1978: A winter of chilling memories
Editor’s Note: This is a historical perspective by the managing editor and people who shared memories of this event.
By Becky Brooks
It has been nearly two generations since the Blizzard of 1978 hit the region.
Inside today’s newspaper columnist Bill Oddo shares highlights from The Bellevue Gazette’s coverage from 35 years ago.
The Blizzard of ‘78 changed the way people in the region and in the rural areas lived for the next decade clearly and even perhaps through to today. As the Great Depression affected so many people who survived that event — the Blizzard of ‘78 changed how many people who are over the age of 45 think about winter and survival.
Not everyone survived that storm and the snow that entrenched homes and communities in the days and weeks afterward.
To get different stories of that major event, I invited friends from both my personal and The Bellevue Gazette Facebook pages to send photographs and memories this past week. I also made a couple calls.
Although Dennis Sabo and I did not know each other in 1978, we were both 18 and both out after the storm snapping photographs of scenes that had not been seen in Ohio for decades and have not been seen again since.
“I was in high school,” Sabo shared on Friday, “but I was shooting pictures for the paper.”
“When it hit, we were all homebound,” he recalled.
It may be hard to imagine now but not many people had cable TV in the 1970s and most lost power in the city and definitely in the country for days and weeks.
“We were all sitting and listening to Bob Ladd on the radio,” Sabo said, noting all they had was a transistor radio then.
“No one could go out until the wind subsided,” he said.
He recalled seeing the lightening, hearing thunder and seeing the rain before the massive snow storm hit on Jan. 25–26.
While Sabo and his family were in Bellevue, our family lived on State Route 4 in Groton Township — over 7 and a half miles from Sandusky and around 8 miles from Bellevue near the Ohio Turnpike overpass.
The storm hit with all its fury in the area around 4 a.m. and what was later reported as 50 to 70 mile an hour winds took out the power throughout the region.
There was no power, no TV and there were limited batteries in our house for the transistor radio. The house dropped quickly to 50-some degrees due to the howling winds. My grandparents lived next door — maybe 40 feet from our front window, and we could not see it.
The saving grace for our two families was my grandfather put in a potbelly stove in his home the year or so before due to the energy shortage of the 1970s, and my father and mother built a fireplace in a new addition to our home two years earlier.
We had heat, plenty of blankets and sleeping bags. Living in the country — both our house and grandparents’ home had pantries — stocked with basics including potatoes. Both houses became havens for neighbors in the coming days.
Back to Sabo’s adventure — when the wind finally calmed, he said he told his parents he had to go.
“I took my camera and went out,” he said “I kept shooting the whole time.”
In Groton Township, on the first calm day, strangely — our phone worked and my father was called to try and get to Sandusky Crushed Stone in Parkertown — a few miles away. The State of Ohio was hiring heavy equipment companies in the region to try and move the snow.
We owned a nice snowmobile, and Dad traveled on it across the fields to get to work — as my mother fretted.
He was able to get to the stone quarry on Portland Road and got a front end loader to start. It took time but after cleaning a path along roads — he and a co-worker got other men to the quarry — one night shift worker must have gotten caught there by the storm. They worked for days shoving mountains of snow off State Route 4, Route 2, some country roads along the way too, according to my dad (Norman Brooks).
Probably about the time Sabo was out with his camera, I took my Kodak instant camera and got out to the road in front of our house. The snow drifts were immense, some were almost as high as my grandparents’ two-story house. But those were moved when my dad came home with a front-end loader and cleared the highway creating snow tunnels along the state highway.
That piece of equipment was wider than a lane in the highway and taller than the barn outback where he parked it overnight running.
Sabo said the first day he was out he hardly saw anyone. After that — people began to come out and shovel, he said. Shelters were being set up in Bellevue. He recalled the photograph he took of the people who shoveled a tunnel for their car, which appears on the front page today.
“We were trying to find a way to put a paper out,” he said about the Gazette, where he was a stringer and photographer. “We had enough staff to do one, but we had no resources.”
“We were pulling our resources together to get a paper out as soon as we could,” he remembered. “The one thing I remember… after a few days I got the ability to drive around town.”
Sabo, who moved up the ranks to become editor of the Gazette then went into marketing for The Bellevue Hospital, said he recalls clearly how after the storm the sky was blue and how much snow there was.
“When you went out of the city limits it was actually piled up underneath the electric wires,” he added.
Living in Groton Township — I saw the snow in drifts that covered small buildings — cars were totally buried and for the guys from Sandusky Crushed Stone — finding a car in a mound of snow was scary. Dad said they never knew if they would find a body inside. While I don’t remember that happening to his crew — it did happen elsewhere in Ohio and as Bill Oddo shared — there were some local deaths.
From my posting on Facebook, I heard from Karl Kollat, of CR 34 in Adams Township. He shared that he lost his dad, Max, in the blizzard.
Max Kollat, age 77 then, lived alone on CR 34, his wife had died a few years earlier.
At the time Karl lived at the corner of CR 138 and CR 21 near Cooper.
“That first day you couldn’t go out at all,” he said Friday. “The electricity, phones, everything was out.”
He had no way to check on his father at first. Even though Karl had a CB radio and could reach a neighbor of his dad’s, there was still no way someone could get down CR 34 in that storm.
On the second day, Karl said his neighbor had snowmobiles, and he and the neighbor ran and picked up people who had no heat and took them to homes where they could stay warm. “We went to find Dad, and we couldn’t find him,” he shared.
It was two days later on Monday that his dad’s neighbor went out on a snowmobile and found Max lying in a field across from his home.
Karl said the family believes his dad left his own house to go to his neighbor’s house for heat and became disoriented in the blizzard and got lost.
Karl said he and his family have moved to the CR 34 property that had been his dad’s, but they have built a new house there.
Another person from Facebook shared she was in Flat Rock in 1978.
“We were staying at a friend’s house in Flat Rock when the blizzard hit. The next morning we had to walk two blocks to my brother’s house where we were holed up for three days without power, or much heat,” wrote Diane Holley. The Bellevue native notes on her Facebook page she now lives in California.
“ During the trek to his house, however, the wind was so strong it actually picked me up and carried me off!” she added.
“My boyfriend had to run to try and catch me-which he thankfully did, and we battled the snow and wind for an hour to walk two blocks.”
Bellevue Councilwoman Peggy Missler also shared her memories of life during the blizzard.
She was working at the General Electric plant in Bellevue in 1978, she noted.
“A lot of us that lived close to the plant walked to work everyday,” she shared.
“I remember looking out my window (on Ellis) and thinking that anyone would be crazy to go out in that weather. Then I saw Gene Wynbissinger walk by on his way to work.
“I figured that if he was going, I better go to or they might not excuse me. I got bundled up, walked out the front door, and I was on my way. At the corner of Woodard and Ellis, I met up with three other people on their way to GE.
“After I got there I told Gene that he was the reason I was at work. He told me that after he left his house he tried to turn around and go back, but the wind was to strong,” she added.
“GE closed down at 11, and they sent us home. My husband (who never made it to Whirlpool) came in his pick-up truck and took the ones who lived close-by home.
“Then he came back, gathered up about six or eight more and took them to our house. We had about six overnight guests that night.”
After the blizzard of 1978, it became common for people to have more than one heat source in their homes — they added woodburners, propane wall heaters and gas registers. Some people learned to keep extra supplies in their house — especially during winter months. It could be weeks literally before you could get to a store if you lived outside of the city limits.
And both in the city and in the country — people learned their lives truly could depend on their neighbors.