Cold Anniversary: Moscow, Idaho, Resident Recalls 1968 Record Chill

(This was a short take I wrote Jan. 29, 2013, for JAMM-425 Feature Article Writing at University of Idaho.)

By Jonathan Gradin

Every year, new college students complain about the cold as temperatures dip below freezing. Moscow resident and retired physical education teacher Terry Peterson, who grew up in Pullman, holds that “they don’t know what cold is.”

Her claims are well founded.

Terry and her husband of 45 years, Mike, are survivors of the coldest winter in Moscow history, which peaked on the night of their first anniversary, Dec. 30, 1968. While temperatures in town plummeted to -42 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature in the low-lying Palouse Hills Mobile Home Park (southwest of town) further plunged to -52. Terry was a junior physical education student at Washington State University, while Mike—four years her senior—was a sophomore attending University of Idaho after a four-year stint in the Navy.

“We lived in an old—it was a Great Lakes, but we called it a ‘Great Leaks’—10-by-47 mobile home,” Terry said. “It got cold enough that propane liquifies, and we heated with oil, and oil congeals.”

Peterson and her husband did not notice that the heat was not working until they woke early the next morning. Thankfully they had insulated the propane tank with snow—their oven and stove ran on gas—so they had enough to keep warm. Brutus, their cat, stayed warm with the help of an electrical heating pad placed on a kitchen chair, she recalled. Heat tape wrapping and proper underskirt siding kept water pipes from freezing, although she kept the water running to make certain.

“Another thing that happens with those old mobile homes is that the frost forms around your electrical outlets, and that was a little bit of a concern,” she said. “My husband was an electronics technician, so he went around and wiped them all down real well before we plugged anything in.”

Mike buried the car and the pickup with several feet of snow, Terry said, adding that they were fortunate to own two cars, thanks to Mike’s GI Bill funding, and were the only people in the trailer park with a vehicle that would start. The car—an early ’60s Ford Galaxy 500 4-speed—would start without problems, but the Ford truck was a bit sluggish.

“My husband is a little bit of a stubborn Swede, and he did not want to get [the car] out,” Terry said. “He remembers taking the trouble light…he took that and put it under the oil case, the oil pan of the truck.”

Other residents in the trailer park were not as fortunate or prepared.

“We had friends, another young couple, that had just bought a new mobile home, a bigger one, like 12 by 70,” Peterson said. “They were five trailers down… They had not gotten their trailer sided in, they had a new baby, and she got up to change his diaper and feed him, and they had no heat and no water. Their water had frozen, so my husband spent the majority of the day trying to get them sided in.”

Temperatures the next day reached a high around -20, with a New Year’s Eve low around -30. Mike and Terry celebrated the holiday and a belated first wedding anniversary that night with dinner and a drink at the Nobby Inn in Moscow (now the Breakfast Club). Terry, 20 at the time, remembered that the drinking age in Idaho was 20, because she was able to drink in Idaho but not in Washington.

After the cold spell, the Petersons resumed their life. Mike worked as a TV repairman while in school, and Terry was a student librarian in WSU’s humanities library. She recalled with a laugh that she would research and write papers for her husband and his friends. After graduation, Mike and Terry taught physical education in local schools.

“We had these grandiose plans that when we graduated we would go to Alaska and teach,” Terry said, laughing. “Forty-five years later we’re still in Moscow.”

Terry said she has no desire to endure another chiller.

“If it gets that cold, I don’t know if I could find enough sweatpants to keep warm.”

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