Towner Bus Tragedy:
33 Hours Frozen in Time
All the signs were there for those who took the time to notice: a blizzard was coming, and it was shaping up to be a bad one.
It was early on a Thursday morning in late March. When the sun rose at 5:45, the temperature was already on the rise, ultimately reaching close to 60 degrees before it was even 9:00 AM. Maybe the snowstorm that had hit just a week before was the last one of the season. After all, getting two big storms in March was, at the very least, uncommon. Yes, the air was strangely still, and anyone who knew the High Plains knew the sky, now blue, could turn with little notice. But sixty degrees so early in the morning made the forecast for snow seem unlikely, at best. And, although it’s clearly speculation, it would have been only natural for people to have longed for the rebirth that spring was supposed to bring.
The year was 1931. The last decade or so had been nothing but hardship. Sure, the war had brought top dollar prices for crops and livestock, but no sooner was the Kaiser’s Army defeated than those prices dropped, leaving the farmers and ranchers nothing to do but spend the 1920s scraping by as best they could while the rest of the country prospered.
1930 came, bringing more wind than rain such that, by the time 1931 rolled around, the people of Kiowa County were fully in the throes of the Great Depression and feeling the same strain experienced by just about everyone everywhere. Suffice it to say, times—already tough enough—were only getting tougher.
However, living in Kiowa County requires a certain kind of resolve, and even dirt storms and an economy that had gone to hell in a handbasket were not going to interfere with those things that were a priority in life. And one of those priorities was school.
A county that covers almost 1800 square miles with a population in 1931 of about 3800 people is a county full of wide open spaces with significant distance between farmhouses and even greater distances between towns. The idea of transporting children to school in a central location defied common sense. Far better to put the schools in places where small groups of children from neighboring farms could attend. And so it was that, in 1931, Kiowa County had 19 school districts with a total of 31 school buildings and 62 teachers, many of whom were young and relatively new to the occupation.
The Pleasant Hill School District was no different. Located south of Towner in the eastern section of Kiowa County just west of the Kansas border, the school district consisted of what was standard at the time. There were two one-room schoolhouses placed in the middle of a field. No trees for shade or windbreak, no playground equipment for the children. Just two buildings, one for grades one through six and the other for grades seven and eight with outhouses in the back.
The schoolhouses themselves were not in the best of shape. Again, it was a different era. The buildings were drafty and the wind, which blew more often than not, found its way through sealed windows and closed doors. There was, of course, no running water. No reason to keep food for the children since food for the noon meal was brought from home in a tin lunch pail. One small coal stove in the corner and a less than abundant supply of coal was used to heat the entire room, usually with little success.
The fact that there were two schoolhouses was actually an expansion. The smaller of the two buildings, the one used for the seventh and eighth grade classes, had been brought from the Stonebraker farm just the year before. The building was much appreciated and named “New Hope School,” perhaps in homage to the better times that must surely be waiting in the future. Likewise, there were two schoolteachers, both in their mid-twenties. Mrs. Maude Moser, who had been teaching at Pleasant Hill for more than 5 years, taught the elementary students. Franz Freiday, a first year teacher, taught seventh and eighth.
A total of about 30 students attended Pleasant Hill School District, and the morning of March 26, 1931 began just like any other day. Parents woke them up early and got them ready for school. The warm weather and sunny skies made some of the children anxious to shed the bulky coats, hats and mittens typically worn to school during winter months.
Thirteen year old Louise Stonebraker was especially anxious to wear a gift she had gotten for her birthday, eventually convincing her mother to let her wear the lovely, lightweight sweater instead of the heavy jacket she normally wore.
Not so with the Huffaker family whose six children all attended Pleasant Hill. Laura Huffaker, now 94 years old and living in Oklahoma, had a different experience with her mother that morning. “We were getting ready to go to school,” she said, “and mother tied a hood on me under my chin and said, ‘Now, it’s going to be cold today so you leave this on and keep warm.’” Laura was seven years old at the time, making her one of the youngest students at the school.
Meanwhile, the two men responsible for bringing the students to school were getting ready to leave.
Oscar Reinart, 31, who transported 7 students from the western part of the area, got in his car and set out on his route.
Carl Miller, who had turned 30 years old just two weeks before, was in charge of delivering 20 students from the eastern part of the county. He drove the “school bus,” which was actually a 1929 Chevrolet truck that had a wooden school bus body attached to the bed (a common practice for rural schools at the time). Inside, there were two wooden benches where the students sat. There was no radio, no heater and two windows in the back were broken and patched with cardboard.
The students on Carl’s bus ranged in age from 7 to 14 years old. The youngest girl, Mary Louise, was Carl’s daughter.
Their respective routes normally took Miller about an hour to complete and Reinart less than that. The county had few roads at the time, but that wasn’t a problem since most people followed the common practice of taking makeshift “roads” that ran straight across pastures and were used to get from one house to another.
Nonetheless, it seemed like a routine morning for Reinart and Miller, as well, and both set out on time. However, how they each ended up could not have been more different.
Sometime between picking students up and making it to school, the weather in eastern Colorado began to change. Blue sky vanished behind dark and ominous winter storm clouds. The wind, which had been almost eerily still, began to pick up.
All the signs were there for those who took the time to notice: a blizzard was coming, and it was shaping up to be a bad one.
Meanwhile, teachers Moser and Freiday were at the school, anxiously waiting for the students to arrive. Reinart never showed up. He saw the storm’s approach and took his seven charges to the Crum house where the eight of them stayed with the farmer’s family for the next day and a half.
Carl Miller and the 20 students on his bus were not so fortunate.
With one eye on the sky, Miller made it to the school, and the students poured off the bus to play outside before school started. Carl approached the teachers and expressed his concern. What happened next would shape the future more than anyone could have imagined.
The teachers—primarily Maude Moser—told Carl to take the students back.
Miller protested. As described in the Pleasant Hill School Bus Tragedy Intensive Survey Plan (2012), Miller argued that the storm would probably not last long, and the children would be much safer if they sheltered at the school, adding that some of the parents might even come to the school looking for their children.
But the teachers were insistent. The school wasn’t equipped with the food, water or heat necessary to keep the children safe. If nothing else, Miller could take the children to a nearby farmhouse where they would have provisions until the storm passed. Maude Moser was sure that, if he left immediately, Miller could get the children to safety before the storm would be fully upon them. In the meantime, she and Freiday would wait for Reinart.
Laura Huffaker remembers a slightly different version. “The school teachers wanted to go home,” she said. “They saw the weather coming and really didn’t want to stay there and keep us kids.”
Numerous accounts say that the conversation evolved into an argument. Miller was reportedly upset, but ultimately followed the teachers’ instructions and told the children to get back on the bus. By that time, it was snowing hard.
It was around nine o’clock when Carl Miller drove away from the school. He hadn’t gone far when the blizzard hit full force, the snow and raging wind reducing visibility to almost nothing. Driving in a whiteout with no landmarks of any kind resulted in him getting lost almost immediately. He decided to head to the Untiedt Farm to wait out the storm. If he followed the road that cut across the pasture on a diagonal to the northeast from the school to the Untiedt place, he and the children should be there in no more than 15 minutes.
Fifteen minutes passed. Nothing appeared. No farmhouse. Nothing. Then twenty minutes. Twenty-five minutes and still nothing. More than thirty minutes later, Miller had to admit he was completely disoriented. People would later speculate that he must have thought if he just kept driving he would eventually run into something familiar—preferably a farmhouse but, if not, at least a landmark to point him in the right direction.
But what Carl didn’t realize is that he was in trouble from the beginning. Instead of heading off to the northeast toward the Untiedt Farm, he’d gone due east and had been circling the large pasture to the south. Getting lost in a blizzard on the prairie was a common but deadly mistake, no matter if you were on foot, on horseback or in a school bus. There were more than a few people who had frozen to death not knowing the front door to their house was no more than ten feet away. Consequently, it wasn’t long before the older children realized what Carl already knew: they were lost and in very serious trouble.
Around 9:30—no more than 30 to 45 minutes after leaving the school—the bus suddenly lurched and got stuck in the borrow ditch filled with snow. The engine immediately stalled. It would later be discovered that they were on the west edge of the road leading from Towner to Holly, but Miller, whose windshield was frozen over and who couldn’t even see the radiator cap on the bus by this time, didn’t know that.
What he did know as he climbed out of the bus and into a blinding world of white was that the bus engine was packed with ice and snow. He and the children—one of whom was his own daughter—were in a storm so intense that there were no landmarks visible, nothing to orient him, not even a line on the horizon where earth ended and sky began. The teachers thought he and the children were safely in some farmhouse nearby. The parents of the children thought they were safe at school. But they were actually marooned in a blizzard that was only getting worse. They were in a bus with no heater and broken windows. Many of the children were wearing clothes that should be worn on a spring day, not the dead of winter.
And no one, literally no one, knew where they were.
It’s hard to even comprehend what must have gone through his mind.
Regardless, he was not one to just stand there. He called to 14 year old Bryan Untiedt to help him drain the radiator so the engine wouldn’t freeze. Back inside the bus and using torn out pages from schoolbooks, Miller tried to start a fire in the lid of a milk can but it was no use. What fuel there was had become damp, and the smoke was so intense, they had to open a window for ventilation. Instead of abating as he’d hoped, the storm just grew more intense. The wind had ripped off the cardboard, allowing snow and frigid air to fill the bus. The children still had their lunches but the tin pails were frozen shut.
Miller told the children to jump up and down, move back and forth and keep moving. What he didn’t say—didn’t have to say—was that sitting still could kill them. The “older children” may have been just 13 or 14 years old, but the chances were strong that they had been working alongside their fathers and mothers for years and knew exactly what would happen, despite being just “older children”. Besides, the students on that bus were not just schoolmates. Many of them were brothers and sisters who had known other brothers and sisters in other families for as long as they could remember. Losing one child—any child—was like losing a member of their own family.
Hours passed. A moonless night descended. The wind just seemed to get stronger and stronger. But, somehow, all the children survived that first night.
Laura Huffaker attributes living through the night to the strength of her older sister, “My sister had me on her lap and held her arms around me to help keep me warm,” she said. ”All the skin came off of her fingers later—from freezing of course. Her hands froze, but she never let go. I probably wasn’t so scared because of my sister.”
Later, adults who spoke of that night agreed with Laura; the young ones lived through that first night only because of the insistence and bravery of the older children.
When morning came and the storm had still not lessened, Carl knew what he had to do. “He decided he couldn’t just sit there and wait,” Laura recalled. “He said, ’I’ve got to go and try to find someone.’ So, he got out of the bus and he left.” Other survivors later recalled Miller telling the older children to watch out for the younger ones and to make sure everyone kept moving. He then reportedly said, “I’ll be back in an hour, and we’ll have pancakes.”
Carl Miller was never seen alive again.
Not long after Miller left, the tragedy claimed its first victim. Louise Stonebraker, still wearing the sweater she’d gotten for her 13th birthday, silently passed away. It’s reported that, after she passed away, the other children left her sitting at the back of the bus where she had spent most of the last 24 hours. Soon, two other children succumbed to the cold and the sleep that ultimately led to their death. Eleven year old Bobby Brown died first. Kenneth Johnson, who was just seven years old, died shortly thereafter. The children moved their bodies to the back, as well, placing them next to Louise.
“It was terrible,” Laura Huffaker said. “The first one was terrible because she just sat there and was gone.” She went on to add, “You knew everybody. You’d lived with them all your life. You knew them ever since you was little. It was terrible.”
By noon, parents, who had been convincing themselves their children were either safe at school or with neighbors, began to panic. Only one family—the Stonebrakers—had a telephone, so what communication there was only happened face to face, and venturing out before in the blizzard could result in death.
His own safety no longer mattered to Bud Untiedt who had four children on the bus driven by Miller. He set out for the school in a wagon loaded with food and blankets, but, when he got there, the only person he found was Franz Freiday, who had tried to make it home but turned around when his car got stuck. He broke the news to Bud that the children had left with Carl the day before. Bud knew they probably had set out for his house.
Not too much later, other parents showed up, and a desperate search broke out.
Inside the bus, the children were growing increasingly weak. Some complained of being warm—a sign of hypothermia—and took off their coats. The older children, no longer able to make the younger children keep moving, laid down on top of them, hoping their body heat would help buy them more time.
At 5:00 that evening, 33 hours after the bus had slid off the road, the door was pulled open and Bud Untiedt and Dave Stonebraker came inside. Not allowing themselves to take it all in, the men simply loaded up the 17 children, some of whom were very weak, and took them to Andy Reinart’s farm, which was just a half mile down the road.
Although he never spoke of it, one of the first things Dave must have seen was his daughter, Louise, partially covered in snow.
Before long, word got out and man after man made their way to the Reinart farm to do anything, everything that might be needed to keep the children alive.
“It was heaven,” Laura said. “They took us to my cousin’s house and when we got there, she was frying potatoes. We jumped in there with our fingers and started picking them out of that skillet and eating them. She put blankets down and we all laid down on the floor. My Dad came over and quite a few of the other men, too, and they sat with us and bathed and rubbed and rubbed our feet and tried to keep us warm. They took care of us.”
Even so, two more little ones died. Arlo Untiedt, Bud’s eight year old son, passed away. Soon after, little Mary Louise Miller, Carl’s daughter, drew her last breath.
Two doctors managed to make it to the Reinart place, both of whom said the children needed more intensive medical care.
With the closest hospital 50 miles away and the roads still largely impassable, extraordinary steps were needed—and taken—to get the children the medical assistance so badly needed. At 10 AM on Saturday morning, a pilot from Lamar named Jack Hart found a place to land, and two of the sickest children were flown out.
Not long after, a larger second plane landed, sent by the owner of the Denver Post. It should come as no surprise that a reporter and photographer came with the plane, as well.
Coverage of the tragedy broke in the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News and a collection of newspapers in smaller Colorado communities. Before long, the story had spread across the country from the New York Times to the LA Times and an abundance of newspapers in between. And, with that, the press took on (and took over) the story that would literally sweep the nation.
As one account goes, the Denver Post reporter on the scene said the story “needed a hero”, and Bryan Untiedt—the oldest boy who was also outgoing and well spoken—fit the bill. In the weeks that followed, Bryan became known as the “Boy Hero,” even though—by his own admission—his role had not been any more or less brave than anyone else’s. But the country wanted a hero, and soon his face was seen on newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. President Hoover invited him to the White House—the photo opp supposedly made Hoover look more compassionate—and the First Lady took the young boy on a tour of Washington D.C.. The title “Boy hero” stuck with him for the rest of his life, despite his inevitable refusal to talk about the tragedy.
Sadly, the story of Carl Miller was not told very often or very well, but that does not negate the heroism that was his final act in this life. Three days after the children had been rescued, Carl’s body was found in the middle of a pasture more than three miles south of the bus. He’d removed his hat and overcoat and unbuttoned his suit coat, obviously in the throes of hypothermia. But even though he still wore his gloves, his hands were sliced to shreds, for he had walked that entire distance using the barbed wire fence as a guide, hoping against hope he would find the help the children on the bus—his own daughter among them—needed so desperately.
At this point, it would be easy to criticize the press. And perhaps criticism is more than warranted, for the unfathomable tragedy the children had experienced was, in many ways, exploited to garner as much attention and grief and, yes, almost morbid fascination as possible. And yet, it cannot be forgotten that the year was 1931; the country, as a whole, was already suffering in a way that was deep and profound. Perhaps providing a single focal point of tragedy made the larger tragedy somewhat easier for people to grasp.
In the long run, what became known as the Towner Bus Tragedy led to a federal re-examination of rules and practices around children coming to or leaving school in dangerous weather. Those rules still abide to this day.
For their part, the two teachers—most notably Maude Moser—were blamed for not allowing the children to stay at school. Whether that was warranted or not is up to someone else to decide, but Mrs. Moser paid her own price. She left the area and moved to Pueblo where she continued teaching in relative obscurity. And Mr. Freiday, poor Mr. Freiday, only lived another 3 years before dying of “a lung ailment” at the age of 27.
So, what is the truth of this story? It’s simple. Life is fragile.
It’s a truth we don’t like to ponder very often, perhaps preferring to not ponder it, at all. The implications of such a statement can be pretty sobering, at best, if not downright frightening.
But the truth is, nonetheless, the truth. Life is fragile but not so fragile that it cannot be saved by the simplest of acts. Perhaps it’s the determination of a bus driver to keep 20 children alive, no matter what it may cost him. Perhaps it’s the bravery of those who refuse to show their fear to children, even though they are still children themselves. Or perhaps it is an act that is almost holy in its beauty and involves a young girl allowing her own hands to freeze just so that her younger sister will stay warm and safe and alive.
It’s the fragility of life that makes it so precious, and that’s a legacy worthy of the six who gave their lives in the Towner Bus Tragedy in 1931.