Winter of 1917-1918

T

he winter of 1917-18, particularly in the prairie states, was bad by any definition; in fact, it was one of the worst recorded. One report said that it was unusual because of the length of time the record low temperatures persisted and the size of the area impacted. It goes without saying that I didn’t experience it, but my grandparents did. I certainly don’t know all the facts, actually, what I think I know is supposition from letters from that time and second party tales from my preceding generation.

The Midwest weather only added to the economic impact of America’s involvement in a European war. That winter, Grandfather Bjorn Benson, a college educated man, found the only work he could. He was hired as a bookkeeper for Kimball Lumber Company, LTD, in Kincaid, Saskatchewan, 270 miles north west of their Charlson, ND, home. That would be less than a day trip by road in the 21st century but a very long trip during a severe winter, even by rail. Grandmother Josine and nine children were necessarily left to fend for themselves, because, like most small towns in North Dakota, there was no income in Charlson.
Grandpa Bjorn wrote On November 27, 1917: “…Surely a funny neighborhood you are in when chickens are changing roosting places overnight. (Other people were hungry too.) Better watch your coal and wood closely and try and have it securely locked up. I wish I could be there and help get them rails split, but wishing won’t help any. Better get something easy for the boys to chop as I suppose there is no one to get to chop wood. …”
Agnes (17), Dorthy (16), and Alfred (15) were away for boarding high school, and Joel (13), Arne (11), Nels (9), Elizabeth (8), Arvid (6), and John (3) were at home.
On November 30, Bjorn wrote: “…I enclosed a check of $200\00 issued on the 1st State Bank of Charlson in your favor. Pay up your note of $100\00 and the rest is as you command. Just had to dig up $42.33 to the Austin Bank for overdraft. There is another $50\00 short that I never figured on but I must have made a mistake in forwarding my balance. I figured we’ll have enough money out of my November salary to get home on provided no bad luck pops up….”
December 3: “…You mention Christmas presents. Well dear I really don’t know what to say about that. I presume we will likely again receive gifts and then not to give makes it look so bad. But you know Dear everything is so high during these war times that money does not seem to amount to anything when it comes to buying things. You know better than I do how you are getting along down there financially than I do and if you feel that you have a little cash to spare for to buy gifts for outside of the family do so. Will leave this to your good judgment and what you do will be all right with me.
I planned it this way myself that by sleeping here in the office I can save at least $20 per month which will help me out just that much in providing rail road fair and expenses coming home for Christmas. I at times feel that I should not go home for Christmas but I again feel that it is my duty to come home and I am afraid it would be almost unbearable to stay away all winter. … It will cost me between $50 and $60 which is a lot of money but what is money good for if we can’t use it while here as long as it is rightfully spent.
December 10: “…We have experienced some very cold weather 35 below zero one morning and Saturday we had an awful blizzard. And it is storming again to-night….
In the series of letters, Grandfather Bjorn also responds to what could be Grandmother Josine’s telling him about the poor health of the children and her own difficulties. Bjorn did get out of Canada, but not directly home. He found a banking job in Montana, but was back in Charlson where he registered for the draft at age 43.
Things did turn around, and quite well – Bjorn’s 1921 federal tax return shows gross income from salary, investments, and farm activity of $8,834, but with deductions and deductible farm expense, they didn’t have a tax bill. Average annual personal income in the United States was just over $1,500 in 1921.
But, good fortune after surviving the physically and economically devastating winter of 1917-18, left Josine a fairly well-off widow with eight dependents. How that changed is not well documented.