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Vintage Wisconsin: Tunneling Out Of A Wisconsin Winter

Winter Has Long Been A Part Of What It Means To Live In Wisconsin

man tunneling through the snow
Wisconsin Historical Images

This winter has brought its share of cold, if not snow on the magnitude of New England, this year. But, we’ve certainly had our years of deep snow, as this image of a man tunneling out of a drift in Hurley in 1899 attests.

The earliest account of a Wisconsin winter comes from fur traders. In 1659, Pierre Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Sieur de Groseilliers spent the winter near Lac Court Orielles with the Hurons and the Ottawas. With the ground frozen solid and the snow six feet deep, food was scarce. They first ate tree bark that they boiled for two hours to make it soft enough to chew. Then, they ate their dogs. It was so cold that several of them died from exposure.

Ten years later, Jesuit Father Claude Allouez complained of bitter cold that he said literally almost froze his nose off. This certainly wasn’t Wisconsin’s first — or last — harsh winter though.

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The winter of 1881 was also really bad. That’s the year Laura Ingalls Wilder made famous in her book “The Long Winter.” In February, train service in and out of Milwaukee stopped, stranding city residents for four days. Snow cut Pewaukee off from the rest of the state for two weeks and snow in New Berlin reached 11 feet in open fields. The only people who got in or out were hardy young men known as the “Snowshoe Express,” who carried news on foot from town to town.

Winter is a part of what it means to live in Wisconsin. Some immigrants were foolishly optimistic about the weather, though. In 1848, German immigrant Dr. Bock predicted that since Wisconsin was at the same latitude as Italy, he was sure the sun would melt all the snow in his new home in just a few days. Bock’s illusions were quickly shattered his first winter.

Others, like Albert G. Tuttle, of Connecticut, who came to investigate Wisconsin for a possible move, found January to be bitterly cold but assured his wife that December had been the “pleasantest month of that name he had ever seen.”

Professors and students began gathering systematic weather observations at the University of Wisconsin in the 1850s. Among the students to help with the collecting was the now famous naturalist John Muir. These readings became more regular in 1869, giving us long-range portrait of Wisconsin’s snowy past.

As well as an excellent workout from all that shoveling.