1873 Norfolk ice storm

IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO know if citizens of Norfolk were warned that a snow and ice storm was headed their way before it hit and disrupted life by coating the town in ice, as shown in this photograph. We do know that Norfolk’s weather has been monitored since 1873 when Louis Sessions took on the task of recording the daily temperature and precipitation.

There’s no doubt, weather is always a topic of conversation — whether it’s good, bad or ugly. This year, we’ve had all three — a few beautiful, sunny, calm days; our fair share of bitter cold, windy days; and little moisture, which I’ll put in the ugly category.

Thankfully, keeping track of the weather is easy enough. All it takes is a glance at our phone to know the current temperature and what’s coming in the hours and days ahead. If a phone isn’t available, there’s always TV, newspapers and radio.

But somewhere, someone is monitoring the weather around the world to tell us when to expect snow, high winds and low temperatures.

In Norfolk, the first weather observations were made by Lewis Sessions in 1873, just seven years after the town was founded. Then, the Norfolk businessman tracked the daily temperature and precipitation amounts. Record keeping was interrupted from time to time between 1873 and 1895, but records have been kept continually since then.

Those early weather records were needed so farmers would “know the conditions under which they would grow their crops and raise their livestock,” according to a Daily News article in 1950. The article suggests explorers Lewis & Clark were the first people to record weather patterns when they traveled along the Missouri River in what would later become Nebraska. After the U.S. Army established posts in the Nebraska Territory in the 1940s, the surgeon at each post was made the official weather observer, “since he was usually the only scientifically-trained man” available.

In 1870, the Smithsonian Institution took over the task. Twenty years later, the job was given to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That organization developed the weather bureau, which was transferred to the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1940.

Before Norfolk had an official weather bureau, local citizens continued to monitor the weather and kept the records at their homes, just as Lewis Sessions had done in the 1870s. Dr. P. H. Salter served for almost 40 years — from 1898 to 1937. He was followed by Dr. H.S. Salter, W.S. Butterfield and N.S. Barth.

Norfolk’s weather bureau opened in 1945 with its office at the city auditorium. Harold Alexander was the meteorologist. A year later, the office was moved to the airport administration building. In 1950, the routine information provided included the temperature, precipitation, atmospheric pressure, variations in temperature, wind velocity and direction, soil moisture at various depths and radar observations. People who have lived in Norfolk for a while may recognize the names of the men who worked with Alexander — Louis Slaybaugh, Luke Kunkel and Bob Moreland. They could be heard on the radio giving their daily forecasts.

Today, the government operates the National Weather Service, which is still a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The office in Valley provides much of the weather information for Northeast Nebraska., information that is gathered using the latest gadgets.

But weather observers still play a valuable role. Even today, the Daily News relies on loyal rainfall reporters who call in precipitation totals from their locations — information that is included in the highly read charts that are published in the paper.

When stormy weather occurs, volunteer spotters keep an eye on the sky, looking for suspicious activity.

So while technology has aided the manner in which weather information is gathered and forecasts are made, those human observers and spotters still play a vital role in letting us know if we should expect sunny skies or stormy weather.

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