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McLean County, Illinois
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December 1836
'Sudden Change' a dangerous event for early settlers -
BLOOMINGTON -- The morning of Dec. 20, 1836, was unseasonably warm, the snow melting into pools of water, and the barnyards and heavily rutted dirt roads turning to soupy mud. In Bloomington and the surrounding countryside, the area’s first settlers went about their day with little worry and less haste.
That all changed when an inexplicably violent cold front, known afterward as the “Sudden Change” or “Sudden Freeze,” swept across the prairie, threatening life and limb of even the heartiest pioneer.
“There arose a large and tumultuous looking cloud in the west, with a rumbling noise,” remembered the Rev. Enoch Kingsbury of Danville. “On its approach everything congealed.
“In less than five minutes it changed from a warm atmosphere to one of intense cold, and flowing water to ice.”
Washington Crowder of Sangamon County, who was traveling to Springfield, said the Sudden Change appeared as a dark cloud accompanied by a “terrific, deep, bellowing sound.” King Solomon Cunningham, an early settler in Cheney’s Grove near Saybrook, told McLean County pioneer chronicler Etzuard Duis the cold front “froze the air so rapidly that the frost seemed a moving cloud of smoke.”
Geese and chickens froze fast in the slush. Water blown by the cold front was said to solidify instantly into ridges. Those on horseback, like Absalom Stubblefield of Funk’s Grove, found themselves frozen to their saddle and had to be wrenched free once they made it to safety.
“Nothing like it has ever been known since,” noted A.A. Graham, who wrote an early account of the phenomenon.
The front reached the Iowa-Illinois border around 10 a.m., Springfield at 2 p.m., and the Illinois-Indiana border at 6 p.m. The “Change” continued eastward, passing through Cincinnati at 9 p.m., though its ferocity was much dissipated by then.
Temperature measurements taken that day lend credence to the body of pioneer recollections. Samuel B. Mead of Augusta in western Illinois reported a sunrise temperature of 40 degrees. By 2 p.m., the temperature had plummeted to 0 degrees.
A few Sudden Change stories carry apocalyptic overtones. Andrew Heredith of Springfield was driving between 1,000 and 1,500 hogs to St. Louis when the front slammed into his droving party in Macoupin County. Heredith and his men managed to find shelter in a nearby house, but the hogs were left to their own sad devices. Crazed from the cold, the animals piled atop each other. The next morning, Heredith discovered a pyramid of 500 dead hogs. Those on the inside suffocated while those on the outside froze to death.
Other stories have a more fantastical, playful tone. William Wilcox, who settled northeast of Bloomington, went deer hunting shortly after the cold front swept across Central Illinois.
“The country was an absolute glare of ice, and he hunted on foot with his dog,” related Duis. “Sometimes while going up a hill, the deer in front would fall and slide back, throwing down those behind, until the whole drove (of deer) would become a mass of sliding, kicking and springing animals.”
Some stories belie common sense.
For instance, Ezekiel Bowman, an early Logan County sheriff, said he found frogs frozen to death with their mouths open, presumably because they had no time to close them.
Another tale featured two men frozen solid, one with his back to a tree holding the bridle of his frozen horse, the other in a kneeling position, a tinderbox in one hand and a match in the other.
Some grisly stories, unfortunately, appear to be all-too true. James H. Hildreth of Vermilion County and another man named Frame were traveling to Chicago when the cold wave overtook them. Caught on the Grand Prairie, they eventually killed Frame’s horse, removed its entrails and crawled inside. After the animal’s heat dissipated, they attempted to kill Hildreth’s horse but the knife fell into the snow and they couldn’t find it. Frame surrendered to fate, and it was said he “sank down in a sleep from which he never awakened.” Somehow, Hildreth kept himself alive that long, horrible night, and after a series of misadventures the following day he was rescued by a party of drovers. Though Hildreth survived, he lost all his toes and fingers save a joint on his right thumb, which was just enough for him to hold a pen or whip.

[Pantagraph 14 Dec 2008 - by: Bill Kemp, Librarian/Archivist, McLean County Museum of History]


St. Louis, May 15. -- A violent tornado occurred on Thursday, which was so severe as actually to blow a train of cars on the Chicago and Alton railroad off the track at Lexington, Illinois, by which several persons were severely injured. The towns in the vicinity suffered severely, and many houses were prostrated. Three person were killed at Tonawanda [sic = Towanda]. Yesterday, another storm occurred between Bloomington and Springfield, which did much damage to a number of houses at Elkhart and Williamsville. The latter was nearly demolished, and a family of five persons killed.
[20 May 1858 - National Era ]

Hail Storm - Great Damage in McLean County, Illlinois

CINCINNATI, June 11. -- A dispatch from Leroy, Illinois, says a terrific hail storm swept over that portion of McLean county to-day. In a few moments the ground was covered several inches deep with hail stones as large as pigeon eggs. Great damage must inevitably result to corn and fruit. In some places trees were stripped almost bare of foliage and fruit, severe rains and cold of the past few days doing mischief to all kids of crops.
[1877 Jun 12 - Philadelphia Inquirer]

It is said that there is not a running stream of water in McLean County, Illinois. That is certainly a dry county and the prohibitionists ought to be happy. [1887 Aug 19 - Columbus Daily Enquirer]

April 25, 1914 - Northern and eastern McLean county was swept yesterday by a cyclone and hail storm as to surpass the damage established by the memorable windstorm of June 10, 1902. Reports from Lexington, Chenoa, Colfax, Lawndale township, Weston and other towns are that houses were razed, barns scattered over fields, trees uprooted, fences blown down, windows blown out and smashed out by hail stones. -
[How Time Flies - The Pantagraph - Tuesday, April 25, 1989]

The territory northwest of Colfax as visited by a genuine old cyclone last Friday afternoon about four o’clock, which tore up tees, upset and demolished houses and barns, windmills, sent chickens flying through the air, but luckily no one was seriously injured and but little stock killed. The afternoon had been warm and of a thunderstorm nature, and a heavy black cloud which swept over Bloomington developed into a cyclone with the genuine funnel shape, when it reached the territory a few miles north of Cooksville. People saw it coming and hunted cellars where they had one or other places of safety where they had not cellars. Others just stood still in their houses knowing not what the outcome would be.

Among the first places to be struck were the Joshua Freeland farm, the Wm. Fulton farm and Mrs. H. W. Langstaff’s farm, occupied by her daughter, Mrs. Guy Hedges and husband. At the Freeland home, a portion of the house was blown away. At the Wm. Fulton place, picture of which we show above, the barn and out buildings were badly damaged and also the house.

At the Hedges home there is not much left but a portion of the house, all other buildings being blown over the farm and a large grove lifted out by the roots. Mr. and Mrs. Hedges and little child happened to stay in that part of the house that remained intact, or else they might have suffered severe injury. Above we show a picture of the damage done at the Hedges home. The barn belonging to John Grimes was destroyed and the roof blown off the house.

Farther northeast and possibly the worst individual loss of any in this district, was the damage at the home of Mike Lucas and family. The picture above shows only in a small way the damage done by the terrific storm. The family sought refuge in the cellar, but the sight after the storm was over was awful. The house was taken off from over their heads, all but a small kitchen on one side of the house. They were penned in for a while with brick, although not seriously injured. But the farm is a complete wreck. The buildings were scattered all over the farm, not a one left, only the fences. The trees were uprooted -- well, everything is demolished, together with farming machinery. A large crowd was at the place Sunday and a liberal collection was taken and presented to them. Another peculiar incident at the Lucas place - their cows were just west of the house with a four foot chicken tight fence between them and the house - that is before the storm - after the storm they were about thirty rods east of the house, but as the light chicken fence was not injured only about a foot at the top, the cows must have been lifted over it bodily, but were caught in another mess of wire east of the house and suffered some scratches.

At the Moncelle home place, two pictures of which we show above, the house was missed entirely, but the two barns and crib received the force of the storm. In the foreground of the pictures showing the barn and crib, was the main barn, a comparatively new structure, but you would never know it had been there except for the foundation. It was completely blown to pieces, scarcely two boards being left fastened together, only the concrete foundation being left. The lumber that was in the barn is blown all over the farm you might say. The picture of the Moncelle crib shown above, that building must have been bodily lifted in the air for underneath it, holding it off the ground are a lot of the heavy timbers out of the barn that was demolished. One of the almost unbelievable incidents in connection with the destruction of the Moncelle barn is that there were about fifteen head of horses on the inside and not a one was injured to speak of. It was a miracle.

The cyclone cloud performed some funny tricks. It would swoop down on a farm and make a cleaning and then raise in the air and miss the ground altogether and then come down. It evidently made a miss once and came down and grabbed three large hedge trees along the road and tore them out by the roots. The storm continued in a northeasterly direction, damaging houses and barns across north Lawndale, south of Fairbury doing considerable damage, clear on up to Otto; near Kankakee, where the I. C. water tower was pitched over on the track. South of Lexington the house and barn on the J. J. Wiley farm was considerably damaged. The experience of those who were victims of the storm’s fury is thrilling and their lucky escape is remarkable.

Another happening that might have ended more seriously - Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Beasley were returning to their home and had reached the Moncelle farm and noticing the cyclone cloud they drove in and unhitched their team, putting it in the Moncelle barn and joined these people in the cellar. Their carriage which was left in the crib was a complete wreck. In the carriage was two bushels of potatoes which were strewn for a quarter of a mile down through the fields.

One distressing feature in connection with the storm is the extra amount of work to clean the wreckage up, coming just at a time when the farmers are at the busiest putting in the spring crops. Some are very much discouraged. Mr. and Mrs. Guy Hedges have moved to town, as it will be impossible for Mrs. Langstaff, who owns the farm, to get suitable buildings up, in time for occupancy, as a complete new set of improvements will have to be made. They expect to return to the farm next year. Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, who suffered even more, expect to remain on the farm and brave the difficulties.

Sunday was a fine day and the roads good and automobiles from all over the country came with loads of people to see the storm damage. It is variously estimated that anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people were viewing the wreckage at different places along the path of the storm.

The Press is indebted to Mr. J. Royce Huffman for the photographs from which the above cut is made. Mr. Huffman will be able to supply post cards also to any who desire. The press has a limited number of extra copies of this issue which may be had for five cents each. Order early. [The Press - Saturday, April 25, 1914]


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