When John Carroll Power was collecting material for his 1876 history of Sangamon County’s early settlers, he was frequently asked, “Has any person told you about the sudden change?” Several old-timers recalled to him the bizarre events of Dec. 20, 1836.
They began when a very dark cloud appeared in the northwestern horizon, approaching very rapidly and accompanied by a deep bellowing sound. According to Power’s informants, water and slush were almost instantly turned to ice, and water running off sloping ground was, in Power’s words, “congealed as suddenly as molten lead would harden and form in ridges if poured on the ground.“
Power compiled a great many instances from all parts of the county of the effects of that dramatic drop in temperature. “It has been told me time and again,” he wrote, “that chickens and geese, also hogs and cows, were frozen in the slush as they stood, and unless they were extricated by cutting the ice from about their feet, remained there to perish.”
Perhaps the most compelling anecdote came from Washington Crowder, who that morning had started on horseback from a point on Sugar Creek eight miles south of Springfield to the county seat to obtain a marriage license for himself and his fiancee, Isabel Laughlin.
There were several inches of snow on the ground, but a slow rain had turned most of it to slush. When he reached a point about four miles south of Springfield, Crowder could see a menacing dark cloud approaching from the north and west.
Crowder, who was carrying an open umbrella, dropped the bridle reins onto the neck of his horse to close the umbrella. He was in the act of taking hold of the bridle rein again when the cold wave struck him. Water had been dripping from everything about him, but when he drew the reins taut, ice rattled from them, he said.
Crowder was wearing an overcoat that nearly reached his feet. When he arrived in Springfield, he tried to dismount, he recalled, but his overcoat held him frozen to his saddle “as firmly as though it had been made of sheet iron.” Two men had to carry him and the saddle into a building, where he thawed out next to a fire.
“Mr. Crowder admits that it was a very thorough test of his devotion (to Laughlin), but it must be conceded that he proved himself equal to the emergency,” Power wrote.
However, Power finished his tale on a skeptical note. “These statements have been given to me altogether from memory, more than thirty-five years after the event,” he concluded, “and no doubt vary greatly from what a scientific report at the time would have presented.”
Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.