Greene County residents are experiencing a mild winter compared with an event that occurred 70 years ago this week.
A February 9, 1936 headline in the Des Moines Register, “Dog Team Rushes Food to 75 Marooned Iowans”, describes the heroics of 4 dogs and Bill Van Horn. The second weekend of February 1936 was eventful for the miners and truckers at the Greene County Coal Mine. It was an active mine, bringing up 400 tons of coal daily. A blizzard hit on Friday afternoon trapping 75 persons; 17 miners along with 58 truckers. The drivers were from as far away as St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as this was described as the only active mine in the mid west.
The winter of 1936 had been terrible. There were 20 days of continuous below zero weather during January and February. During this period of cold there was one snow storm after another that kept the roads blocked. Hundreds of families were isolated in Greene County as there was only one 2-way snowplow, and three smaller 1-way plows. The snow was packed so hard that men went ahead and broke the crust with shovels in an effort to keep the roads open. Almost everyone was out of coal.
The miners were working overtime to take care of the needs of the people when they were caught by a severe snow and wind storm. Many of the truckers waiting in line to pick up coal had lunches with them, but that food, along with the miner’s lunch room was depleted by Sunday.
William Van Horn, 36, former boxer, had four police dogs that he had trained to pull a sleigh. He hitched them to a sled, he had made, measuring, 6 feet by 2 feet, with handles on the back. It was loaded with150 pounds of provisions; bread, coffee, sugar, meat, and canned milk.. Van Horn left Jefferson at 7:30 A.M. Sunday morning, and reported back by telephone at 12:30 P.M. that he had reached the mine. The driver said he started from town on snow-blocked roads and then went to the Raccoon River and drove on the river nearly all the way to the mine. Billy Van Horn’s report indicated the men were out of food, but in a jovial mood as he halted the dog sled in front of the mine.
At the time of the Register’s report, a rotary snowplow was on its way to Jefferson from Charles City but was not expected soon.
A poem written by Alkali Al, was printed in the Glidden Graphic and describes the story and praise for the Van Horn Dog Team ending with the phrase…. “Some man is Bill Van Horn”. This poem in its entirety is available in the History of Rippey; copies are available for review at the Greene County Historical Society.
Information for this article was obtained from the History of Rippey 1849-1956, and Brief History of Greene County, 1940. The photos are courtesy of the Greene County Historical Museum donated by Mr. Van Horn’s granddaughter, Mrs. Chuck Benge of Burlington, Iowa.
Remnants of the mine entrance and a marker south of the present Squirrel Hollow Park indicate the location of the Greene County Coal Mine.
First picture of the dog sleds. Click for full size image and click back to return.