We Remember Gratiot County During “The Blizzard of 1978”

From top: An Ithaca family makes their way home on foot during “The Blizzard of 1978”; postal carrier trucks (probably in Alma?) show how mail delivery was shut down; an Ithaca resident tries to find his car which is buried beneath the snow; the front page of The Morning Sun during the storm.

The first day became known as “B-Day,” or “Blizzard Day,” as it first struck early in the early morning of January 26, 1978. By the time it ended six days later, some of Gratiot County’s oldest citizens had said it was the county’s worst snowstorm since 1936. It became known to many in the county as the Blizzard of 1978.

At first, weather forecasters predicted the storm to only yield about 4-14 inches of snow, along with northeast winds going up to 30 miles per hour. Soon, two ominous storm fronts, one from Mississippi and the other from Minnesota, combined to shut Gratiot County down starting early in the morning of Thursday, January 26. Instead, an estimated 24 inches of snowfall, with winds hitting as much as 60 miles per hour, created drifts up to 6-7 feet high, paralyzing the county.

Statewide on that first day, at least 60,000 people were without power due to winds knocking down power lines (the number would soon more than double). Schools closed, and the National Guard arrived to help those in need in many places in Michigan.

Early on that first morning of January 26, 1978, Gratiot County’s emergency Civil Defense coordinator, Dave Natali, set up a command post at his house. He started taking phone calls at 4:00 am. Natali attempted to coordinate responses with the Road Commission, State Police, and the Sheriff’s department to decide how to handle emergencies. Snowmobilers, CB radio users, and four-wheelers were all asked to help people in need. Four hours later, the Gratiot County Board of Commissioners chairman declared Gratiot County to be in a state of emergency.

County snowplows went out to work early in the morning, but road crews came to work with their sleeping bags, expecting a lengthy stay at the road commission. However, the commission ordered employees to stop working on the roads that Thursday afternoon due to the high winds and continual snow drifting. No matter how hard the road commission worked, no one could keep the roads open. An early estimate on that first day of the storm was that it would take three days to dig out, but in actuality, it would take Gratiot County twice as long. On Friday at 6:20 pm, President Jimmy Carter declared Michigan to be in a state of emergency, and at least 150,000 people were without power.

Amid the first day of the storm, some people in Alma remained at their jobs. The Main Café was especially busy in the morning with customers but slowed down and closed in the afternoon. Lillian Ankney got to work with help from her four-wheel-drive pick-up and kept the Main operating, along with Ray Croisant, who was bussing and cleaning. Ankney’s boss was in Florida, and she had the keys to the café, so she opened it, and the people soon started arriving. June Mernitz stayed at her desk at city hall. She remarked that “…people look to city hall as a command center, so we’ve got keep things moving here.” June and Rosemary Conners also joined her,  working operating phones for Dial-a-Ride. The Alma Fire Department had an entire crew of 20 men working continuously, starting at 7:00 am. They remained on duty, helping the Alma community for another three days.

  Over at Gratiot Community Hospital, employees like Peggy Kunik found a way to the hospital. She worked seventeen hours that day. Kunik explained, “There is no way a hospital can close down. And besides, I need the money.” Like the road commission workers, as many as fifty hospital employees brought their sleeping bags and supplies to stay at work for as long as needed. Nurses, doctors, and police across Gratiot County found rides into town via snowmobilers who offered to help them. At the same time, Alma Community Hospital postponed non-emergency surgeries, while at least four health emergencies in the county occurred where someone had to go to the hospital. A call from Breckenridge brought a person suffering convulsions. Two older adults stranded on US-27 had heart conditions, while two more in Alma experienced breathing problems. All ended up making it to the hospital. The one death reported in the mid-Michigan area during the blizzard occurred when an 80-year-old man was found dead from exposure near Mt. Pleasant.

Other places like the Pine Knot Bar boomed with business on the first day of the storm, running out of some beverages before the night ended. Over on the corner of Wright Avenue and Downey Street at the 7-11, business went “wall to wall” as people cleaned out bread, milk, and beer from the shelves. When asked about staying open during the storm, manager Anson Jaynes stated that “When we (7-11) say we’re open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, we mean it.”

People stranded in the county needed help at different places, especially those whose cars ran into trouble on US-27. The Ithaca United Methodist Church put up seventeen people who needed to stay. The  Alma Fire Department, Alma City Hall, Salvation Army headquarters, and even the jail offered to help people who needed a place to sleep, as did Alma College’s Athletic Complex and the old Masonic Home annex. Shepherd High School also opened its gymnasium for 75 people who waited out the storm.

The National Guard also went out to help Gratiot County during the blizzard. Company A, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry, was called to report on Thursday afternoon. The armory itself housed 29 people in need, while members of the Guard took people to hospitals and nursing homes when needed. They also helped out at the Michigan State Police Post in Ithaca, where they enabled a total of 119 people to receive help.

Although offices stayed open, the mail nearly shut down in Alma, Ithaca, and St. Louis. Mail went out to Gratiot Community Hospital and Masonic Home, but as the postmaster put it, “It is pretty hard for workers to deliver mail in four feet of snow.” Over at St. Louis, a postal employee made it into work by traveling five miles using his snow skis. The St. Louis postmaster commented that he had some very dedicated workers.

As the storm and digging out from it proceeded, Gratiot County’s road crews dutifully served the county in terms of how long and how hard they worked. On average, road commission crews worked 50 hours over four days and started work at 4:00 am Thursday. In Ithaca, workers started even earlier at 3:00 am and had all they could do to clear their streets. They still worked 12 hours on Saturday and another 10 hours on Sunday. Cleaning curbed areas complicated the work in Ithaca. Also, the heavy snow in town meant that three pieces of snow equipment were needed, not just a street plow. Visibility at corners in Ithaca remained a problem for drivers for some time to come. Even though Alma snow removal employees worked a 19 hour day on the first day of the blizzard, it would take them more than two weeks to haul snow away from the city’s intersections, parking lots, and roadsides. Complicating some of the work in Alma were snowmobilers who got too close to plows while they worked. Visibility early in the storm also made snow removal treacherous at times for those trying to clear the streets in Alma.

Going into the following week, many Gratiot County schools remained closed for another two days until mid-week. After four days of the blizzard, a minimum of 24 inches had fallen in most areas, and snowdrifts now reached heights of 10-12 feet.

As the new week dawned and people started to crawl out from several days of being shut in, drivers were still being warned not to go out unless they needed to do so. Snowplows opened most roads by Wednesday, February 1, and schools reopened. Although there were no deaths in Gratiot County, 17 people in Michigan were now dead.

In the end, the blizzard of ’78 cost Gratiot County an estimated $74,000. After receiving money from federal disaster aid and the State Highway Department, the final total would be $52,250.

It was a time and season that we lived through for many of us – and one that we do not forget.

Copyright 2022 James M  Goodspeed

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