2018-01-18 / Front Page

Blizzard of ‘78 left indelible mark on county

40-year anniversary approaches
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Tim Eggert was a green 20-year-old Road Commission employee with about a month under his belt when the Blizzard of ‘78 hit Leelanau County and northern Michigan.

He’d never seen anything like it and has rarely seen anything like it since.

“Once the storm hit they sent me home,” said Eggert, who at the time lived with his parents in the Village of Suttons Bay. “They knew they were going to need someone to make repairs to tire chains. I worked from 3 p.m. to midnight on just those. There were piles of them all over the floor.”

The Blizzard of ‘78 is the most recent incident among the seven worst winters in American history, according to Ancestry.com.

The storm January 26-28, 1978, was the result of the rare merging of two intense low-pressure areas in the eastern Great Lakes, one of the lows moving northward from the Gulf of Mexico and bringing moist air with it.

Nearly three feet of snow fell in the three-day period in Leelanau County. Formidable on its own, but coupled with winds of 70 mph, the three-day blow made the Blizzard of 1978, one for the ages.

“There have been some storms comparable with regard to strength and barometric pressure,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Keysor said. “But in size and strength, the Blizzard of ‘78 is one of the, if not the most, memorable storms in a lifetime.”

The blizzard paralyzed activity countywide.

“Everything came to a standstill,” said John VanRaalte, who at the time was the 43-year-old owner of Van’s Garage in Leland. VanRaalte’s business offered towing, but there was no towing in the Blizzard of ‘78. “No one could get out or go anywhere. The roads were totally impassable.

“With the exception of a couple Jeeps with plows, it was very rare for people to have 4-wheel drive,” he said. “We were snowed in and not going anywhere.”

VanRaalte was able to get out to assess the aftermath of the storm on snowmobiles.

“Drifts on Co. Rd. 641 reached the top utility lines,” he said.

Snowdrifts of 15 feet or more piled up in some sections of the county with solid 4-foot drifts common on stretches of a number of main roads.

“Generally, the heaping up of snow at any given place was greater than longtime residents ever saw before,” storm coverage in the Feb. 2, 1978 Enterprise read.

Road commissioner engineer-manage at the time, Jim Gilbo, now deceased, estimated that 100 cars were stranded in the early stages of the storm.

“Battering winds and more than 34 inches of snow combined to turn the county into a ‘moonscape’ — all roads were choked with drifting snow and astounding drifts formed around building,” Gilbo said. “Piles of snow, some 15 feet high, built up in some areas.”

All county schools were closed that Thursday and Friday and at Glen Lake School, classes didn’t resume until the next Tuesday to allow crews to clean up some of the worst-hit locations in the county.

Madeline Houdek as a sophomore at Glen Lake during the blizzard.

She lived just south of Cedar on Co. Rd. 651 with her parents Larry and Eunice Novak, who at the time had five of their eight children at home.

“It was one of the few times we didn’t get to church on Sunday,” Houdek said. “The drifts were huge.”

Nearly every road in the county closed at some point during the storm with tightly-packed snowdrifts.

M-72, M-22 West, the Bodus, Gills Pier and Northport area, and road near Holy Rosary Church were just a few extra-heavy troubled spots.

Not only were regular motorists sidetracked, the storm brought to a halt delivery of staples such as milk and bread.

This didn’t impact the Novaks who had a chest freezer full of beef and potatoes and apples stored in a root cellar built into the side of a hill behind their home.

“I remember shoveling a path to the door of the root cellar,” she said. “It was a tunnel.”

But it did prove a challenge for workers at Sugar Loaf north of Cedar. Like everyone else, hotel staff who worked the day shift, were unable to get home. So they stayed at the resort. That was a good thing as more than 500 people who had come by motorcoach to ski at the resort, were also stranded.

“We had a full house,” said Maggie Daniels, who was the food and beverage director at the ‘Loaf that January. “Everyone who was there in uniform Friday working was there three days later.

“We couldn’t go anywhere. We had to wait several days before we could get to the road and to our houses.”

Staff stayed six in a room — one of guys and another for girls — with some sleeping wherever they could find a spot

Charlie McDonald was the executive chef at Sugar Loaf in 1978. He was a one-man cook and bottle washer in the kitchen turning out food for hundreds.

“I was stuck in the kitchen for a couple of days,” said McDonald, who lived at the resort and walked back and forth from home to work. “I looked out in the parking lot and all I could see was antennae. The cars were snowed over. It was unreal.”

Elsewhere in the county a 34-year-old Dave Taghon operated Taghon’s Gas Station on the corner of M-22 and M-72. He remembers the blizzard well.

“It was a dandy. The village itself wasn’t bad. Len Shalda (DPW head) did a great job cleaning things up,” Taghon said. “But we were blocked in from every direction.”

Taghon also sold snowmobiles at the time and had brand new Kawasaki Invader that he wanted to take for a spin. But it took some work

“I had a heck of a time getting it out … I had to dig through 6 or 7 feet of snow to reach it,” he said.

Vehicles on the road at the time of the blizzard stopped in their tracks. It took several days for the Road Commission to open up main roads.

Taghon, who also ran a wrecker service, was kept busy maneuvering around plow trucks to pull out stranded vehicles.

At the other end of the county in Northport, Hugh Cook was a newlywed and went the extra mile to get his new bride to work.

“We lived on Waukazoo and I had to walk up to my dad’s house on Sixth Street to borrow his snowmobile to get my wife up the hill to work at (Leelanau Memorial) hospital,” Cook said. “There was a 6-foot drift on the main street. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

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I was not the Food and

I was not the Food and Beverage Director at Sugarloaf. I was a server in the dining room during the time of the blizzard.