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.