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January 29, 2014

LOOKING BACK: January 1918 Snowstorm — The milk must go through!

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LOOKING BACK: January 1918 Snowstorm — The milk must go through!

Those of us living in Michigan this winter have really enjoyed a snowy winter season. And while we can complain about road conditions, imagine the life of travel during the days of horses and wagons, railroads and the interurban system. Dr. Sarah Van Hoosen Jones recounts this winter story in her autobiography, “Chronicle of Van Hoosen Centenary Farm.”

Most of the time, the freight was on schedule and rarely failed, but there came times when winter weather prevented the cars (interurban) from getting to the farm stop, even keeping them a time or two from coming through Rochester. This applied also to the railroad, as evidenced in January 1918.

The code of the milkman was always to see that the milk got through, for if it did not, sick people and babies would suffer. The Detroit United Railway called by phone and said they could not make it to the farm, and the Michigan Central Railroad phoned Van Hoosen Farm manager Frank Barnett to say they could not get a plow through on the rail lines. Barnett usually relied on his oldest son to help, but he was in the Army during World War I, so he and his second son decided that their old team of horses could make it from the Van Hoosen Farm to Detroit.

“What do you say?” Barnett said to his son. “I don’t like to think of those sick folks and babies without milk.”

It was nine o’clock Sunday morning when a score of milk cans was packed in the sleigh with hay and blankets to protect them, and the two men climbed in, wrapped up to the eyes. They had shovels with them to dig through the drifts. At Wattles station, they stopped to take on a neighbor’s milk that went to Harper Hospital. Near Royal Oak, they took on a few more cans. At ten o’clock Sunday night, after taking 13 hours to make 28 miles, they drew up at their destination in Detroit.

“And they treated us real well,” said Mr. Barnett. “They took our horses in and cared for them and they gave us our supper and rented a hotel room for us. They were so pleased to get the milk that I was glad I took the chance.”

According to newspaper accounts, January 1918 was one of the coldest months in Michigan’s history, with records set in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Muskegon. At least one worker on the Michigan Central Railroad died of exposure trying to clear the snow in Albion, and six other Michigan residents died in the winter storm of Jan. 15, 1918.

— Patrick J. McKay, Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm