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The Greatest Storm Ever

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By Pat Mestern
April 24, 2004

The other day a old codger called me to settle an argument, the question being which was the greatest storm ever in Fergus, that of January 1943 or March 1947. The answer took some research. I can remember walking to school through the aftermath of the storm of March 1947, but was too small to recall anything about 1943. My final decision is that the storm of January 1943 was the most severe winter storm the area ever experienced.

Greatest Storm, Ice Cave on the Grand RiverIt all started innocently enough on Tuesday, January 19, 1943. The sky was blue in the east in the morning, but to the north and west a dark cloud rose slowly above the horizon. During the day the wind changed from west to north-west, then north. The cloud took on a more ominous appearance as it overtook the last vestiges of pale blue sky around the noon hour. The wind had a damp, cold edge to it. Country folk turned a practiced eye to developing circumstances then went to the barn early to complete their evening chores. They checked wood piles, replenished wood bins behind the kitchen stove and filled oil lamps. Some strung ropes from house to barn, knowing that the weather would deteriorate to the extent they couldn’t see their outbuildings.

By 3:00 p.m. on the 19th, the snow, driven by a vicious wind, was coming down at the rate of six inches per hour. Barometric pressure was lower than anyone could remember. Outside temperature began to drop as the wind increased and turned north by east.

Beatty Bros. was on 24 hour production for the war effort. Mose Yantzi, who had worked the day shift looked out the doors at the Hill Street plant and decided that he would not risk walking across town to his home on Union Street. Reasoning that his replacement from Arthur wouldn’t be able to make it to work, he went back to his machine for a second shift.

Jimmy Mattaini also looked out at the storm. He was on a double shift, so didn’t have to leave work before 6:00 am the next morning. By then he reasoned, the storm might have lost some steam. He too went back to work, hoping his replacement would show up on Wednesday morning.

Alex Corbett who lived near Metz on the 4th Line of West Garafraxa Township had finished his chores and was readying himself for the 11:00 p.m. shift Reading the weather carefully, he decided to give himself five hours to make the ten miles. He also decided that his best bet for arriving on time was to ride his old mare.

Alex bundled up well and braved the worsening storm on the mare’s back. They floundered through several miles of snow before Alex realized that the horse was in trouble, and he would lose her if he continued the journey. He dismounted and walked back to his home leading the horse. After stabling the animal, he set out on foot to conquer the storm alone. It took nearly five hours to complete the ten mile journey but Alex punched in on time. Little did he realize that he would be at the factory for the next forty-eight hours.

Greatest Storm Ever, Highway #6, Fergus 1940'sFive employees from the Arthur area started on foot at 5:00 p.m. for their ll:00 p.m. shift. Swathed in heavy clothing they decided that #6 highway would be their best route. Three miles south of Arthur, they realized that the storm was so severe they would never make it to Fergus. Fatigued, they sought shelter in the nearest building, a driving shed. Fortunately they packed hearty lunches. They needed them. The building was their home for the next thirty-six hours. Eventually the farm family found them and took them into the house where they thawed out before walking back to Arthur.

Wednesday morning dawned with the storm still raging. Those on the night shift stayed on because they deducted that few replacements could make the trip in to the factory. Mose Yantzi and Jimmy Mattaini began their third shift.

On Wednesday, a number of Elora employees decided to brave the weather and set out of foot. Harvey Roberts, Art Bayne, Harry Berryman, Andrew Henderson and Ray Plyley walked to and from work, and to work on Thursday morning. Walton Sinclair made the trek from his home near the Poor House in one hour, although at one point he was in snow up to his neck. It took the fellows from Elora 2.5 hours to reach the factory.

By Thursday morning, W. Mock, W. Lee, J. Scott, G. Honsinger, M Lake, S. Eaves, D. Cawthra, J. Brethour, H Young and W. Stafford decided they too could walk to their shift from Elora. Beatty Bros. provided a company truck to take all home on Thursday evening because as the men reported, they floundered through snow up to their chests, and wind that nearly knocked them off their feet in the few open spaces they encountered along the way.

The Lake girls, who lived approximately four miles south of Fergus and close to the railroad track, flagged the train for a ride into their Tuesday evening shift. It usually passed through Elora at 8:28 p.m. but did not arrive in Fergus until 11:00 p.m., having been held up by high snow drifts on the track. The train continued on its way north and west until it was stopped by the massive drifts.

The girls had no way of returning to their home so stayed in the factory, sleeping in the rest-rooms during the morning. During a lull in the storm on Wednesday, they managed to walk to St. Andrew Street for their noon meal, then spent the afternoon at A.C. Deacon’s home resting up for their Wednesday evening shift. When nothing was running on Thursday morning they decided to walk home. They managed to do four miles through drifts, snow and wind with temperatures at 10 to 15 degrees below zero F in three hours.

During a lull in the storm on Wednesday evening, Mose and Jimmy set out together to walk the mile or so from the Hill Street Plant to Union and Prince’s Street. They hadn’t eaten much since Tuesday evening when the last of their packed lunch was devoured. Steele Bros. on St. Andrew Street had somehow managed to deliver several bushels of apples to the factory. Mose and Jimmy survived on apples and water during their third shift

It took the pair more than an hour to make the trip. They walked on the street and used hydro poles as markers along the way. Mother remembers that my father, Jimmy fell in the door, cold, hungry and very tired. His clothes were covered in snow and only his eyes showed through a face mask that was stiff with ice from his breathing through it. He slept for twenty-four hours and shoveled snow for another eight before sleeping for his second twenty-four hour marathon.

With war production at a crucial level, enough workers made it into the factory that production could be kept up during the storm. Through an ordeal that lasted from Tuesday afternoon through Saturday evening, the Maintenance Crew from both Grand River and Hill Street Plans struggled to keep roads near the factory passable. Dick Griggs, C. Morrison, W. Gerrie. L. Kelly and M Berry, M.J. Lovell, G. Cudney and Gerrie’s teams plowed paths through snow at both plants. They moved snow from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day during the stormy week. Two teams of horses, two sleighs, scrapers and shovels were in constant use. Another fifteen men were pulled from the factory to clean the plant’s railway siding to allow the train in to pick up munitions on the following Monday morning.

It was a miracle that the power never failed. No telephone lines were brought down by the storm. Traffic was brought to a stand still as all highways and secondary roads were impassible. It would be two weeks before some roads were open to traffic again.

The 1940's were still the days of home-delivered milk and bread. During the storm, quite a few people went without both. Mother said that there was always porridge with a good dollop of molasses. Many people had cold rooms where vegetables and fruits were stored. Unlike today, there were still a large number of people who canned and preserved a winter’s supply of food. For the most park, those at home were well prepared for the storm.

Even though the winter storm was one of the harshest the area has ever experienced, no lives were lost. As a matter of fact a few were gained. As happens in all good storms, October 1943 was a wonderful month for babies. As with the storm of 1947, a good number of healthy bouncing bundles of joy were born at the local hospital.



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