SOUTH MOUNTAIN – It may have been 20 years ago, but for Nick Thurler, Jan. 9, 1998 is a day that he will always remember.

The Thurler family had been without power since mid-week and the area was being pummelled by freezing rain. Still, they considered themselves fortunate, as they remained able to do their daily chores with the help of a generator. But that Friday night, it was obvious to Thurler that something was wrong.

Nick Thurler stands before his now thriving farm operation, which looked much different on Jan. 9, 1998. Press Photo – Schoch

“When I walked in to milk that night, the ceiling had a big bow in it. Dad came up right away…  I called my two brothers and a couple neighbours came. We had the new milking parlour then so I started milking while they were up [on the roof] chipping the ice and suddenly there was this big bang. It dropped in the centre and then it was like dominos.”

The calamity that followed was eventually overruled by chores of necessity. With no power, no barn, dozens of cows trapped and no one to call for help, the Thurler family had to make quick decisions and soldier on.   

“We never went to bed. What we did that night was finish the milking. We had a bit of a yard so we made the yard bigger with equipment, wagons and stuff. We made fences with equipment so the cows could be outside,” said Thurler.

Although only two cows were killed as a direct result of the collapse, more than 20 others had to be euthanized. Thurler put his own life at risk and crawled into the wreckage to locate the trapped animals and carry out the unenviable task.

On Saturday morning, cars lined both sides of the roadway as neighbours showed up, ready and willing to help. The decision was made to empty the machine shed and move the cows across the road. Shortly thereafter, a call was put in to the insurance company with the intention of starting over in the spring.  But that isn’t how it played out.

“Over the weekend, we had the intention that we were going to sell the cows on Monday. We had to get rid of the cows because we had no barn. [We would] buy a herd back in the spring when we had a barn again. We talked to the insurance on Saturday and they came on Monday and told us they weren’t going to cover the barn,” remembered Thurler.

A family already faced with the prospect of starting over was now being told that they would have to go it alone. Thurler remembers being in complete disbelief.

From the outside, it’s clear to see the effect the weight of the ice had on the Thurler’s barn.

“We looked at the lady and I said you can’t be serious. We’ve got half a million insurance on this barn, it’s not our fault. I remember telling her, ‘the first thing I did, I went and cut the power off that went to that barn because everything was collapsed. I should have left it on, then maybe it would have burned at least.’ Anyway, she went through the policy and we had tornado, flooding, but we didn’t have ice [insurance] and who would have thought?”

Thurler was left with little choice at that point.  With the insurance company not covering the loss of the barn, they also wouldn’t pay for loss of income. So, the family did the only thing they could and kept milking because they needed the income from the milk cheque.

“We milked cows three times a day.  Thinking back, I don’t know how we did it.  No power. No barn. We didn’t sleep much,” said Thurler.   

Despite the long hours and seemingly endless dark nights, help and hope did start to arrive.

“The Saturday morning the army came to see what they could do. I remember asking them if they had a huge tent basically to make a barn out of it. And I got a laugh. They couldn’t do that, but they did supply us with a big generator.  Bigger than what we had.  That helped,” Thurler said.   

Using an excavator and with the help of about a dozen Mennonites from Western Ontario, they started to pick apart the old barn and salvage equipment for the new barn. Without the luxury of time, construction began in early February and by the first week of May, the cows were in the new state of the art barn. By that time, another 80 cows had gotten various illnesses as a result of being housed in temporary structures. The hardship wasn’t yet over for Thurler and his family. A new building connecting the parlour to the old barn had to be constructed, resulting in the herd having to walk through a construction zone, three times a day, all summer.

At left: Inside the Thurler barn. Two cows were killed immediately and another 20 had to be euthanized due to injuries. At right: The new Thurler barn days after construction finished in May 1998. The total cost of the new build was $600,000. Courtesy photos

In total, the Ice Storm of ’98 cost Thurler $150,000 in cows, $25,000 per month in lost milk quota and $600,000 for a new barn.  There was some financial relief in the form of $40,000 from the Ice Storm relief fund and the insurance company did pay for the lost livestock, as well as some of the equipment in the collapsed barn.

The experience gave Thurler a new perspective that he carries forward to this day:

“I don’t get excited when a piece of equipment breaks when we’re busy or stuff like that. That’s minor details… The fact that we didn’t lose anybody.  Dad went and got those cows and the barn could have fallen on him. My two brothers up on the roof, they could have fallen in it too if they were a little further up. They were close enough to the edge that they jumped off. Not losing anybody, that was a big thing. How lucky we were to not lose anybody. When you think back, how did we do it?  How did we get through it?”

Now, 20 years older and wiser, what would Thurler do if the Ice Storm were to hit today?

“The cows would go today, no matter what, insurance or not. The cows would go and take time to rebuild. Going through what we did, I don’t think I could do it again,” he said.