1940-41 cold spell was one to remember

As I write this column, the Mid-South is experiencing one of the longest cold spells in many years. During most of December, much of the surface water in the Delta was frozen over. The ducks that the cold front sent down our way either continued on south or took up residence in the beds of the rivers. They have especially taken to the Mississippi River, where a great many fine willow flats have been inundated, offering fine resting areas and some food prospects from plant growth.

I used to look forward to this sort of situation since it moved thousands of mallards and a sizable number of Canada geese down this way from the many refuges in Illinois and Kentucky. (The length and low temperatures of this condition must be giving ex-presidential candidate lots of trouble. I personally hope that his "global warming" theory will take hold immediately and give us Deep Southerners a respite.)

Young people I've talked with recently have had lots to say about this cold spell, which really isn't very cold at all and doesn't come close to some of the cold spells we Old Timers went through long before today's generation was born.

The most notable one of my lifetime was the almost unbelievable winter of December 1940 and January 1941. At that time I was a very young man working at a rather famous service station and auto tire outlet in Clarksdale, Miss. (The place was an all-night business. If there was a key or lock on the place, I never saw it. My job was to run the place at night, going on at 6 p.m. and being relieved at 6 a.m. the next day.)

I saw the beginning of this cold spell a few days after Christmas. The mercury dropped like a stone and a rather heavy snowfall covered the Delta. From that day in late December until late January (about the 20th, I believe), the temperature never rose enough to thaw anything. Some folks who went through that cold spell will tell you that the temperature never got above the freezing mark for almost a month.

Swan Lake, a sizable but shallow duck heaven that borders the little town of Jonestown, Miss., froze all the way to the bottom. The water was a huge block of ice all the way down to the mud. I recall that when it finally warmed up, it took about two weeks for the lake to thaw.

Even harder to believe is that Moon Lake, an oxbow as much as a mile wide in places and 10 miles long in Coahoma County, Miss., froze over except for a small area near the middle. There thousands of mallards managed to keep the lake open. Game wardens and local hunters hauled tremendous amounts of shelled corn out to the open pool. Those ducks became so tame they almost would eat out of your hand. (A couple of idiotic hunters I know drove pickup trucks out on the ice, but were fortunate enough to not break through and drown.)

The Mississippi River froze solid and a few other fools walked across it from the old ferry landing in Coahoma County, Miss., to Helena, Ark. My friend, the late Happy Bond, who operated a well-remembered cafe in Clarksdale, Miss., had a huge photograph of the frozen Mississippi River on the wall of his restaurant that was a fine conversation piece for as long as the restaurant survived.

Unlike Moon Lake, which offered a smooth frozen surface, the Big River was a jumble of thousands of small icebergs frozen together to create a scene not unlike one of Arctic regions when the ice breaks up and then re-freezes.

Ducks and geese managed to survive quite well, but ground feeding small birds like quail suffered greatly. About 10 days after the thaw I explored the quail-hunting territory and found many dead birds. One small bunch I found tried to fly, but they were so weak that they fluttered down after only a few yards. Remarkable, however, enough quail survived to produce fine spring hatches and the birds snapped back from their losses.

So, to you of the younger generations, don't complain about a little cold snap. You should have been around during the Big Freeze of 1940-41. Then you would have something to write home about.

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