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WASHTA, Iowa | The mercury sank beyond what Iowa had ever seen before -- or has since -- on that fateful date 102 years ago.
For on Jan. 12, 1912, the official low temperature at Washta came to 47 degrees below zero, a mark Iowa hasn't sunk to since.
Washta residents celebrate their claim to fame with signs along Iowa Highway 31 on the north and south sides of this town of 248 residents. Occasionally, a passerby pulls off Highway 31 and snaps a photo of the sign. T-shirts celebrating the coldest of cold snaps were sold in recent years at the convenience store in town.
Local lore has it that a young man named Richard Nash in the winter of 1912 took up residence for free in the basement of a bank serving Washta. In return for his lodging, all Nash had to do was shovel coal into the furnace to keep the bank heated.
It's been said Nash shoveled for one month straight.
On that night in 1912, those in town said they could hear steel wheels creaking on the snow 1 1/2 miles away.
The late B.K. Williams, who for years recorded the high and low temperature at Washta for the National Weather Service, often told people that on the morning of Jan. 12, 1912, he could hear the echo of his own footsteps as he walked that morning.
Washta, which was founded in 1869, earned its place in Iowa history. High and low temperatures were recorded by H.L. Felter for the U.S. government as far back as 1897. Washta, a Sioux word meaning "good," was the smallest Iowa community to have a government cooperative weather station.
During the early 1900s, citizens built a weather house complete with instrumentation. It was located on the Rosedale farm east of town.
From 1933 to 1955, however, official records weren't kept. Williams, who ran the newspaper in town, resumed the daily chore at that time, taking readings from a thermometer purchased with community donations.
Persistent cold temperatures in Washta can be attributed to the fact that the town rose in the Little Sioux River Valley, an area where the mercury's free-fall can, obviously, be taken to extremes.