every so often. Well, the bottom of it got soaked, and just as we made it to the front door, the bag gave way, and the glass jar of grape juice crashed and broke all over our front porch. It froze almost immediately, and we had a purple porch for days.”
-Brigette Cook Jones