February 5, 2017

Diary of a 1938 Cabin Dweller (Part 3)

This is a continuation of my grandmother, Edna Olsen's diary from 1938, written in a cabin in Marquette beginning January 1, 1938.

Monday, January 24, 1938

"Less said is best. Don asked Alphonse to help him get wood & he did but a storm came up so I asked them to carry home one each when they went out for their axes. Children were sent home at noon & has it stormed or has it stormed. Ye God’s. Father not home - wonder where he stayed.  I know he’s worried about us & I’m worried frantic over him."

“Seventy-six years ago this January, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula succumbed to a surreal snow storm that left students stranded in schools, trains stuck, and even started a few fires.  In “So Cold a Sky: Upper Michigan Weather Stories,” meteorologist Karl Bohnak writes that the 1.5-day storm is often referred to as “the worst of them all,” and is still a benchmark for Yoopers trying to gauge just how bad a storm is. The 50 mile-per-hour winds caused serious snow drifts, and cost the U.P. two lives. Damages in Marquette, the U.P.’s largest city, were around $400,000 — or nearly $6.5 million in today’s dollars.
From Bohnak:
"Snow totals included 18 inches at Marquette with nearly 3 feet in some of the higher elevations of the western and central U.P.  A major fire occurred at the peak of the storm in Marquette, while cars were buried in many areas due to tremendous blowing and drifting snow."
So yes, it could be crazier. Much, much crazier.
- Melanie Kruvelis, Michigan Radio Newsroom”

“The Upper Michigan Blizzard of 1938 
 Image Credit: Bill Brinkman; Courtesy: 
Paula Rocco
1938 Winter Blizzard, Marquette. Picture taken by a local resident
Explanation: Yes, but can your blizzard do this? In Upper Michigan's Storm of the Century in 1938, some snow drifts reached the level of utility poles. Nearly a meter of new and unexpected snow fell over two days in a storm that started 76 years ago tomorrow. As snow fell and gale-force winds piled snow to surreal heights; many roads became not only impassable but unplowable; people became stranded; cars, school buses and a train became mired; and even a dangerous fire raged. Fortunately only two people were killed, although some students were forced to spend several consecutive days at school. Although all of this snow eventually melted, repeated snow storms like this help build lasting glaciers in snowy regions of our planet Earth.”

Tuesday, January 25, 1938


"Got up this morning to a terrifically cold house - snow covering radio table & floor on North side of house.  Shedful of snow & such utter chaos! It’s the most awful I hope I ever had to contend with. Am worried frantic over Emil, if he tries to walk in from pavement he’ll freeze to death & lose his way. I know if he has stayed in town that he is just as frantic over us. The house feels as tho it’s going to fly apart the wind is so strong." 

(me - thinking of those who have ever made it through a blizzard in the woods. The walls of the cabin must have rattled terribly and can only imagine the fear in their hearts.)

Wednesday, January 26, 1938

"Another terrible day - this is the worst storm the upper peninsula has ever had. Drifts range from 10 to 25 ft high. We out here are completely isolated - no news from Emil at all and we are worried.  Poor Don has to trudge out in the woods for wood.  We haven’t a stick to burn.  News trickles in via our battery radio - from time to time. People lost & warnings." 

(me - picture of Edna Olsen later in life. She was truly a tough person and am proud to be her granddaughter. I cannot imagine the fear she had during the blizzard, yet she had to keep food on the table for the family and heat in the cabin. I have an image of her bundled up in winter clothing leaning over the infamous battery radio attempting to reach a station, any station, for weather reports and further news of Marquette.)

Thursday, January 27, 1938

"Another day - running out of grub. I’m cooking my good spuds for the pigs. Baked 3 cherry pies & a spice cake & 4 loaves of bread today & who should pop in but Emil - with food! Took him half a day to make the 10 miles from town. Had to buy a $1.75 knap sack and a $10.00 pr of snowshoes!!! Is Donald tickled, the little monkey. Emil nearly went frantic worrying over us & was tickled simply silly when he found us all O.K." 

(me - my father, Donald Olsen, was 17 during this period of time in the cabin and was responsible for a lot of the chores, his mom, and siblings. He was a sweet young man; very good work ethic. I can only imagine his tension with grandpa not home during this horrific time in U.P. history with the blizzard and fires. The picture is of him and my mother, Alfreda, either before they were married or after he returned from WWII.)




Friday, January 28, 1938

"Father home today.  Don & I have been getting wood all day. Had a nice dinner for a change - pork steak. Good to hear news about conditions in town. Had an awful fire – Nightingale CafĂ©, Jean’s Jewelry Store, Scott Store & Woolworth’s burned to the ground. Emil is going to town again this afternoon - will stay at Bill’s so he can make up for the days he missed." 

(me - only recently did I find out that Marquette also experienced devastating fires during this blizzard. When grandma is writing this, there is a little spark gone for this entry, and can only think it is because Marquette is her home and she would be so sad for the buildings destroyed and how it will and did change the face of the town.)

(from My Marquette blog by Tyler R. Tichelaars)
Opera House in Marquette
Picture taken from local
"Residents near downtown Marquette were rudely woken by the fire brigade’s sirens. People peered out their windows to see an eerie conglomeration of smoke, bright red flames, and hurling white snow. The fire had begun in the Masonic Building. How it began or how long it had already raged would not be determined until much later. For now, the fire must be stopped before the entire downtown crumbled to cinders, before history repeated itself—several residents recalled their grandparents’ stories of another great downtown fire seventy years earlier. By the time the firetrucks arrived, the Masonic Building was counted as lost, including inside it, the Peter White Insurance Agency and the much-loved Opera House. Already the fire had spread along the street, engulfing Jean’s Jewelry, the Nightingale Cafe, the Scott and Woolworth stores, De Hass Builder’s Supply, and the Marquette County law library.

Had electricity been required to pump water, the fire’s destruction would have been inestimable. Fortunately, the waterworks was powered by gas engines run on batteries. Hoses were quickly unrolled along Washington Street to fight the formidable fire. The bravest men struggled with feelings of panic and loss to see buildings that had stood since before their childhood, where they had spent countless joyful hours—the Opera House, the theatres, the stores—all at the mercy of the raging flames. No one had ever seen such a firestorm, much less been asked to fight it. Firemen dug their footholds into snowbanks and aimed their hoses at the flames, only to have the wind whip the waterstreams straight back into their faces, where ice formed on their noses while smoke choked their lungs. Yet they dared not back down.
Bill, although large and strong for his seventeen years, had to use all his might to brace against the frigid winds and direct the hoses so the water struck the flames. Much of the water froze on powerlines and building fronts just seconds after it spurted from hoses. Heroic efforts appeared ineffective against the blazing furnace that had once been Washington Street. At times, the slush in the street was up to Bill’s hips, making him feel more like he was fishing in the Dead River than fighting a blazing fire. A firetruck froze in the slush and could not be moved. Henry waded through the watery mess to help dig out the truck so it could hose down the bank buildings on the corner of Washington and Front before the fire spread downhill toward the lake.
As morning broke, Mr. Donckers opened his cafe to provide hot coffee for the firemen and volunteers. Bill and Henry took a quick, welcomed breakfast break after learning the Kresge store was no longer in danger. They emerged from breakfast, refreshed and ready to fight again, just as the west wall of the Masonic building tumbled down. Even though the wall fell inward, glass shot out from its windows, injuring a traffic officer and three firemen, while bricks struck two other men. None were seriously injured, but even the witnesses felt shaken. The accident made everyone fight with greater determination to prevent worse accidents. Curses and prayers were muttered in hopes the blizzard would end so only the fire had to be fought. There would be many more hours of frustrating toil."

Saturday, January 29, 1938


"Another glum day - radio doesn’t work at all so no news of roads. Emil came home at 7 o’clock this evening - all in - went to bed right after he ate. Was able to come in 1 mile on our road & he walked thru deep snow the rest of the way. Has to get up at 5 o’clock & start walking so he can get back to work at 8 o’clock tomorrow. I crawled in to bed at 10 - got a sock in the head from the tossing boss & a good kick in the rear from one of his bony knees - which brought out a large oof from me." 

(me - I ache for how hard the Olsen's struggled in 1938 during the winter, in the cabin, in the woods. Edna's humor comes out a little tiny bit in this diary entry and makes me smile. Picture of Russell Olsen, their son who was also in the cabin. I think he might be standing in front of Getz on Washington in downtown Marquette. What a nice looking man who died way too young. I remember dad getting the call about his brother's death - he cried all the way to his home in Marquette.)



Sunday, January 30, 1938


"Miserable weather - dandy blizzard blowing again - all cars ordered off all roads so plows can work. Sent Don down to Devoe (sp) to get cabbage & rutabaga. Had a tiny piece of salt pork so had boiled dinner - cherry pie. Emil didn’t come home tonite. Don going in tomorrow with Alphonse to see if we can get a little of the help that is being distributed. Hope he makes out alright." 

(me - the family is getting hungry. It seems too that when grandma was getting stressed she would bake pie and bread; either it was a necessity or something she did to reduce the tension. Picture of brothers, Richard and Russell Olsen probably just before Russell's death. Richard (front picture) was a sea captain on the great lakes and also piloted the Christian Radich, Norwegian sailing vessel, through the harbor in New York City during the bicentennial in 1976. Russell had 7 children and owned a construction business and helped manage the local gas station (the same one which took care of the car driven by Jimmy Stewart while he was in the U.P. for "Anatomy of a Murder"). Russell also worked on the building of the K.I. Sawyer Air Base, and began building houses in Marquette and Shiras Hills. Before his death in 1971, he was a cabinet-maker.)



Monday, January 31, 1938

"We got help alright - met with - well will have to investigate!! Coming home tried to stop the State Police & get a ride - 32 degrees below zero at Bob’s Gas Station. Said State Police detoured around the boys and kept on going!! What a country to live in! I was born & raised here but it turns my stomach to think of it. Wish we were out of here and in Detroit where everybody is your friend. Emil home tonite at 9 o’clock." 

(me - I bet grandma was angry at the State Police as she is being protective of her children in this cold relentless blizzard. Picture of Betty Olsen Turrell, Edna's daughter who is living in the cabin, also, and her husband, Col. Donald Turrell.)



Tuesday, February 1, 1938


"I made Emil stay home today. The blower came as far as Mallettis last nite so he got some wood cut down for Donald to take home & then had me dress for town. Betty jodhpurs –twin sweaters & Don’s jacket! Took pictures of me on snowshoes. Went in - got all in just plowing thru the drifts up to the car. Saw the stores that burnt down - it’s terrible. Got 2 sacks coal, few groc. & some corn for the pigs. Had lunch at Billies." 

(me - I wonder how she got grandpa to stay home, what threats or words to force him. But she did - and then she took over and went to town to get items they needed. Pictures of Donald Olsen with an ax to chop some wood for the stove; Emil Olsen cutting his birthday cake, with wording on top "Father". Emil had tattoos from each of the seas/oceans he sailed. The ship on their tombstone is taken from a tattoo on his chest and was inscribed by Ed Paveglio.)

Wednesday, February 2, 1938

"Went in today with Alphonse & Irene T. Got the pictures at Rudy’s then went up to Billie’s for lunch. No money to buy any groceries so came home about 2 o’clock - sick to my stomach from the car ride! Mad as a hatter because the mail man, first time he’s been able to come thru for a week, left my mail in town. I’ll skin him if he hasn’t got it today! Papers for 10 days in mail." 

(me - remember that there is still a blizzard and tons of snow in the region, which makes it even more amazing that Edna could make it to town - but guess you did what you had to do, no matter what. Pictures of Emil Olsen with my mother, Alfreda Olsen, with the catch of the day - equal opportunity fishing excursions including the men and women. Alfreda's friend sitting on a snow bank in Marquette.)
















Thursday, February 3, 1938

"Nasty weather today - snow & blowing but not cold. Tractor came thru our road yesterday. Snow banks 20 ft high in places. Betty started school yesterday, the two boys today. Got a big wash on the stove brewing. Want to scrub thru here today, too - it needs it bad enough! Don’t know how I’m going to hang my clothes - the drifts are as high as the clothes line but that’s Donald’s problem. Poor kid he gets the dirty end of it all." 















(me - put my clothes in the dryer here at the house. Boy, am I spoiled - and cannot imagine having to find a spot to put wet clothes with drifts so high. Picture of my great aunt, Constance, from Tonsberg, Norway. I was named after her; my father told me that I was named after a barge. Now, we were from a family of sailors so naturally I believed him. Wonder if he meant his aunt... The other picture is my aunt Betty Olsen Turrell, posing. She lived at the cabin in the woods in 1938 - was a very sweet, loving person.)


Friday, February 4, 1938

"Spent a rotten day today! Felt just like a dissapated dish rag so didn’t do much. Baked bread, took in my clothes, cleaned the house, got supper - good too-pea soup.  Got a letter from Mrs. Pohl yesterday - she wonders how we weathered the storm.  I wonder too, now that it’s all over!!" 

(me - Mrs. Emily Pohl was a good friend of my grandmother. When grandma's son, Clayton, died he was buried in the Pohl plot in Farmington. Letters were so important to our older relatives, they kept them connected and updated on news. The pictures are Emil & Edna Olsen, Rebecca Olsen in the high chair, Betty, wife of Russell, Donald Olsen at the dinner table on Baraga Avenue - back window overlooks Marquette; Uncle Frank Summersett's camp; Emil fishing with his youngest son, Eric; and his youngest daughter, Janice Olsen (Summersett) with my father, Donald Olsen seeming to say "First we have coffee".)




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