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THE SUDDEN FREEZE


The pioneers and early settlers apparently endured a series of major meteorological events in the 1830s. The first was the Deep Snow. The most unique was the Sudden Freeze of December 20, 1836. This account is by Judge Stringer in the 1911 History.

About five years after the "deep snow," or to be exact, on December 20, 1836, another meteorological event occurred, in the history of the county, which has likewise not been surpassed, since that time. This event was known as the "sudden freeze." Rain and sleet had been falling in the early afternoon, when without warning, a strong wind, traveling at the rate of at least seventy miles an hour, accompanied by a deep, bellowing sound, with its icy blast, swept over the county, and everything was instantly frozen hard. The water of the little pools in the roads froze in waves, sharp-edged and pointed, as the gale had blown it. Chickens, pigs and other animals were frozen in their tracks. Wagon wheels, ceasing to roll, were frozen to the ground. Men, going to their barns or fields, in slush and wlater, a short distance from their houses, returned a few minutes later, walking on the ice. Some caught out on horseback, were frozen to their saddles. Ice was frozen in streams, from six inches to a foot thick, in a few hours. John Buckles, of Mt. Pulaski, gave the following version of this event,during his lifetime: "On the morning of the sudden change, it was warm, the atmosphere was saturated with moisture and on the ground was a light layer of snow. About noon, rain began to fall for a time, when without a moment's warning, an icy wave swept down from the north, freezing everything as it went. Under foot, was a slush of snow and water, but in less time than it takes to write it, the polar blast converted it into solid ice. Carter T. Scroggin, who was on his road from a neighboring mill, in an old durbin, was struck by the frigid wind. The top of his durbin was removed and his horse faced in the opposite direction. Realizing the peril of his situation and knowing that if he did not find shelter immediately death would claim him, he drove rapidly in search of some friendly cabin, which he found in time to save his life. Those who had the misfortune to be overtaken by this icy terror and were unable to find shelter, quickly succumbed and much stock was numbered among the frozen victims."

Christopher C. Ewing, of Lawndale, now deceased, reporting this event, said: "In December of 1836, our pioneers experienced another severe change in the atmosphere and lost heavily of their stock and poultry, and in some cases their own lives. The snow had been falling for a day or two, when a drizzling rain set in, which continued until about two o'clock, in the afternoon, melting the snow and converting it into a thin, mushy ice. Suddenly, there came a mighty, rushing wind from the northwest, which roared at a distance, like a hurricane, and froze everything in its course. The water on the ponds was frozen in waves and all who were out, suffered more or less, as in an hour, the mercury changed from forty degrees above to thirty degrees below. This severe weather continued three days and resulted in much sickness throughout the country." J. T. Hackney in an Old Settlers' talk at the annual meeting, recalled the sudden change. "The earth was wet from recent rains," said he, "when suddenly a cold wind came, which seemed to whiten the earth. Three of us were caught in this storm and the ice becoming thicker and thicker and the cold more intense, we were compelled to stop at the house of Alfred Sams for safety." Ezekiel Bowman, one of the early sheriffs of the county, used to say that after the sudden freeze, he found frogs frozen, with their mouths open, and he verily believed that the change was so sudden, they didn't have time to close them. John Hepperly, of Lincoln, illustrated the suddenness of the change, by saying that it was "sudden as a clap of thunder." The father of Abe Larison had a narrow escape from death, at the time, his clothing being frozen on him and he frozen to the saddle, when he arrived at his home. Many cases of subsequent death among the early settlers were due to exposure during the storm, and much sickness followed.

James Harvey Hildreth, who died in Mt. Pulaski township in 1858, underwent such an amount of suffering, during this sudden change, that, in after years, he rarely ever cared to refer to it. He came to this country in 1833, and was engaged in cattle trading. At this time, he was a stout and rugged young man, of about twenty-four years of age. In December of 1836, he, in company with a young man, by the name of Frame, started, on horseback, for Chicago. On the day of the sudden freeze, they had entered the border of a large prairie, in the northern part of the state, and the next timber was many miles distant. It had rained all morning, and the earth was covered with water. They encountered a slough, containing so much water, they did not like to attempt passing through it. In order to head the slough, they rode some miles in a northeasterly direction, and having crossed it, turned northwest, to regain their course. That was about the middle of the afternoon. It suddenly ceased raining and the cold wave came, in all its fury, from the northwest, striking them square in the face. They were then out of sight of any human habitation, and their horses became absolutely unmanageable. They drifted with the wind or across it, until dark closed in upon them. The cold becoming intenser, death seemed to be imminent. As a last resort, they decided to kill their horses, take out the entrails and crawl into the carcass, as a protection against the cold. They dismounted, killed Frame's horse first, disemboweled it and both crawled into the carcass, as far as they could, and remained there until midnight. The animal heat, by this time, having been dissipated, they crawled out, with the intention of slaughtering Hildreth's horse. In some way, however, they lost the only knife they had, and could not find it in the darkness. They then huddled about the living horse, until about four o'clock in the morning. By that time Frame had become so benumbed by the cold, that he sank to sleep and while in this stupor, froze to death.

Mr. Hildreth, in the meantime, kept from freezing, by jumping about. As soon as it was daylight, he mounted his horse and started in search of shelter. In mounting, he dropped his hat, but was afraid to dismount and get it, for fear he would not have strength to mount again. Bareheaded, he rode about, until he reached the bank of a stream, supposed to be the Vermillion River. Seeing a house on the opposite shore, he made an outcry, which brought the occupant out. This did him little good, for the occupant, whose name turned out to be Benjamin Russ, was one of those inhuman outlaws, who were occasionally to be met with in the timber. Russ yelled to Hildreth, that he could not do anything for him. A canoe was lying tied to the opposite shore, but he affected to be afraid of the running ice. Hildreth then offered him a large sum, if he would cut a tree and let it fall over the stream, so that he could cross. Russ still refused and directed Hildreth to a grove, which he said was a mile distant, where he would find a house. He went, but it was five miles, and the house proved to be a deserted cabin. He then returned to Russ' house and called for help and was again refused. He then dismounted, crawled to the bank, found that the ice had closed, and was strong enough to bear him and crawled over. Arriving at the fence, the brutal owner of the place refused to help him. Hildreth tumbled over the fence, crawled to the bank and laid down near the fire. He was allowed to lie there, until four o'clock that afternoon, but no assistance was given him, either by Russ or his wife. Finally, some hog drovers came along and moved him to another house, where he was properly cared for. Afterwards, the settlers of the neighborhood, hearing of the inhumanity of Russ, decided to mete out severe punishment but Russ and his wife fled the country. Mr. Hildreth always expressed the belief, that his offering to pay liberally, for cutting down a tree across the river, led them to think that he had a large sum of money, and that, if, by their neglect, he perished, they could obtain it. Mr. Hildreth was conveyed back to the house of his brother in Vermillion County, where all his toes were amputated from both feet and the bones of all his fingers, except one joint of the thumb, on his right hand, which enabled him to hold a pen or drover's whip. His left foot never healed entirely and nearly twenty-two years after his misfortune his leg had to be amputated below the knee. This healed, but his lungs, already diseased, caused his death as before stated.

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