Sam Shumate Special to the Post
March 10, 2014
I catch myself joining folks complaining about the terrible winter we’re having. Then I think back some 54 years when we were digging out of 81 inches of snow.
Snowfall in 1960 set a record for Ashe and surrounding counties. Thirty inches fell in February and 51 more in March. Other snowfalls for the year brought the total to 112 inches.
I was fresh out of the U.S. Air Force and anxious to see some snow. My duty was in the tropics for three years and I missed the seasons. December and January were disappointments with a flurry or two, but no real snow. Then, about halfway through February it started. It seemed like each Wednesday another storm brought more snow. Temperatures remained below freezing so little thawing was taking place. By March it was piled so deep snowplows were running out of room to put it. Still, the Wednesday snows continued. Twenty and 30-foot drifts buried automobiles and small buildings.
On March 11, Gov. Luther H. Hodges ordered the N.C. National Guard to Ashe County and Operation Snowbound got underway. They set up shop where the West Jefferson Park is located today. The wheeled equipment and half-tracks were no match for the snow but the helicopters proved highly successful. Soon they were carrying hay to snowbound herds, dropping food to isolated homes and ferrying doctors to medical emergencies.
Reporters followed the Guard and soon the plight of the mountain region was plastered all over the world. Condolences and offers of help came from as far away as Japan. Some melodramatic articles told of thousands of freezing and starving mountain people trapped by the snow.
Granted, there were some isolated incidents and emergencies but they were the exception, not the norm. Kays Gary, a columnist for the Charlotte Observer wrote about the melodrama. “Glib-tongued recitals of ‘the destitution of this picturesque mountain community, where hundreds face threat of starvation in their tiny snow-covered cabins’…was almost too much to take.” Gary preferred to praise the stamina and cooperative efforts of the mountain people as well as the Guard and Red Cross. His writing during Operation Snowbound endeared him to the mountain folks.
Gary related the story of a helicopter landing near an isolated mountain home. Volunteers trudged through the waist–deep snow and knocked on the door. The door opened to reveal a healthy family of four warm and comfortable inside. “We’re from the Red Cross,” stated one of the volunteers. “I’m sorry,” replied the lady of the house, “but we can’t give anything this year. It’s been a hard winter.”
The thaw began in April even though another 3.5 inches of snow fell in that month. It was May before the bulldozer that was lost on the road on Big Springs Mountain could be retrieved.
In 1960, almost all mountain families prepared for winter. Food was preserved and fuel was stored. Today, a prediction of snow brings a stampede to stores that empty their shelves of bread and milk. I wonder what would happen if they couldn’t get to those stores.