Thirty-five years ago today, on March 4, 1976 (which was a Thursday), an ice storm smashed into southern Wisconsin. Rain began falling during the morning commute; as the day went on, the rainfall continued, eventually setting a record, while the temperature hovered right around freezing. Up to five inches of ice coated tree branches and power lines, causing them to break. Ice-covered electrical transformers exploded, as shown in a dramatic photo on the front page of the Madison Capital Times on Friday, March 5. Strong winds on Thursday night and Friday brought down more trees and power lines. Even worse than the lack of light and heat was the shortage of water, as pumping stations powered by electricity shut down.
An hour to the south of Madison, the mayor of Monroe declared a state of emergency on Thursday, telling reporters that half the mature trees in the city were down or damaged. City crews cleared broken branches from the streets with snowplows. Up to half the homes in the city were without power. Shelters were set up at the Armory and City Hall.
At our farm southwest of Monroe, we lost the lights at about 11:30 on Thursday morning. It was a common occurrence in those days—the power would go out a few times each summer during thunderstorms, although it was rare for it to happen in the winter. If I’m recalling correctly, my father had a generator by this time, purchased after the Palm Sunday tornado of 1965. It would provide enough power to milk his cows, but the generator was never used to power the house. We had to hunker down and ride it out. For a while it seemed like an adventure, until we kids realized that our well had an electric pump, and water was about to get scarce. I can still remember how my mother went off when one of us flushed a toilet by force of habit at some point on Thursday evening. That, and the sound of the wind howling around the dark, cold farmhouse.
By Friday evening, the power situation was getting better; the winds had died down a little, permitting crews to repair some lines, but it would be a long time before all of the darkened rural areas would get power back. (Ours wouldn’t return until Sunday afternoon.) And so my brothers and I were packed off to stay with friends in town. Travel conditions had improved enough so that my high school’s basketball team could play its regional tournament game in Platteville, an hour away; the friend I was staying with went to the game, but for some reason I didn’t. (It was just as well—Monroe lost 73-39 to Madison West.)
The basketball game showed that even in the face of an historic event, the day-to-day stuff of life continued. Some of that stuff is on the flip.
That Friday night, whatever local restaurants were open were most likely offering a fish fry special, because this is Wisconsin and that’s what we have always done. Most of them cost about $2.50 per person—and most of the restaurants advertising them in the newspaper on that Friday are gone now, the Goalpost and Nino’s Steak Round-Up and Rohde’s and the Left Guard (owned by Fuzzy Thurston of the Green Bay Packers) and the Heritage House Smorgasbord. After dinner, you could see The Sunshine Boys, The Magic Flute, The Man Who Would Be King, or Jaws at local theaters—or the X-rated Story of O, The Whistle Blowers, or The Broccoli Patch. There was a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Stage Door Theater on Johnson Street, billed as “a different set of Jaws,” in its first Madison showing. And in a more wide-open day, strip clubs and massage parlors advertised right in the newspaper right alongside the movies and restaurants: the Dangle Lounge and the Whiskey A Go Go and Jan’s Health Studio.
The first-ever state girls basketball tournament went on as scheduled in Madison, but there had been no plans to televise it, and even if there had been, you probably couldn’t have seen it. Two of the city’s commercial TV stations, WISC and WKOW, were off the air. At WMTV, which was apparently still on the air (the story in the paper wasn’t clear), ice was the major problem, falling from the transmitter tower and smashing through the roof of the station’s administrative offices, which were not in the concrete-reinforced part of the station building. Employees were told to wear hard-hats outside the building. Madison’s cable system struggled with outages as well.
Most of the city’s radio stations remained on the air, however—and that’s what mattered to me, for I was wired to my little battery-operated portable that weekend, just as I would have been if the lights had been on. When I first wrote about the storm years ago, I summed it up as follows, and I wouldn’t change a word.
[Several] records from early March 1976 can still bring back those stormy days—even though I’ve listened to a lot of them over and over since then. Eric Carmen’s bombastic “All By Myself” and Gary Wright’s spaced-out “Dream Weaver” were in the hot rotation. And there was “Squeeze Box” by the Who and “Fanny” by the Bee Gees, the theme from S.W.A.T. and “Love Hurts” by Nazareth, “Slow Ride” by Foghat and “Golden Years” by David Bowie and at least 32 others on the Top 40—because no matter what, come hell or high water or five inches of ice, when you’ve just turned 16 and you’re obsessed with rock on the radio, the hits must keep on comin’.