A massive blizzard formed in the skies over the Great Plains during the early spring of 1931. It would have been a dangerous storm any time of the year, but no one expected snow in late March. Many of the region's residents were completely surprised by one of the worst gales on record in western Kansas.
The Thomas family lived on a farm outside Dighton, about 85 miles from the Kansas-Colorado border, in a region that had been settled only 50 years earlier. Daniel Thomas, born in Indiana, moved to western Kansas sometime around 1890. He married in the 1910s and, with wife Leatha, raised a family and crops. By 1930, the Thomas household included six children, among them the eldest son, Dean.
Dighton's citizens thought spring had finally arrived when March 26, 1931, dawned warm and rainy. But by mid-afternoon the temperature had dropped and the rain had changed to snow. Conditions continued to deteriorate into the evening, with the wind growing in intensity. The snow came down exceedingly heavily for 24 hours, and strong northwest winds blew it into impassable drifts as high as buildings in some places. Visibility plummeted. Sub-zero temperatures made the situation even more dangerous.
The Dighton Herald claimed the storm made it "impossible to see as far as one could reach an arm and hand" by late Thursday. A young man caught out in the blizzard in eastern Colorado later described its intensity:
"The snow was like talcum powder, driving right up our nostrils. We could hardly breathe. We had rags the size of big bandannas around our faces, pulled up close to our eyes, trying to keep our faces from freezing and at the same time trying to keep that awful fine snow from freezing our lungs. Walking in the wind was almost impossible."
--Elbern Coons, "Blizzard"
Across the border in Kansas, young Dean Thomas had the misfortune of becoming ill with appendicitis during the first evening of the raging storm. His parents and the local doctor tried to drive the boy to the nearest hospital but their car stalled in a drift. So severe were the conditions that most members of the party suffered frostbite while carrying Dean just two blocks from the abandoned vehicle to his grandparents' home.
The Thomases called a wrecker to pull the car from the drift, but it became lodged in snow ten feet deep. Dean remained in Dighton for the duration of the blizzard. Although his parents and doctor tended him around-the-clock, Dean's appendix ruptured and peritonitis set in. At least two days passed before he could be moved 50 miles to the Garden City hospital. He survived an operation and seemed to rally, but died the following day. Dean was just ten years old.
People deal with grief in different ways. Leatha Thomas carefully set aside her son's belongings in a trunk. She preserved this shirt and overalls, as well as toys (including his harmonica), other garments, school awards, and the deed for Dean's cemetery plot. Outwardly, she raised her five children and ran the household. Inwardly, her thoughts often turned to the son she lost during one of the worst weather events in Kansas history. After Leatha passed away, her descendants continued to preserve Dean's memory by donating the collection of his personal items to the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Child's Overalls
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 2010
Date Modified: December 2014
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