Backtracking: In Our Times: Local snowmobilers proved helpful during 1969 snowstorm

FileDuring the worst of a winter snowstorm, this ad was seen in The Oneonta Star on Dec. 27, 1969. While some may have taken advantage of the fun, other snowmobilers sprang into action to help people in remote areas or with emergencies. 

Christmas of 1969 had come to an end on a Thursday. In our region, if returning or exchanging gifts were in your plans the next day, they needed to be put on hold for a few days. If you were among the fortunate who got a new snowmobile as a gift, your popularity probably soared locally that year, maybe in a few cases to that of becoming a local hero.

“In the wake of the storm which dumped upwards of two feet of snow on The Star area,” as reported in the Saturday, Dec. 27, edition, “Otsego County Sheriff Harold F. Knapp declared a state of emergency at 4 p.m. yesterday to last until noon today. Only emergency vehicles will be allowed on the road.”

The northern parts of Otsego County were hit the hardest. State and county roads were open but town roads were reported closed. The Cherry Valley bypass of U.S. Route 20 was closed and several cars were stranded there. About 50 people spent Saturday night at the Richfield Springs Central School, “sleeping on mats and getting meals from the homemaking room and the one diner open in the village.”

In Cooperstown, Main Street was plugged until noon. The hill between Fly Creek and Cooperstown was blocked and more than 50 cars were stranded along its length. Any businesses that stayed open had people working who lived within walking distance.

In Oneonta, almost all downtown businesses were closed. Mayor Albert S. Nader said that while crews were doing their best to keep the main streets open for emergencies, the side streets would have to wait.

For me and my buddies of elementary school age in our Oneonta neighborhood, this meant it was time to break out the sleds and head over to the hills on the upper level of Wilber Park.

Our region wasn’t alone. Snow fell in some areas of New York at the rate of an inch per hour, causing the New York Thruway to close in a 282-mile section from Harriman to Geneva.

As for the snowmobiles, growing more popular for use in winter recreation, the Star reported on Monday, Dec. 29, “Friday afternoon, someone called WDOS to complain about snowmobiles running up and down Chestnut Street.” The radio station was then located in the former Keyes house at the corner of West and Chestnut streets, next to the Star. “At that time, there may have been something to complain about, but as time went on and the snow got deeper, comments about the snowmobiles changed from complaints to compliments.”

The snow got deeper and people began worrying about food, medicine and emergency situations. Calls then came to WDOS, along the lines of, “If you need help, call … I have a snowmobile.” There was plenty of response.

Through the worst of the storm, WDOS manager Al Sayers and announcer Ron Shapley stayed behind the microphone to bring news from state police, city streets officials and hospitals — as well as the snowmobile offers — to listeners. The duo likely kept local plow crews company during the 20 to 28 hours of being on duty while clearing streets and roads.

In Mount Upton, members of the newly formed Ridge Runners offered their snowmobiles to give aid. Fuel and medicine trips were made to help people.

“Then the call came through to stand by as a pickup truck was used to help bring an expectant mother down from a remote hill area and make the rough ten mile trip to The Hospital in Sidney over snow-clogged roads. The truck made it, and the baby arrived some thirty minutes later.”

The Otsego Snow Travelers Club performed similar errands to those needing help, among them getting two D&H Railway trainmen to work so they could hop aboard a diesel locomotive and get to a train wreck in Afton.

“Even the storm couldn’t kill the Christmas spirit, however, and the Snow Travelers were called upon to deliver a lady to help cater a Christmas cocktail party.”

As the Star concluded, “The snowmobiles, which we see advertised for fun in the snow, proved their worth this weekend, and as one man who had been the recipient of food and fuel by way of the snowmobile said, ‘Without those guys, I would have been in trouble.’”

This weekend: As this column enters its 17th year, the year 1925 was entered with a bit of sorrow, with the loss of a prominent Oneontan.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

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