By Doris Schroeder
My mother, Emma (Lange) Kroeker was a school teacher in the one and two room country schools, both of the Kansas area and one year when she taught near Billings, Montana. She often told me stories about her school teaching adventures. She could make me live it with her as she told the story about the snowstorm in 1926. Of course, I don’t remember all the events exactly so there may be a little fiction mixed in. She did teach in a two-room school with another teacher named Eva.
The northern Montana wind, pregnant with snow, whipped across the country road, almost swallowing the fence posts on the side. The day had begun to darken early as it usually does in January and the two school teachers stumbled along in their winter garb. They were bundled up, two Eskimos, scarves tied around their faces to keep out the fierce winter cold that stung their skin. The snow and sleet resembled steel shot gun pellets. They braced against the fury of the wind, each step in the deep snow was pure agony.
“I don’t think I can make it!” Eva shouted to Emma in a slight lull in the storm. “We were crazy to try to make our way back to the boarding house in this kind of weather. We should have stayed at the school!”
“I know, but it’s too late now. We’ll just have to keep moving forward. If we keep our eyes on the top of the fence posts, we’ll get there eventually. Come on, Eva, we can do it!”
Eva shook her head and tried to keep plowing through the thick, white snow which enveloped her feet like quicksand. Thinking back to the afternoon, she tried to put the fragments of the day into place. Tomorrow would be Saturday and they knew the kids were anxious to get home. About one o’clock the sky had begun to darken and the snow had come down as fast as the feathers from the goose down quilt that covered them at night.
They were not surprised when the parents started arriving early in their horse-drawn sleighs and wagons to get their children home before the storm grew worse. At last the remaining student, little red-headed Eddie Brawn, had been bundled off. The teachers banked the big pot-bellied stove in the center of the room and got their cold weather gear on.
At first they made good time but then the snow came down even faster and the pair realized their folly in starting out. Still, they were almost to the half way mark so there was no point in turning back now.
“You can’t stop Emma when she has made up her mind!” Eva thought ruefully. But then she, too, wanted to get home just as much as Emma.
The deepening darkness lurked ominously before them. Just as frostbite was beginning to deaden the tips of their toes, a crippling disease taking their lives little by little, the fear of not making it kept their numb feet moving, one step at a time.
Suddenly Emma stopped so abruptly, Eva had to brace herself from falling down. “Look over there!” she hollered over the wind. There’s something big right on the other side of the road. Let’s see what it is!”
Mustering their last ounce of energy, the strong-willed ladies of learning made their way to the dark object by the road.
“Oh my goodness, it’s a haystack!” Eva yelled.
“Let’s bury ourselves in it, it’s better than nothing!” Soon they had used the last of their energy to dig into the snow-covered hay and to await their fate.
There was little energy left for talking as the snow continued to fall that winter afternoon in 1926. Hope was dwindling fast in their minds and they thought of the ones who would be left behind. Each one had sunk into her own little world, oblivious to the pounding of the wind.
Emma’s thoughts centered on her fiance, Ed Kroeker, whom she was planning to marry this next summer. Would their plans all be for naught? He was still in college and they had planned to teach in a two room school in Kansas the next year.
“Was I being foolish again to come clear to Montana to teach when I surely could have found a school in Kansas? Just when I have my whole life ahead of me, I die in a snowstorm. Why did it seem like such a great adventure?” A frozen tear glazed Emma’s eye as she quietly prayed “God, please save us!”
The distant sound of barking dogs permeated the air almost instantly. The two teachers listened, their heart pounding with both fear and hope. The sound of dogs grew louder and they began to dig themselves out of the mounds of hay, praying it was not a pack of wild dogs getting nearer. When they heard a man’s voice giving the dogs directions, they scrambled out of the stack and started to yell “Here we are!”
In no time, a dog sled swished up to where they were. The men from the boarding house had been sent to look for them when they didn’t get home at their usual time.
“Hey, we almost didn’t find you two…the snow is so deep, but then we noticed this haystack, that was our last hope!”
“Ours, too!” the women exclaimed as they were bundled into the sled, whisked home to the boarding house and helped inside to warm up by the pot-bellied stove. At first their boarding house lady rubbed their hands and feet with snow to get the circulation going. A cup of hot tea comforted them later as they slowly sipped it with a spoon.
God kept the woman named Emma that long ago winter night so that she could become my mother a few years later.
Doris can be reached at [email protected]