Winter Weather

Panhandle folk generally shoot straight, but when it comes to our climate, we tend to sugarcoat things a bit. “It cools down at night” and “we get a lot of sunshine” are two things you’ll hear us say. It’s like having a bad kid and telling people “he just missed his nap is all” when he screams his face off in line at Walmart because you wouldn’t buy him a Slim Jim.

When it comes to characterizing our winter weather, our denial gets even more creative. It’s said KGNC weatherman Bob Izzard coined the euphemistic moniker “Golden Spread” in response to downstate reporters obsessed with our frigid weather during this time of year. I know it always makes me feel warm and fuzzy when I’m chipping ice off my windshield on dark winter mornings and can’t feel my feet.  

Perhaps our reputation for crappy winter weather had its origins with a particularly hideous bout of suffering 136 years ago this January, remembered by cattlemen of the time as “The Big Die-Up.” A series of blizzards (savor the word “series” for a minute) swept over the Panhandle-Plains frontier in January 1886, not long after cattlemen had built hundreds of miles of barbed wire fences to keep their herds from drifting south in the winter.

The fences worked, sort of. The cattle bunched up against the wire barriers but either smothered or froze to death, or were eaten by wolves. Entire herds were wiped out, disrupting the Panhandle ranching economy for years. In spite of this, the vast and empty Plains continued to attract newcomers, and in short order we were offloading immigrant trains in places like White Deer, shamelessly advertising that “arctic” translates into “temperate” in Polish.

By the mid 20th century, the Big Die-Up was far enough back in time that it seemed a bit exaggerated. Then along came the winters of 1956 and 1957, and Panhandle folks possibly began to question the wisdom of the early settlers. Killer blizzards paralyzed the region two years in a row, again wiping out entire herds of cattle and, tragically, taking the lives of 34 area residents. During the February storm of 1956, it snowed continuously in some locations for 92 hours. Vega received 43 inches of snow (I think it’s safe to go ahead and round that up to four feet). The next year, between March 22 and 25, 10 to 20 inches of snow fell across the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, drifting as high as 30 feet in places. 

And if mountains of snow aren’t interesting enough, there’s always an ice storm to add a little zest to a Panhandle winter. Ask anyone who was alive in 1940 about the time freezing rain and drizzle fell uninterrupted from Nov. 23 to Nov. 25, disabling power lines with ice that was up to six inches in circumference. Amarillo was almost completely blacked out for three days, and also without water after pumps failed for lack of power. Worse yet, all the telephone and telegraph lines were down, cutting communications with the outside world. Think “The Shining” missing only Jack Nicholson chasing you with an ax. 

These are just a few of the memorable and deadly winter storms that went down hard in Panhandle weather history. And that’s not counting the countless bone-numbing cold snaps. They used to call them “arctic outbreaks” before some unemployed science fiction writers went to work at the weather service and came up with the term “polar vortex” to describe subzero temperatures that go on for days. The years 1905, 1978 and 1979 get a lot of ink in the record books for unbelievably low wind chills and daytime highs that topped out just above zero.

But hey, you don’t have to be an old timer anymore to chime in on the litany of Panhandle winter horrors. Anybody in Texas remember Winter Storm Uri? It’s possible there may still be a discarded tire encased in ice in the murky depths of Lake Duniven after temperatures in Amarillo plunged to 11 and 12 below just a short year ago. 

Let’s hope that memory grows old in a hurry and just hold out hope for warmer weather, maybe by June. Until then, remember, the snow is good for the wheat crop and the cold will kill the bad bugs. 

Author

  • Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.