A long-ago Blizzard

This morning a blizzard began in our area. We knew exactly when it was coming, and pretty accurately what it would be. There’s not much unpredictable in the present day.

It wasn’t always that way.

I grew up with blizzards, the ferocious snow storms of the dry high plains. North Dakota.

Out at the farm home near Berlin ND was a trove of “junk”: albums, many photo portraits, and large numbers of old photographic negatives taken with two box cameras. In the collection, of the 110 year history of the farm, were two negatives that are especially intriguing, taken the same day, most likely about 1916 or 1917, just over 100 years ago.

Here are rough paper prints of the negatives. Click to enlarge.

After ND Blizzard 1916

After a 1916 Blizzard

Negatives aren’t labeled, of course. I think these are the winter of 1916 or 1917 because they show my grandmother, then about 32, and her four oldest children, Lucina, Esther (my mother), Verena and Mary. There was a fifth child by the time, George, but he would have been too little to frolic in the snow the day after the blizzard passed into history.

Prairie blizzards of my memory were ferocious affairs, sometimes several days duration. They differed from todays storms only in that the habitants of the prairie knew they were going to happen sometime, but had no idea exactly when or how severe they would be – there was no Accuweather then. The prudent settler prepared for the inevitable. Winters were not a time to take risks.

The storms pitted humanity against nature, and when they ended, it was time for a victory lap for the survivors. Photos like these were probably not uncommon.

This particular farm (pictured below about the same year as the blizzard) is one I know well, though it would be 24 more years before I made an appearance there.

Busch’s had some milk cows, then, and milking twice a day was mandatory. It could be a dangerous trip from house to barn; whiteouts could be disorienting. They also had a chicken coop, and the job of chickens was to lay eggs, which needed to be gathered.

(click to enlarge)

Busch farm 1916

The house was small and cramped and a challenge to keep warm in this time of cold temperatures and high winds. There was no electricity, no television or radio, no insulation, no indoor plumbing. One can only imagine living through a blizzard.

But as these photos show, there were celebratory aspects. The dry granular snow drifted into virtual bricks, well suited to tunnels, and igloos if one had the interest. Post-blizzard could be fun for kids.

There were no machines to move the snow on the farm, no trips to town by car for groceries or whatever. People knew, of course, that what came, would ultimately go, and the snow piles would melt…on nature’s timeline.

I can imagine the day of these photographs was something of an exciting day at the farm. I can imagine, too, that some reader memories will come back, looking at these photos.

Happy winter! For me, for years, spring has begun February 1. Yes, I know. By then the worst is past, I reason.

(most of those commenting grew up or have some roots in North Dakota)
From Bob: Your blizzard memories are similar to mine, having lived on a remote farm through the 8th grade, one room school house and all. As you said, no electricity, television, central heat or indoor plumbing. And too often lots of snow to shovel by hand.

Young folks today grumble about the horrible winter and tough conditions but don’t know how good they have it compared to earlier generations on the open prairie.

Now we winter in Arizona, so really are spoiled. No blizzards or snow to shovel. Just oranges to pick, and sweep occasional sand off the patio adjacent to the 6th green on our 9 hole golf course.

from Laurie: Wow what a storm that was. Hard to imagine living back then. Life was so hard, today’s kids couldn’t handle it! Most likely I would have a very hard time too! Fun to see all of this info! Thanks for sharing!

from Beth: Loved that post. Blizzards are different now, even from when I was a kid. Hope all is well with you and yours!

from Darleen: The blizzards of yesteryear that I remember are one in the late ’40’s when I froze my nose and the one in the mid 60’s when the drifts were so high between the house & barn that a person could not see over the drift. During that one my mother was in the hospital in Jamestown so my dad was on the farm by himself…Dick the memories are endless of the blizzards. In MN we have not had the depth or low temps that I remember we had in ND. I also remember when the wind was strongthere were snow drifts on the window sill of my bedroom. I was snuggled under one of
my mother’s sheep wool quilts & was warm.

from Jim B: These are awesome, to think I was complaining about a little cool weather here in Florida the last couple weeks…..

from Fred: Thanks for the memories. I grew up on a farm near Lidgerwood (SE North Dakota) and I do remember some of those barn burner blizzards. Dad had a loader on the tractor and was able to dig us out. Another thing I remember is the cold. Twenty below seemed colder back then that it does now. Maybe because of the coats, heaters and furnaces that we have now. I enjoy your reminisces.

from Jim D: Thanks for sending this. I’ve been through a few of these including the March 1966 blizzard, the snow/dirt storm of 1975, and the late April blizzard of 1984 plus a few more. Always exciting!

responding to Jim: I’m wondering if the March 1966 blizzard you refer to is the March 1965 blizzard I remember when I was a teacher in Elgin ND. That was a terrible storm. My wife, and one year old, and I lived in an upstairs apartment. There was no school, of course, and there was nothing to do. I remember sitting at our table and cobbling together some research about “Changes in Small Schools in North Dakota”. I had enough data to do this. Here is the resulting article: Dick Bernard 1965 School001. The Grand Forks (ND) Herald did an editorial about the article a short while later! The project was just something to do during a blizzard….

Dick, from Jim D: Proof of the 1966 blizzard, here

from Dave: Very interesting, since my Mother was born in Illinois in 1909 and moved to Devil’s Lake [ND] when she was two. They moved to Wisconsin in 1921. She had fond memories of her childhood. I never visited Devil’s Lake while at Valley City. I have a 97-year old Uncle who was born in ND in 1920. He was a C-47 crew chief and flew many missions from D-Day on. His life’s story was just published in a book, “Clear the Prop.”

Wonder if ND gets the cold spells like we did in the 60s. I recall 40 below and 40 mph winds. Walked seven blocks to the [Valley City State Teachers College] cafeteria (in the basement of one of the girl’s dorms) and did not care to walk eight.

from JP: Brought back a lot of memories growing up in the Red River Valley in Southern Manitoba in the 1940s & 1950s.

from Leo: The storm I remember was 4/5/6 of Feb. 1947. All the roads were blocked. The main roads were open in a few days but the side roads were blocked for about two weeks. Dad took us to school in a wagon with runners pulled by a team of horses. Many kids never got to school. My mother said that main street in Fingal looked just like it did when she was a child. Teams of horses in the street. There was a drift by the trees north of our farmhouse that was within three feet of the power lines. Dad drew a line in the snow and said if I went over that line toward the power lines I would get a licking. I used my sled to go off that huge drift for a least a couple of months. My memory was that the total run was about a hundred yards. I would pull my sled to the top and the dog would get on the front and I would kneel on the back of the sled and down we would go, My recollection is that about ten people in the region died. I think Dad had twine or small rope between the house and barn to follow so he would not get lost in the storm. That was the worst storm during my youth. After we moved to Valley City in 1956 the storms were less significant.

from Dick: Leo’s memory prompts me to include this story of a northeast ND blizzard of Nov. 1860, as recalled by the legendary Father Joseph Goiffon, who lost his leg as a result of the blizzard. Here is his story: Blizzard of Nov. 1860001

#295 – Hunkering down for a Blizzard!

UPDATE 8:15 P.M. DECEMBER 11: Most likely we have over 20″ of snow at our home, thus far no wind. Didn’t leave the house all day. More snow than expected.
UPDATE II 8:10 A.M. DECEMBER 12: We can now classify the storm as a modern day catastrophe. Not only was the Vikings-Giants game postponed till Monday, but at least part of the Metrodome roof apparently has collapsed under the snow.
The storm lasted only 24 hours, and it didn’t even approach blizzard standards, at least where we live, but it was an unusual time for us.
At the end of yesterday’s post are some memories of past times storms.

Our grill in disguise, late afternoon December 11, 2010

There’s something energizing about a blizzard, even if you’re totally disabled and immobile (translated: not going out for coffee) as I am at this moment.
We’re in the fairly early stages of what they’re calling a blizzard – plenty of fluffy snow thus far, but relatively little wind. Once the wind comes along, those harmless little pieces of fluff will be even more disabling.
So there’s little to do but revel in the warmth of a home (we’re fortunate) and reminisce…about blizzards I have known.
Recently I completed a history of my French-Canadian roots, and a bit player in that history was Father Joseph Goiffon, called the “peg leg Priest”.

Fr. Goiffon lost his leg in a mis-adventure when caught in an All-Saints Day (Halloween) blizzard in 1860 near where the Park and Red Rivers come together in northeast North Dakota. Fr. Goiffon only lost his leg; his horse froze to death. His nephew, Duane Thein, edited a most interesting 91-page book, still in print, about the near-tragedy in 2005 (see cover, above). Father Goiffon lived on to re-tell the story many times. He died in 1910.
I survived, somewhat more comfortably than Fr. Goiffon, the Halloween blizzard of 1991. I was living in Hibbing MN at the time, and it was said we got over 30 inches of snow which, after the wind, became the hard-pack flakes famous for igloos and fun for kids to build snow caves and forts.
For adults, such blizzards are usually the pits, even if in comfort (last night in a grocery store line I was chatting with the guy behind me who said the liquor store line had been even longer….) Yah, I’ll hear the high-pitched whine of the snowmobiles shortly, but mostly we’re house-bound.
In Hibbing, we were immobile for what I remember to be several days. There was nowhere to go, and no way to get there. Immobility for we in the mobile generation is difficult.

After the Halloween blizzard in Hibbing MN 1991

Growing up in North Dakota, I became accustomed to blizzards – two or three of them a winter, it seems.
Unlike today’s blizzard, which was pretty accurately forecast, in those days in the 1940s and on, wise sages had to read the skies and we had to act prudently to avoid being caught in a killer out in the country. You knew those mean storms were out there, but you didn’t know exactly when they’d hit or how bad they’d be.
But if you were indoors and had enough food and fuel, you were okay.
Afterwards, you could walk on the rock hard snow banks, and the kids would work harder than they’d ever work doing chores, digging snow caves and building snow forts and doing all the things kids can do when presented with a new opportunity.
I think of the Elgin ND Blizzard of February, 1965 – a bad one. But it is just another example. They happened every year.
I write in the early stages of this one, so I can’t project what it will be like a few hours from now.
It appears to be of relatively short duration, but if it gets windy, watch out.
So far, nobody’s out for fun. Those who are out are busy.
Today we’ll put up the Christmas tree….

Christmas Tree 7 p.m. December 11, 2010, first view

Happy Holidays.
UPDATE: Some responses to the above post:

From Mel Berning, Eureka CA, who recalls a storm he lived through in rural Berlin, North Dakota, right after WWII.
“There were lots of memorable blizzards in N. Dak. but only one remains in my
mind. Dad and Mom came to the Dakotas in 1906 and i remember dad telling about
blizzards so severe you couldn’t see anything but dark lightness in the height of
the storm even during the daylight hours. As a wise kid I discounted these wild
stories as a flight of fancy until one day in deep winter I experienced just
My brother Gus and I decided to get the chores over quickly and do them at 4:30
in the afternoon. It was in the winter of [19]46?? and Gus was home from the
service at the time and staying on the farm with us. To get on with it we went
into the summer porch and lit our kerosene lantern in preparation for the trip
to the barn, a distance of about100 feet. We stepped out of the porch door and
the wind blew the lantern out, I turned to my older brother and hollered lets
hold hands till we get to the barn, surprisingly he gladly complied and we
stumbled blindly on through the howling snow hand in hand. Fortunately I had been
to the barn so often that we collided with the side of the barn and felt our way
around to the door. I kept hoping one of us had matches to relight the lantern
because it was dark as ink. We slid open the barn door, stepped inside, and lo
the lantern was still lit. neither of us could see it in the blinding snow and
it surely was a relief to have light.
Another winter story if you would, We had a 2 week snow with constant blizzard
conditions. As can be expected, dad was out of tobacco and we were running low
on groceries when the storm suddenly stopped and a Chinook [wind] came up from the
south. The temperature rapidly climbed to 50+ and my neighbor and I started to
plow our way to the store in Berlin [about five miles away]. By 3:00 o’clock we were able to reach the
plowed highway and returned home. We both picked up our grocery list and headed
back to Berlin to buy the family groceries. After doing the shopping we decided
to go to the Oasis, the pool hall, have a beer and shoot a game of pool, We
barely got to break the racked balls when some one came in and said it was
snowing out side. We hung up our cues and headed for home. The blizzard was
back and the temperature was dropping rapidly, we got to with in 2-1/2 miles of
home when we hit a new drift on the road and it was home from there on foot.
When I got home dad and mom were very relieved and by that time the thermometer
was on the minus side of 10 below. Several people and some stock died in Dakota
that night.
From Myron DeMers, Fargo ND, who grew up in rural Grafton, ND:
When you mention blizzards and I see so many people outside using snow blowers right now in Fargo, I remembered asking dad years ago if they did a lot of shoveling “in the old days”. His answer surprised me. He said “yes and no” because with all the farmyard traffic, horses, sleighs etc the snow would pack down and most of the winter was spent riding on top of the snow rather then shoveling it. He said the only problem was Spring when it became a muddy mess but by then you were so happy to see Spring, the mud was “clean mud”. Merry Christmas, Myron
From Ellen Brehmer, Grand Forks ND, who grew up in rural Langdon, ND
I hear your supposed to get ‘a bit’ of snow & wind. We are breathing a great sigh of relief because this one will miss us. We’re just sinking into the depths of 20 to 30 below, and that’s not wind chill. We do have the wind so I’m sure the old snow will drift some. It’s always fortunate to be home when the storms hit.
One winter possibly late ’50’s we had to walk a mile across the field in the evening because the car got completely stuck and flooded trying to break through a snow drift on Schnieder’s corner. That’s 1 1/2 miles from home. We walked over the hard pack at an angle so it was probably only a mile – I’m here to tell you that my thighs were very very cold. I’m pretty sure that it was [siblings] Pat, Jerry, Marilyn and myself who walked behind Dad. We had been to some church thing or something. Nothing else got that cold, we all had scarves and mittens and boots, plus we were moving – the front thighs took the beating. So guess what gets cold first for me when I’m shoveling, yup the thighs.
From Mary Busch, Minneapolis, who grew up in ND and northern MN:
Your dad loaned my parents the car to drive to the Carrington Hospital [14 miles away] where I was born during a bad snow storm. (being a geographer-could we find info about that storm?) Late in her life mom revealed I was nearly born in the car. I always wondered about the very flat section of my head—-…
Growing up in Rugby North Dakota, we walked everywhere.
I valued my turquoise fluffy wool coat purchased in Herbergers in Grand Forks ND. The Little Flower School costume was skirts with white cotton socks with metal clasps tied to elastic garters holding them up… rubber boots over shoes and maybe pants… I remember the metal clasps near your skin burning and leaving red marks on cold days. It was a six block walk.
I craved excitement and would walk to the high school to watch Basketball games- Paul Prestis [Presthus?] became a star….It was so cold and about a mile there.
My parents STORED meat in a locked wooden box by the back door….a homemade freezer.
My dad had a complicated ritual involving army blankets to start the Plymouth in cold weather…We often visited relatives for vacations.
A geologist guest in the 1990s was raised in Siberia and commented that Rugby was exactly like Siberia in climate and geology so we had shared similar childhoods.
My dad would take us out ice fishing in very cold weather. We walked back into northern MN lakes, built a fire and drilled our holes. I kept my Rolliflex camera under my jacket so it did not freeze. I often brought guests home to Babbitt and recall an amazed despairing New York City gal, when I explained and demonstrated the toilet opportunities in subzero wilderness.