January 5, 2014

It's Cold and Dark -- Make a Button Lamp!

My dad took this picture of Hanks, North Dakota
 in the winter of 1948.
As I listen to weather forecasts and school closings across the upper Midwest this week, I think back on a story my mom told us. She grew up in Hanks, North Dakota, wayyyy up in the northwest part of the state on the Great Plains. A child of the Depression, she attended a one-room schoolhouse (it’s a museum now) and set out one winter day to walk to school. It was bitter -- that she knew -- but she wasn’t prepared for what the janitor said when she arrived: “Why little girl, there isn’t any school today.  It’s too cold!” So she walked back home.
           Apparently it was -56°F.  That’s what Mama always insisted on, and for years no one believed her. Until a copy of her county newspaper, the Williston Daily Herald, arrived in the mail in the early 1960s. One of those “Do You Remember?” articles pretty much confirmed my mom’s story.
           Thanks to the website WeatherDb, I turned up this fact. On February 16, 1936, the day after Mama turned 9, the low in Williston, ND, was -50.1°F. For 12 days, the thermometer never rose above -10. Hanks was farther north than that, so perhaps it was -56. Either way, that’s cold. 
            Laura Ingalls Wilder told a harrowing tale of cold and hunger in the Dakota Territory in The Long Winter. To illuminate the nights, Ma Ingalls made tiny lights from calico cloth, buttons, and lamp oil. I adapted Laura’s description in my book Theodore Roosevelt for Kids (TR had a Dakota connection himself -- his cattle froze one winter), and here it is. Try making yourself a button lamp, and curl up with a good book during these dark, cold days of winter!


  1. WOWOWOWOW! -56! I guess we need to put on our big girl pants and stop complaining.

  2. Today would be a good day to make a button lamp! I agree with Juliana's comment. We've become a bunch of wimps. ;0)