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‘So cold and so miserable’: Fox Valley residents recall winter of 1936

Four Hampshire friends pose outside during winter 1936. The car is 1934-35 Plymouth. From left are Clarice Voight Teres'Tea' Seyller

Four Hampshire friends pose outside during the winter of 1936. The car is a 1934-35 Plymouth. From left are Clarice Voight, Teresa "Tea" Seyller Doty, Faye Voight, and Leola Widmayer. | Photo courtesy of Leola Widmayer

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Updated: March 6, 2014 6:35AM

The heavy snows and bitter cold the past month are bringing back frigid memories for some longtime Fox Valley residents.

The winter of 1936 — with its accompanying 12-foot-high snowdrifts and 25-below temperatures that closed schools for more than a month — remains a frozen benchmark for brutal weather in northern Illinois.

LaVerne Bartelt Amrein of Elgin is one of those who still recalls January-February cold spell. She even called The Courier-News to wonder why TV and print news reports about this season’s subzero temperatures and snowfalls have not brought up that particular winter during her childhood as a comparison.

In an interview this week, Amrein talked about the battering the area took that winter.

“The storm covered about the same area as this year’s storm from the Midwest to the East Coast,” Amrein said. “I lived on a farm near Huntley at that time. My mother had a scrapbook with Elgin Courier-News articles in it. That’s where I get some of these statistics. Other things I remember by myself.”

In 1936, Amrein attended grade school in downtown Huntley.

“We were taken to school by bus,” she said. “The roads were closed, and we did not have school for six weeks. When we finally went back, we had to go to school on a Saturday. I don’t think we ever made up all of the time we were off.

“The only way my dad could get the milk to town was by horses and a bobsled. It took all day. According to the paper, the roads had drifts 12 feet deep. We had 15.2 inches of snow in a few days. The temperatures went from 4 degrees to 25 degrees below zero. There was no such thing as ‘wind chill.’ The snow froze over, which is why the horses were able to walk on top of the snow and over the fences.

“We had snowplows, but they were not like they are today. That’s why it took so long to get the roads open. They brought snowplows from southern Illinois because they didn’t have as much snow. I just wondered if anyone else remembers that time. I was a small child, but I do remember being cooped up in the house for six weeks.”

Worst winter

“Images of America: Huntley,” a book written by Huntley resident Nancy Bacheller and published by Arcadia Publishing in 2009, also talks about the weather that year.

“The winter of 1935-1936 was the worst of the past century in Huntley,” the book recalls.

“Snow fell for weeks, ultimately bringing the town to a standstill. Schools were closed for six weeks because rural students were unable to get into town, but the milk could not wait. Huntley men shoveled mountains of snow to open the roads for the milk transfer trucks. Snowplows from Carpentersville took two days to get through to Huntley.”

Huntley resident Barbara Ernesti and Amrein are lifelong friends. They have known each other since grade school.

“I was 10 years old during the winter of 1936,” Ernesti said. “Nobody ever mentions that winter anymore on the news. I remember it was so cold and so miserable. After we were out of school for six weeks, we had to go to school from Monday through Saturday in the spring. We also had to attend school in June to make up for the missed days.

“My husband, Charles Ernesti, grew up in Genoa. He said he could ride sleighs over the fence lines that winter.”

Ernesti said parents in those days did not cater to children if they did not have something to do. Kids came up with their own activities. She said she liked cutting out paper dolls and dressing them in paper outfits. Her mother, Mabel Donahue, was a school teacher who encouraged daughters Barbara, MaryBeth and Margaret to read books.

Missed trip

Before the harsh winter weather of 1936 set in, Ernesti’s aunt, Margaret Donahue, offered to take her niece on vacation for two to three weeks. Margaret Donahue was a corporate secretary for the Chicago Cubs for 39 years. She liked to travel to California.

But Ernesti’s parents said their daughter could not go on the trip. They agreed that she would miss too much time at school.

“The storm started the day after my aunt left,” Ernesti said. “School was canceled for six weeks. I could have been in California when school was not in session.”

Longtime Hampshire resident Leola Widmayer remembers when she posed with three friends atop a frozen snowdrift in the village during the winter of 1936.

With her were Teresa “Tea” Seyller Doty, and Walter “High Pockets” Voight’s daughters, Clarice and Faye. The Voight family’s 1934-35 Plymouth pictured in the photograph shows how high the snow drifted that year.

Widmayer recalled the type of winter activities in which she and her friends participated.

“Our backyard backed up to an alley,” Widmayer said. “We built snow forts and had snowball fights. We played ‘fox and goose tracks’ where one person would be the fox and everyone around the circle would be geese. Once the ‘fox’ caught a ‘goose,’ that person would have a turn to be the next fox.”

Widmayer said that Seyller Park’s baseball diamond in Hampshire would be flooded so that people would have a place for ice skating.

“The old log cabin that used to be at Seyller Park had a pot-bellied stove,” Widmayer said. “The cabin would be used as a warming house for the skaters. There were lights put up so that skaters could also use the pond at night.”

Today, Widmayer, 86, still likes to spend time outdoors. She walks with friends in town and travels 1.3 miles every day, weather permitting. During this winter when the temperatures dropped below zero, she decided not to do her daily exercise.

“I don’t walk during the cold spells,” Widmayer said.

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