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According to weather.gov, a winter storm must sustain winds greater than 35 miles per hour, temperatures of 20 degrees or lower, and have falling or blowing snow with visibility of less than a quarter of a mile — for more than three hours — to be classified as a blizzard.
The blizzard of 1978 was more than that — much more. What polarized Knox County even went beyond the parameters of a “severe” blizzard which requires wind speeds of 45 mph or higher, visibility of near zero and temperature below 10 degrees. News reports stated that Knox County was swatted with wind gusts of up to 70 mph for two days.
What started out as fog and rain on the evening of Jan. 25, 1978, quickly turned into one of the most devastating storms in Knox County’s history.
Windows were being blown out of businesses and residences, roads were shut off by snow drifts — some as high as 10 to 15 feet — and schools, businesses and factories closed.
“Virtually all normal activity in Knox County ground to a dead halt today after a blizzard rolled through Ohio, bringing with it new snow, howling winds and a Siberian wind chill factor,” wrote Paul Comstock, News staff writer on Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978.
“State and city snow crews conceded they are practically helpless until the weather eases. The state and county were on standby in case of emergency. The state garage said it tried to plow highways at about 3:30 a.m., but two trucks became stuck,” Comstock wrote.
Mount Vernon City Safety Director Charles Waddell said the city attempted to keep the main arteries free of drifts the morning of Jan. 26, but full-scale cleaning would not start until the snow stopped.
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Informing the community
The News published a paper on Thursday, Jan. 26, 1978, with a small staff, many of whom were picked up by News employees. No paper was published on Friday or Saturday, and with nearly every road closed, delivery simply didn’t happen.Wendell Beheler, News print room camera operator, knew when he woke up the morning the blizzard struck Knox County that it wasn’t going to be a good day to drive. He figured it was best to walk to work from his home on the north side of town. “By the time I got to work, there was ice frozen around my eyes from the wind blowing snow on me,” Beheler said. “There were a lot of people from Mount Vernon that didn’t make it to work, but there was a lady from Sparta who walked in at the same time I did. I thought that was admirable.”
Tom Knouff, another press operator, made it to the News that morning, so they drafted a co-worker from another department, Bill Curran, who had worked on the press before. They were able to get Thursday’s paper printed, but because of the storm, the News did not print a Friday or Saturday edition. Beheler said that was the first time in a long time the News did not publish a paper.
“It wasn’t fun, but we pulled through,” Beheler said.
The trip home was almost as much an adventure for Beheler. He got a ride from the production supervisor, who drove him and a couple other employees in the News’ 4-wheel drive vehicle. But, the brakes froze, and the driver had to improvise when it came to stopping along the route.
WMVO radio was critical in keeping Knox County residents connected as most of the population was stranded.
“I was first to arrive at the radio station,” said Dave Bevington. “I had to walk through waist high snow to a farmhouse to get a hot water thermos to poor on the station door to get in. Never will forget that morning.”
Radio staff stayed on air for 48-hours straight to keep the public informed and help connect them to available resources.
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Neighbors helping neighbors
For Richard Mavis and Don Yauger, county commissioners at the time of the blizzard, their biggest remembrance is how people worked together to help others out in their time of need.
Mavis and Chuck Immel, the head of disaster services, set up an emergency operating system at the Memorial Theater. They were able to get phones and ham radios set up to keep track of things going on in the county and check on people. Mavis said the Memorial was also an emergency shelter where people could come to warm up or get some food, like the spaghetti that Mary Kay Ritter whipped up for all to enjoy.
From the command post, the county was able to coordinate any help that was needed, from clearing roads to digging out vehicles to delivering food and other needed items to helping the power company get the electricity back on.
The blizzard even trapped Sheriff Paul Rowe in his home in Brandon. Mavis said they sent some people out to get him, but they hit a drift higher than their vehicle near Wynkoop Airport and had to return. Rowe’s brother Francis, a township trustee, used a road grader with a large V-shaped plow, to get him to the sheriff’s office on East High Street.
Yauger remembered the wind being the toughest part of the blizzard. It created snow drifts taller than vehicles and made life miserable for everyone.
“The wind was so hard it blew out windows in houses,” Yauger said. “People were putting mattresses in the windows to block out the cold. It was survival.”
The blizzard changed the way Mavis looked at things as a county commissioner.
“The state patrol came in on the third day and took me up in a helicopter to see things. It was unbelievable. Some roads had 12 to 15 foot drifts,” Mavis said. “My view of a serious emergency was how much salt we would use and how much overtime it would take to get the roads clean. I never think like that now. There’s no comparison when you’ve been through that kind of a snow event.”
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Economically, Knox County was buried by the blizzard. County Extension Agent Joseph Brown estimated the county would realize a $3.8 million loss.
Former Fredericktown dairy farmer Allen Earnest recalls the devastating impact the blizzard had on his dairy operation.
“You couldn’t get milk trucks in,” he said.
As a result, thousands of gallons of milk were poured down the drain. Dairy farmers all over the county realized the same loss in revenue.
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By Monday, Jan. 30, 1978, businesses and industry were opened while schools remained closed. Over half of the roads in the county were passable and efforts continued. By Tuesday, all roads were open.
“The people looked after each other, younger people checked on the elderly neighbors. If people were without heat the neighbor with the fireplace opened his doors and went out to chop firewood. This is what saves lives and I’m really proud of the people of Knox County,” stated then Knox County Sheriff Paul Rowe.
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From Our Files 1978
- Firefighters worked around the clock to evacuate people and to provide medicine, food and fuel for those who stayed in their homes.,
- Students at Kenyon College pitched in to cook meals for the 1,500 students when cooks were unable to get to work.
- Volunteer firefighters and the Mount Vernon National Guard provided assistance to those who were stranded.
- A shelter was established at the American Legion Hall; rest homes also offered shelter to those in need.
- The fire department assisted over 300 people with food, medicine, clothing and fuel.
- St. Luke Community Center opened as a shelter.
- “Two telephone men slept on cardboard boxes in the office Thursday night just to keep the lines open,” said fire chief Mike Hammond.
- The Fredericktown Junior High School was used as a rescue center.
- Several people on Ohio 13 north were rescued Thursday.
- One boy suffered from frostbite.
- Mrs. Clarence Conley delivered daughter, Maira, with nurse Judy Stair at the Williams Nursing Home Friday afternoon. They were transported to Licking Memorial Hospital later that evening when Ohio 13 opened.
- 300 people were dug out of the snow and moved to safe locations.
- 26 private contractors were being used to clear roads in county; some were under contract with townships.
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Ohio National Guard
In the early morning hours of Jan. 26, 1978, a severe blizzard struck Ohio, bringing 12-14 inches of snow with 50-70 mph winds and a wind chill of minus 70 degrees.