Don’t kid yourself Lawrence. This March Madness thing isn’t anything new. Madness has been a March trait in Lawrence for at least a century.
On this very day 101 years ago — Sunday, March 24, 1912 — Lawrence residents awoke to 19 inches of snow, the largest single snowstorm in the city’s history.
The Monday paper (the bosses back then gave us the day off on Sundays) was full of talk about the “spirit of ’76.” That would be the spirit of 1876, when the city had another massive March snowstorm that dumped 17 inches on the city.
The lead paragraph of the 1912 article went like this: “The spirit of ’76 was abroad Saturday, only instead of being the spirit of 1776 it belonged to 1876. The heaviest snowfall ever recorded by the University for March was in 1876 when 17 inches fell, but Saturday the spirit of that year returned with renewed vigor, and so vigorous was it that it did not disappear until the ground was covered with 19 inches of snow. Rather deep that.”
Indeed, rather deep that.
But hey, it's March. Madness happens. Here in modern day Lawrence we may not be awash in the Spirit of ’76. I haven’t found a sports bar that sells that one yet. But, fear not, there are plenty of other bottles of spirits to choose from during this month of madness.
It seems, though, the madness of 1912 was a little different. I didn’t see as many sports stories on the front page, although the fact the Wentworth Military Academy of Lexington, Mo., canceled its game for Monday did draw a front page mention.
But the big story of the day was a national one. The last of the sailors killed in the explosion of the USS Maine — the event that led to the Spanish-American War — were buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Remember the Maine? I bet you don’t when the tournament is on. But the folks in 1912 did. They really did, because if you remember your history, the Maine sunk in 1898 — 14 years earlier. Already, 165 of the Maine’s dead had been buried in Arlington Cemetery. But a decade later there were still 66 on the bottom of the sea, and Congress ordered them brought home. Two years of salvage operations saw that it was done.
“With all the pomp and solemnity that a mighty nation can pay heroes of war, the last of the dead of the Maine were buried today in Arlington Cemetery,” the front page of the Journal-World proclaimed.
Ships weren’t the only vessels in the news though. A new thing called an automobile also grabbed local headlines. The day before the winter storm, the first meeting of the Douglas County Automobile Association was held in the “parlors of the Eldridge” hotel. Although the paper didn’t say so, I assume with a 19-inch snowstorm approaching, the first meeting of the Douglas County Tow Truck Association also met to celebrate with lobster and caviar.
They would have made a killing in March. The 19-inch storm was just the grand finale. The city in March 1912 received 31 inches of snow for the month, according to the newspaper. It was even worse elsewhere. The paper reported “ice banks” 30 feet high along the Des Moines River in Iowa, and an article in the paper had this to say about the situation along the Mississippi River, overflowing with snow melt: “Practically authentic reports say that the levee along the Mississippi River broke at Mount Pleasant, Mo. this afternoon.”
Practically authentic? This guy was ready for the Twitter age.
But perhaps the most interesting item in the paper was about how Lawrence residents responded to this record snowstorm. Not once was the city’s street car system shut down due to the snow. And by Monday, the paper reported Downtown Lawrence was in fine shape too.
“The down town stores had the streets in front of their locations cleaned of snow so that horses could be driven up in front,” the paper reported. “It was no easy task that.”
Indeed, no easy task that.
But even more interesting was what happened to the sidewalks. Get this: They actually were shoveled, and I don’t even think the city had an ordinance saying they had to be.
“Everywhere one could see men and boys shoveling off the snow fall, for almost everyone seemed to realize that it would be impossible for those to walk who were compelled to be out, unless everyone did their share toward clearing the walk.”
Quite a thought that.
In that same day’s paper, as men and boys surely were feeling the effects of shoveling 19 inches of snow, the paper ran an article reminding everyone that the mayor had set aside April 20 as the city’s “annual clean-up day,” where the city “will be put into its fresh dress for summer.”
“On that day, committees will take the city in charge and will see to it that every nook and corner is swept out and purified.”
It was an effort led by the Lawrence Civic League, which spent all year going to the city’s schools where children were “taught what constitutes a good looking town, and what they can do toward making their home town a ‘city beautiful.’”
After reading about our 1912 forefathers, I have come to a conclusion: They can keep the snow, I’ll keep the basketball, but I’m interested in a bottle of that Spirit of ’76.
March Madness that.
— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at firstname.lastname@example.org.