The winds of heck: Recalling the Armistice Day Blizzard

On this 75th anniversary of the Armistice Day Blizzard, I’m reposting this 2010 NewsCut post.


No story ever posted to the Minnesota Public Radio website has generated as much audience traffic over the last 10 years as Mark Steil’s 2000 story on the 60th anniversary of the Armistice Day blizzard.

The storm killed 49 people in Minnesota, many of them hunters who were caught by surprise by the storm. The weather up to then was very much like today: unseasonably warm.

Thursday marks the 70th anniversary of the storm and we heard today from Father Roger Kasprick at St. John’s Abbey, who grew up in Angus, Minn. He was kind enough to share his emailed answer to an acquaintance who asked him recently if he’d heard of the storm.

Here is his response:

photo_rkasprick.jpgSo my response to your question: Yes, I have “heard of this story of the 1940 snow storm.” I also lived through this storm and survived it. One of our neighbors a mile the other direction from our one-room school just about didn’t survive it. His ears froze, and I guess his lungs froze, and I don’t remember all the details, but I guess one eye was damaged.

George Goodwin was a nice guy, and a nice neighbor. Their two sons, Murry and Dennis, went to the same school as we did, and later their daughter, Carol, as well. George had gone to Warren [local parlance=”went to town”] wearing a light jacket and his man’s dress hat, just right for a summer day because it was an unusually nice warm fall day. We had no idea of what was coming at us so suddenly.

Anyway, George somehow managed to get his car almost home on the country roads, something almost miraculous in that white-out blizzard. But he finally couldn’t get it any farther, couldn’t get it into his yard. He got out of his car to try to make it to his farmstead, barn, house, all the possible shelter. He could not get that far; he got all confused. But he did end up across the county road from his house, and he had some machinery parked there, including a truck box. He took some shelter in the truck box, and since he knew where he was, he tried again and again to get across the road to his house. He just couldn’t do it. In the white-out he merely got confused and was sort of blown back to the area where the machinery was.

Here my little boy memory starts to fail me, but I think someone the next morning found his car, so started to look for him, found him, dug him out and got him inside the house. He did lose at least one ear, the outer portion, and part of the other. In those days they didn’t have plastic surgery available, so he ended up mutilated. The family had to nurse him back to health for a very long time. Neighbors had to come in to help milk the cows and take care of the chores. He didn’t die in that storm, but sometimes people said perhaps some times he might have wished he had.

Me? I was a lot luckier. Us kids (including at least George’s son Murry Goodwin, one grade ahead of me; perhaps Denny had not yet started school.) were all in our one-room schoolhouse. I was six years old, so I suppose Miss Smith had promoted me to second grade by that time, but I was a pretty small kid.

It felt like that wind was going to blow the little building down, just the way the big bad wolf did it to the three little pigs’ house. The stove was having trouble burning, with the terrible down draft of the strong wind, so we had very little heat in that poor drafty frame building. But we all put our coats or jackets on, even though we too had started out that morning with only light outer clothes because it was such a pleasant day.

Some of the big boys wanted to start walking home, as I recall–“get out of here before it gets any worse” was the attitude. Miss Smith tried to keep school classes and activities going; I suppose she thought it would be best to keep our thoughts engaged with our lessons. We were used to winter storms in winter time, but this one came as such a nasty surprise, and it was a corker.

I don’t remember all the details any longer, but I suppose Miss Smith probably wouldn’t let any of the kids go outside. We were safer in the school, piled against one another for warmth and assurance. Some cars got there from the farms that were closer to school, especially those whose mothers usually drove their kids to school (usually little girls were more likely to have “a ride” than the rest of us).

Some parents told other kids they were supposed to go home with them, ride to their house, and their folks would pick them up there when they could. But us? No such luck. We lived 1 1/2 miles east of school on a township dirt road (not graveled), and nobody else lived in our direction from school. I guess we farmed all or nearly all of the land, so there were no other farmhouses along the way. And normally, nobody gave us a ride, either to or from school.

I think at that time there were four of us younger kids [my sister, and then the 3 younger boys, spread through 8 grades]. We walked to school together, and home again each day. So we didn’t have any reason to expect that anyone would come to give us a ride.

(Several years later the two youngest of us boys got bicycles so we could do the trip much quicker during clement weather, but in winter we were back to walking. The bikes were a good idea because we could get home quicker and get to doing chores, since by that time the two older brothers were off in boarding school all week, at the school now known as University of Minn – Crookston.

Mom and Dad wanted to make sure that all us kids got to go to high school. My two sisters were not usually expected to work in the barn, and anyway they both got out of Dodge and got jobs as secretaries. They became townies as soon as they finished high school, so they weren’t much available for the barns during the winter. Too bad; they missed out on a really enriching experience.)

Before it got too dark, we stepped outside of school to see if we could make it home. We couldn’t. Back into the schoolhouse. At some point in late afternoon someone thought she/he saw something dark on the road from the East. Perhaps someone coming to the schoolhouse?

We had to wait for a time; finally the dark spot got close enough that we could see that it was real, and it was moving toward us, very slowly. Good feeling. But what the heck is it? Eventually we could make out that it was a team of horses fighting their way into the teeth of the NW wind and fiercely driven snow. What the heck were they pulling?

Finally the team turned in at the schoolyard, and a figure rose from under something heavy, and stood up in the horse water tank he’d been riding in. He was covered in very strange ways since parkas had not yet been invented for us, but we now knew that it was our Dad.

Yep, he and Mom had dug out the outside horse watering tank and put it on the manure sled, also known locally as a “stone boat”. It was a big sled of boards strung across two sturdy “runners”, so it slid along only about 5 or six inches above the ground, the easier to muscle big rocks onto it. In spring or summer farmers might drive these stone boats through the fields to pick up the rocks to clear the fields.

In the winter time we used it for cleaning the cow barn every morning. In winter there was no way to use the fancy manure spreader with its box on wheels, which gears could be engaged to self-unload the manure load. In winter we hitched a team of horses to the stoneboat/manure sled or sleigh, and had the horses drag it through the barn from one end to the other and go out the door on the other end.

All the way along we forked or shoveled out the barn, with the cows still stanchioned in place and the other horses tied in their stalls. We got to know their hind ends close up and personal. I was never kicked by a horse, for which we give thanks and praise, but I sure didn’t like it because one mare decided she should be in charge, not me, and would crowd me against the plank stall, or nip at my hands and arms when I was trying to feed them their grain portions–again and again.

She made it really hard for me to like her. Even scarier when I was told to take off their halters and put on the bridle and harness, to go out to work. Now that is not a decent job for a little kid, but we had to do it to get all the work done.

Now, on November 11, 1940, this nasty mare and her regular teammate, a very decent sort of gray mare — evidently our most trusted team — came out into the blizzard of the century to collect us, haul us home safely, to safety. It gave me a new appreciation for the horses, for my Dad, and for the manure sled which was the symbol of an awful lot of hard and unpleasant work at home.

Dad faced the elements in order to make sure that us four kids got scrunched down into the water tank, and he put a couple of very heavy horsehide (with hair still on them) “horse robes” over us for our ride home. The mare didn’t really think that that one day of horse heroism required her to be much nicer to me the rest of the time. But I knew what she was really made of, a stout heart of pure gold when the times got tough.

We kept that team of horses the longest of any. They were the last ones to go, and Dad did not part with them easily. He couldn’t think of a single tractor that he could count on to do what that team had done for him, and with him, for a good many years. As for me, I had a new way of estimating the manure sled.

Still, through the years when someone asks if our folks gave us a ride the one and a half miles to or from school, I’ve had to summon a bit of courage to say, “Well, sometimes they would haul us on the manure sled.” I guess it doesn’t sound elegant.

Thanks for asking. Yes, I have heard of the 1940 Armistice Day storm. It was there with us on the open prairie of the Red River Valley.

Related: Anderson: During Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940, it ‘seemed too nice to hunt’ (Star Tribune)