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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Snowplow Driver Appreciation Day

Gov. Doyle has proclaimed Wednesday of this week, "Snowplow Driver Appreciation Day." After last winter, we think they might deserve an entire appreciation week.

Which raises the question, how did people cope with heavy snowfalls long ago?

On Wednesday, March 2, 1881, a blizzard descended on southern Wisconsin which lasted three days. After blowing steadily for 24 hours, the storm took a brief rest in order to regain its strength, and then started up again with increased violence. When it ended, trains were stopped on their tracks, drifts had formed 20 feet high, and streams, valleys, roads, and small buildings simply disappeared from view.

All roads in and out of Madison were blocked, and produce such as eggs and milk quickly doubled in price because farmers couldn't make it into the city. Families who kept cows did a brisk business. "One peculiar fact to be noted," observed the Wis. State Journal on March 8th, "is that the first persons to break a road are the drivers of brewery teams, who rush in where milkmen fear to tread and butchers stand back in mute admiration."

Brewery drivers? Only in Wisconsin.

During that 1881 storm a snow plow drawn by six horses tried to clear the Capitol Square, but the horses had to rest every ten minutes. This didn't disrupt state government very much, though, since 30 legislators and the lieutenant governor were all stranded somewhere between Waukesha and Lake Mills.

In most towns, Lawrence Larsen reported in "Urban Services in Gilded Age Wisconsin," residents banded together into shovel brigades: "Neither Milwaukee nor any of the other cities had snow removal systems, so after heavy snowfalls people living along lightly traveled streets frequently voluntarily formed snow removal crews to shovel fire lanes."

Despite the labor involved, those must have been convivial occasions. Even today, we greet our neighbors over snow shovels in a January dawn with a peculiar camraderie unknown in warmer times.

So say thanks this Wednesday to the workers who get up before you do and somehow make their way through unplowed streets to fire up the behemoths that open the world. We'll be needing them soon enough. And maybe the brewery drivers, too.

:: Posted in Curiosities on November 10, 2008

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