The epic Blizzard of 1978 began on Jan. 25 and pounded Boone County for three days solid. The hearty staff of The Lebanon Reporter kept the paper printing daily, though most copies would sit undelivered for days.
Jan. 25 started out messy with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. Half a foot of snow still covered the ground as a reminder of the previous weekend’s accumulation. At sunrise, a cold drizzle began. Gusty winds put a glazed cap over the snow-covered landscape. In spite of the blustery conditions, visibility declined all day as the 34-degree air made contact with the frozen surface snow. Forecasters talked their way through the day as fine rain shifted to frozen precipitation. Radio and television newscasts warned audiences that the “big one” on its way in from the west would likely be as sizable as the January 1977 blizzard.
Yes, a “big one” happened the previous winter. Over nearly identical dates, a blizzard struck throwing snow, ice and wind at the midsection of Indiana.
Even with the Blizzard of ‘77 as a “trial run,” no one was prepared for what happened over those 72 hours in 1978. Upon the storm’s arrival, whipping winds clocked a relentless 50 mph while surface temperatures held at zero. Wind chill factors of 50 below combined with drifts of mammoth proportions and roof-breaking snow loads made for life threatening situations.
Cheryl Loux recalled what Shumate third shift workers like her husband faced when they clocked out at 7 a.m. Thursday. None of the cars in the parking lot were visible before 1 p.m. after heavy equipment was used to doze away the accumulated snow. Shovels and brawn did the rest. Still under assault by heavy wind and snow, employees had to work fast as the roads became more treacherous by the minute.
Worse yet, Mother Nature still had more of the same up her sleeve.
Working as City Editor for The Lebanon Reporter at the time, Janie Cassell recalls her husband Bob bringing her to the office in his big truck. The drive in from their home just outside of the town limits was slow and treacherous. Governor Otis Bowen had declared a State of Emergency, mobilizing the Indiana National Guard to assist law enforcement and emergency workers within the first 24 hours of the monster storm.
Managing Editor Owen Hanson caught a ride with a county snow plow. Sports Editor Wit Whitmer showed up to collect news of all the basketball game cancellations while keeping everyone entertained with his signature humor. Advertising Sales Rep Sharon Kain set out on foot, wrapped with all the warm scarves she could find. Before leaving, she instructed her children to head for the IGA with a sled in tow to haul emergency groceries back to their home near St. Joseph Church.
How was there anything to report when everything was gridlocked in white?
Cassell said they worked the phones and bundled up with boots and double coats to make their way to the Courthouse Square where SirVir’s restaurant was able to open. Owner of the paper, Martha Ott Pulliam, made the dangerous trip to the office from her home in Ulen. She took up her spot in the front office as she did every other day. Although there was no crime or community events happening, once the howling winds stilled on Saturday morning, the stories were coming in to the newsroom hard and fast.
Roads were impassable, and the standards for impassable in 1978 were fully different from those of today when a snow event totaling a couple of inches can trigger school and business closings. Around 10:30 a.m. Sunday, an emergency call came into Witham from a rural woman who was having labor pains. Her due date was a full four weeks away, but this was her seventh child. A resident, paramedic and nurse set out in an ambulance. They followed a front-end loader and plow truck to reach the mother-to-be. When the ambulance had traveled just five miles in two hours, a new plan was formulated.
A local man with a snowmobile pitched in to transport the doctor who arrived in time to deliver the baby. A State Police helicopter whisked the tiny infant to Witham Hospital where he was joined a few hours later by his mother - both of them unscathed by the snowy ordeal.
There were less dramatic events to report as well. The water tower at Jamestown froze during the prolonged cold, residents took in strangers stranded on the roadways. The Armory, fire stations, churches, and the original Holiday Inn were full to the brim with persons who were caught in the storm.
Even funerals were delayed. In a weird twist of irony, the old Avon movie theater happened to be playing “Oh God” when the snow hit. The marque expressed the sentiments of so many who experienced the blizzard.
After several days the cold spell broke and the melt was on. County roads were mostly cleared and hundreds of vehicles lost in the drifts were recovered. Finally the newspaper issues were delivered in stacks to subscribers who were finally able to read about the world outside their own doorstep and perhaps how friends and neighbors had fared. Unfortunately, as the thaw progressed, many were stranded once again by the resulting floodwaters.
The Lebanon Reporter newsroom was busy again, covering the “big thaw.”