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Letters from a snowbound man

History: Mystery remains to fate of a father stranded near Lebec in 1909

Posted: March 13, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 13, 2011 1:55 a.m.

The Lebec Post Office, circa 1909. The last-known letter from J.B. Snyder was mailed from this post office in 1909.

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It was 102 years ago in the winter of 1909, when James Buchanan Snyder (age 52) wrote two letters to his pregnant wife, Anna Bell, in Osage City, Kan.

It is not known if his first letter ever arrived. A transcript of the second letter, written three weeks later, appears below.

This was his final letter:

Dear Anna
Lebec Cal
Feb 7th 09
My Dear Anna and Tom

I will write you again. I wrote you a letter 3 weeks ago and sent you some money but I have no way of knowing whether you got it or not. I am 25 miles from the P.O. up in the mountains. I came up here the first of January intending to stay a month and then come home but it began to snow the day after I got here and just kept on snowing for 4 weeks until the snow was 10 to 12 feet deep.

One of the men said he was going out if he could so he made a pair of snow shoes and started but as we have had no word we don’t know whether he got out or perished. I trust he got out all right for his sake and yours.

The snow is settling some and we cast lots to see who would go again and I just missed being elected to go.

 I wish I had been for I am worried almost to death about you but trust you are alright. How is dear little Tom. I wish I was with and will be soon if this man gets out alright. He will either come back or send someone when I hope to hear you are alright and got the money. I think it will be possible to get out by the first of March and the(n) nothing will stop me from coming home and I am sure I can explain to your satisfaction my long absence. Until then good bye. Love to you both or all three of you.

J. B. Snyder
Lebec, Cal
Kearn Co


Fate unclear
It is unclear if the man said to be carrying this letter reached civilization alive. It is possible this letter was later recovered from his body. In any case, it took a whole month for Snyder’s letter to reach the post office in Lebec, where it was postmarked on the morning of March 8, 1909.

This letter was successfully delivered to his wife (age 35) and young son (age 5), but Snyder’s family never heard from him, or indeed anything about him, ever again.

The stranded party’s exact location remains unknown to this day, but it was presumably at a higher elevation in the surrounding mountains. Much of the area in a 25-mile radius around Lebec is mountainous terrain, ranging in elevation from about 4,000 to almost 9,000 feet. They could have been stranded anywhere.

Back in Kansas

Back in Kansas, Jim Snyder had worked as a brakeman for the railways. His plan was to find a good job and establish himself in California, before having his family join him.

Two years earlier, their first daughter, Mary, had died from flu at age 5. The unborn child referred to in the fateful letter was Howard Zane Snyder. He was born on Feb. 6, just the day before his snowbound father put pen to paper to write to his pregnant wife. Howard became a flight instructor who trained private pilots in the San Fernando Valley.

The young son his father addressed in the letter was James Thomas Snyder, almost 6 years old at the time. One hundred years later, Tom’s son, Peter Snyder, contacted the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society in Frazier Park and asked the group if it could help solve the mystery of what happened to his grandfather.

Jim Snyder’s final letter describes a freak snowstorm that trapped a small group in the mountains near Lebec in the winter of 1909. He wrote the snow kept falling for four weeks until the group was completely snowbound. The deep snow entrapping them grew to a depth nearly twice the height of an average man. One hundred years later, local historians accepted the challenge to resolve the mystery of what happened to Jim Snyder.

Looking for the truth
A team led by local historian, Bonnie Ketterl Kane, searched tirelessly for information that might help. The team quickly confirmed that unusually heavy snow falls were reported that year, even at lower elevations in the Antelope Valley.

However, a plausible reason for this party to be in a remote, mountainous location at that time of year could not be established. There was nothing to be found in the historical record to enlighten them, so Jim Snyder’s fate remained a complete mystery. It seemed likely he had perished.

Then came a twist to the story. Jim Snyder did not meet his end as a result of that freak snowstorm in 1909. LDS (Mormon) records clearly show that Jim Snyder died at age 71, and was buried in Bakersfield in 1928. So why didn’t his family ever hear from him during the last 19 years of his life?

Still no answers
Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer. Maybe Jim Snyder just wanted to disappear for reasons unknown to us. He had already been out of touch with his family for some time. In his letter, he had written that he wanted to explain his “long absence” to his wife.

Despite his good intentions, Jim Snyder may have considered himself a failure for not being a better provider for his family. He kept waiting for his situation to improve, but the plan to move his family to California was not working out as he had hoped.

As time slipped by, it might have been easier to remain “missing” than ask for forgiveness from his abandoned family. His letter had set up a scenario that might explain his complete disappearance.

The stranded party might have organized their own rescue without official help, or they were able to simply wait out the effects of the snowstorm entrapping them. It is even possible that Jim Snyder mailed his own letter from the Lebec post office himself, a month after writing it.

Theories
Peter Snyder’s brother, Kent Snyder, who is a lawyer, thinks his grandfather may have been in trouble with the law. This possibility fits known facts. It explains why the group mentioned in the letter stayed in a remote location in the middle of winter, far from civilization. Were they outlaws in hiding?

Jim Snyder certainly comes across as a responsible and loving husband and father in his letter. He may not have been in trouble with the law himself. Maybe he unwittingly ended up in the company of outlaws. They in turn, may have taken advantage of him. Was he murdered in those remote mountains by somebody wanting to assume his identity?

Who was the “Jim Snyder” buried in Bakersfield in 1928?

Was it the man who killed the real Jim Snyder 19 years earlier, assuming his identity and eventually taking this dark secret to his grave?

All these scenarios would explain Jim Snyder’s disappearance, apparent or real.

Peter C. Gray is a freelance writer and amateur historian living in Agua Dulce.

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