In Vast Spaces

This is the George and Christina Stumpf House in Adams County, Washington. It has a sad history. Together, they raised two sons, Frederick and Emanuel, who grew up on this farm before moving not far away. While Emanuel moved closer to town, Frederick set up his own farm, moving just across the road from where this photo was taken. My back was essentially in his front yard.

In 1950, Fred was 40 years old. He had married and was raising two children, 10 year old Ilene and a 6 year old they named Frederick, after the father.

On a cold Friday in January, 1950, Fred was in Ritzville visiting his wife, who was herself visiting with her sister Lorene and brother-in-law Herschel Heimbigner. A snow storm was approaching, and the Ritzville school let out early. In his ’49 Buick sedan, Frederick picked up his two children – something he did on a daily basis regardless of weather.

Though the storm was coming, and though school was let out early, Frederick, his wife and their two kids spent the rest of the day in town. They had lunch with George and Christina, the happy grandparents who lived across the road. They had made their way into town for a day out, maybe to get a jump on their weekend.

Seeing that the storm was intensifying, the lunch was cut short – around 11:30am. The grandparents, with their daughter-in-law, sped home, while Frederick, with two children in tow, took a bit longer.

By the time he was on the road, the storm had evolved into a blizzard. The road was obscured, and forced Frederick’s Buick to a crawl. Only a mile from his home, the car slid off the road and into a snowbank.

From the local paper:
Stumpf worked the vehicle frantically, but couldn’t free it. He and the children remained in the car about two hours. Then they struck out for the top of a knoll in an effort to determine whether they might be able to walk home. The three were instantly engulfed in the freezing blizzard. At first Stumpf carried both children on his shoulders, but soon realized they might keep warmer by walking. Stumpf had not gone far before Ilene collapsed from the cold. He decided to turn back to the car but was unable to find it. The trio’s only hope then was to make it home a mile away.

Stumpf knew where he was. He struck into the bottom of a coulee which headed in a semi-circle toward the home place. It is unlikely the father could see for more than 10 or 20 feet in any direction. Ilene fell again near the bottom of the coulee. At times Stumpf carried his son; during other stretches he must have dragged him by the hand. Their course led out of the coulee to a fence line post.

Stumpf, probably half-blinded and losing all sense of direction wandered generally toward the house but off to the right. He was shouting for help. His wife heard the shouts. She hurried into the blizzard, found her husband and led him to the house.

Stumpf said it was about 7 p.m. when he reached home. That would give him four hours of wandering through the blizzard. The frantic shouts were heard by Maudise Ferderer. Ferderer had left a stalled school bus, another victim of the drifting snow to summon help. He fought his way two or three miles towards home. When he reached home, he telephone Ritzville about the bus and conveyed his fear regarding Stumpf.

In addition, some of the men rescuing the school children off the bus, observed a flickering light in the direction of the Stumpf home. It was learned later that Mrs. Stumpf -the farm had no telephone- had been switching the yard light off and on in hopes of attracting attention.

As soon as the school children had been transferred to private cars, a county plow bullied its way to the Stumpf farm. The drivers were greeted with the sickening news that Stumpf had stumbled home and that both children were still out in the blizzard. A 1 a.m. a search party started out. The blizzard had died away but the temperature was dropping to a brittle 18 below. Headlights on the snow plows lit up the snowdrifts as searchers tramped back and forth.

About 2:30 a.m. Frederick’s body was found [near the fence line post]. The party searched another hour for Ilene, but finally gave up because of darkness and intense cold. Shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday, Sheriff Lucas led a 17-man party back to the scene, where in less than two hours, Ilenes body was located.

The children were buried in the Ritzville Memorial Cemetery. They were joined by their father in 1986 – 46 years later. There is no record of what happened to the wife, whose name went unrecorded in the newspaper as was the patriarchal tradition at the time. She does not appear to have been buried with the rest of her family. 


‘In Vast Spaces’

Camera: Crown Graphic 4×5 (1962)
Lens: 127mm f/4.7 Rodenstock Ysarex
Film: Ilford Ortho Plus (x-06/2004); 100ISO
Process: HC-110; 100+1; 60mins

Weber Road, Adams County, Washington


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