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The 1938 blizzard that inspired a young man who eventually changed the world
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Outside the offices of the Great Bend Tribune, drifts were pretty high for in-town. Snowdrifts five and six feet were common in the business district, not only in the streets but also on the sidewalks, the Tribune reported. Bob Smith, janitor for some of the business houses on Forest Avenue, was out battling the drifts at daybreak but was having little success, due to the fact that the strong wind was filling up walking spaces soon after he had made them. - photo by photo courtesy of the Barton County Historical Society Museum

Each week we’ll take a step back into the history of Great Bend through the eyes of reporters past. We’ll reacquaint you with what went into creating the Great Bend of today, and do our best to update you on what “the rest of the story” turned out to be.

The second week of April in 1938 brought to Great Bend and much of the rest of the state a mighty blizzard. Telegraph and telephone lines were down due to heavy ice and snow, and traffic, both automobiles and trains, were at a standstill. Communicating with the rest of the world, at least for a few days, was accomplished through short-wave radio. That service was provided through a smattering of radio hobbyists in the area. One Great Bend youth tagged along with his father on one of those all-too-rare snow days, and checked in with a friend who was one of those few, and the experience fascinated and inspired his later career path. That young man was Jack S. Kilby. Here, an excerpt from a letter he wrote to Dr. Donald L. Walthers, Professor of Physics a the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., in 1997, in which he referred to that snow storm:

“At that time my father was president of a small power company with properties scattered over the western half of the state. To find out what was happening, Roy (Evans, Walters’ grandfather) was able to contact other amateurs and set up communications with the power company managers. I used to go over with Dad for these talks. It was my first contact with the ham community.
“This was a major influence on me. I became interested in ham radio, got a license and built a transmitter and began to operate. This was certainly the beginning of my interest in electronics. Roy and the other older hams such as Charles Larkin and Charley Girton were very helpful -- and tolerant of a young high school student. It convinced me that I wanted to study Electrical Engineering, which I did at the University of Illinois. I think that you were completely correct when you told your students that this sparked my interest in electronics.”

This letter is part of the Kilby collection at the Barton County Historical Society Museum. Also part of that collection is a print of a Thursday, April 8, 1938 Great Bend Tribune report, “Amateur Radio Operators Help Industries here. Communication with Outside Offices Made Possible by Stations in Great Bend.”
This report stated that two of the six amateur stations in Great Bend were handling the bulk of the work. J.R. Evans, 12th and Monroe, and Richard Livingston, 2717 Forest, were those operators. The others helped outside their regular working hours, and lent equipment to Evans and Livingston.

“The amateur operators are working free of charge and donating their time. If they received any pay for the work it would be against rules and regulations, they stated today.”

Revisiting the April 1938 archive in the basement of the Great Bend Tribune, we found a number of interesting insights about the storm. It was reported that the Tribune’s wire service from the Associated Press news service ws down for two days. It wasn’t alone--there was no wire service at Hutchinson, Wichita, Salina, Hays, Dodge City or Pratt either.

“Instead, readers will find The Tribune chock full of local news, every item concerning happenings late yesterday or today, all of it up to the minute.”

At that time, the Tribune was an evening paper with an afternoon deadline. So, it wasn’t a surprise to read on April 7, 1938:

“A fine wind-driven wet snow began falling here early this afternoon, dimming visibility to about two block. Temperatures, however, were not severe, the thermometer registering 27 degees at 2:30 o’clock which is the same reading recorded at 7:30 o’clock this morning.
“At service stations on Tenth Street this afternoon, it was stated that there was little traffic. Person who drove through from Russell and Hays said the storm there was about the same as here. “

But, another report, “Many Lines Down,” told a different story.

“Returning to Great Bend shortly after 11 o’clock this morning from Salina, H.S. Kilby, president of the Kansas Power company, said today’s storm was much worse north of here.
“He saw many telephone lines down on highway No. 4 east of Hoisington and said he was told in Slaina this morning that Lincoln, Nebr., was virtually isolated.
Highways are glassy and dangerous, he said. He averaged about 20 miles an hour driving from Salina and several times his car turned crosswise of the highway.
In this section of the state, he said his company’s wires were in good shape but north of Wilson and in Smith, Phillips and Jewel counties, there was considerable trouble. Damage to lines would not be so severe if it were not for the wind, he pointed out. When winds accompany a mist and sleet storm, the moisture forms ice on wires and the wind causes them to break.”

Frank Bartholomew of the Bartholomew Dairy could attest to the glassy roads. It was reported that around 9:30 o’clock, the truck he was transporting milk and cream in overturned in a ditch just south of the Arkansas River bridge. He and his son escaped with only minor cuts and bruises, and returned to obtain enough milk to finish their route deliveries.

Tractor show a bust
It was that week in 1938 that the Second Annual Great Bend Tractor and Implement Show was being held on the courthouse square. It started on Wednesday, April 6. Cold weather including snow was predicted that morning, so the officials made the call to hold over the show until Friday. Many of the exhibitors and vendors were depending on a good showing, and who would have imagined the extent of the storm on its way? An extra day of entertainment was arranged.

“There will be many acts of vaudeville in the bandshell in the court house yard and a free moving picture from 11 to 6 at the Strand theater, just south of the court house.”
(That motion picture, according to advertisements in the Tribune, was “Hawaiian Buckaroo” with Smith Ballew and Evalyn Knapp, along with a cartoon, “Zorro No. 8.” Normally, the the Strand charged 10 cents for the afternoon matinee.)

Wednesday’s turnout was better than expected, so spirits were high going into the storm. The weather was so bad Thursday, April 7, that, “no attempt was made to display the products.”
An impromptu dinner was announced in the Thursday paper, hosted by Walter Sears, the president of the local association.

“The tractor dealers, their blockmen and employees will have a dinner tonight at the Gateway Country Club starting at 7:30. The program will be an informal one and short talks will be expected.”

The short notice didn’t phase these guys. The Tribune reported more than 60 attended the Tractor Men’s Dinner. Impromptu talks were made by many of the men.

“The excellent dinner, for which the committee in charge received many compliments was featured by baked ham and candied sweet potatoes as the main dish
“Over 20 minutes were required following the dinner to drive cars back to the business district, due to some of the cars becoming stuck in snow drifts near the Gateway Country Club house.”
Friday, April 8, a frigid cold accompanied by high winds settled on the area.

“Great Bend was virtually isolated today because of the blinding snowstorm that struck here late yesterday and continued until mid morning today.”

Spring returneth
By Saturday, the main highways were open to out of town traffic.

“A bright sun that sent temperatures to the upper 40s and caused much snow to melt, the resumption of near normal train and telegraph service, opening of highways leading out of Great Bend and the expected resumption of long distance telephone service by tonight or tomorrow were indications today that this section of the state was fast emerging from one of it’s worst spring snow storms in history.”

Hopefully, this edition of Out of the Morgue offers some consolation for this weekend, as temperatures drop from the 80s we’re experiencing today, down into the 20s expected on Saturday and Sunday.