There’s an old saying that rings true, “If you don’t like the weather in Minnesota, wait until tomorrow.” No one can deny that Minnesota weather can be volatile. At the drop of a hat, a frigid spring day can give way to a heat wave, or a pleasant autumn afternoon can turn into a winter’s day in a matter of hours. No matter how you slice it, you just never know what old Mother Nature has in store for us.
So far this year, it’s been a pleasant fall. We’ve had our fair share of cold, but we’ve also had a good dose of those soft afternoons that make autumn such a splendid time of year. With that being said, I sincerely doubt that anyone among us will argue that the weather will be the same two weeks from now as it is today.
Minnesota has a well-recorded history of unexpected weather events. Perhaps the most famous is the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 or more recently the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. For every storm that we label “the mother of all storms,” or “the storm of the century,” however, there’s always someone willing to reach back farther in the weather logs to say “… well, maybe not as bad as that storm back in … .” This was precisely the case in 1925, when a longtime Hutchinson resident gave an account of a horrible storm that took place in October of 1880.
A.H. Roseboom lived in McLeod County back in the 19th century at a place called Rosemary Farm. “Rosey,” as folks used to call him, was an amateur weather observer and kept an accurate log of day-to-day weather. In his own words, he recalled just how impactful the blizzard of 1880 was.
"I find on October 16, 1880, we had the worst blizzard then known to the old residents," he wrote. "This storm happened 45 years ago and is still fresh in my memory. No one was prepared for it; the weather had been beautiful up to date. At about 8 a.m. it began to snow and blow. Eight inches of snow fell but did not stay put — drifts were everywhere. Settlers to the west of me had no fuel. Two of them who had taken up homesteads got together, discussed the situation, and decided to play a game of seven-up, the loser had to move to the winter shack and burn the other for fuel. One man burned up a new lumber wagon. Your humble servant discovered an old fence; the posts were white oak and made splendid fuel. Further west, toward Bird Island, the settlers tore down the railway cattle guard. Perilous times these were.
"After the storm I managed to get over to Hector," Rosey continued. "There I met Tim Cornish. Tim was a genius. The railroad being blocked, a great drouth was being experienced. We discovered there was a 10-gallon keg of whiskey at the station. We took it to the hardware store of Nelson and Peterson, inserted a faucet, and placed a tin cup handy, with a notice, 'Help Yourself.' Needless to remark, a good time was had by all. The station agent demurred, but Tim was too much for him. He reported the keg 'short' when he made his return, and there was no trouble."
Like A.H. Roseboom, Andrew Anderson of Hutchinson kept a weather journal, too, and not just any weather journal. It was a day-by-day climate recording spanning from 1898 to 1943, a treasure trove for any meteorologist studying weather history. On most days, Anderson's recordings were nothing more than a simple figure showing the highs and lows of the day. Sometimes he would include a brief description of the weather that day. On Nov. 11, 1940, however, a nearly half page account is given. It was the day of the Armistice Day Blizzard, and a day that etched itself into the memories of all who lived through it.
As Anderson noted, the days leading up to Armistice Day were warm. Much of the Midwest was experiencing an “Indian summer” that year. In fact, one old duck hunter who shared his story remarked on how the weekend before, he and his partner were swatting at mosquitoes while sitting in the marsh. As the days crept closer to Armistice Day, the temperature began to slowly drop, typical for this time of year. By Saturday, Nov. 9, seasonal temperatures had finally arrived to Minnesota, bringing with it drizzle and light rainfall.
On the morning of Armistice Day, hunters noticed their decoys were swaying atop the calm water, signaling a shift in the wind. In a matter of minutes, the wind shifted to the northwest and the temperature plunged.
The wind was soon gusting as high as 60 mph and the waves on the lakes and rivers were far too rough to navigate with small canoes and duck boats. Most were forced to stay the night under overturned duck boats, huddling together or hugging their dogs for warmth. Those who ventured out that morning in light shooting jackets, got wet or found no shelter in the marshes died from exposure.
It was just as bad for motorists. People caught on the roads and highways were forced to stop or found themselves stuck in drifts. Stranded motorists were either welcomed into farmhouses or forced to ride out the storm in their cars. Some of the latter were discovered frozen to death in the days after the storm.
In rural schools, teachers were forced to choose between sending the children home or trying to keep them safe in the one-room schoolhouses. At the Lamson School in Meeker County, just across the county line, Elaine Linder Lundeen was forced to deal with this same problem during the killer storm.
The younger children were sent to a neighboring farm to stay the night, the older children, as well as Lundeen, stayed huddled in the drafty schoolhouse overnight. A neighbor trudged through snow drifts up to 10 feet tall and brought food to the students. The following day when the snow subsided, the children were brought to their homes.
To this day, the Armistice Day Blizzard sticks out as one of the worst blizzards ever experienced. Though a mere 16 inches of snow fell (nearly 3 feet of snow if measured with today’s methods), the lack of warning is what made it so deadly.
Another blizzard that is remembered is known as the Super Bowl Blizzard. The storm arrived In Minnesota, Jan. 10, 1975. Those caught in the storm quickly became trapped. In Willmar, 168 passengers became stranded and were stuck in a train for hours as the wind chill made it too dangerous to venture outside. As conditions deteriorated, motorists, especially in the countryside, found themselves stuck and were forced to seek shelter on nearby farms. In addition, some school children being bused to their rural homes were forced to stay the night with neighbors or relatives as the roads became impassable.
The storm lasted until Sunday, Jan. 12 — Super Bowl Sunday. People hunkered down in their homes as the winds outside blew with a fury that created a sub-zero wind chill. The worst of the storm was now over, and as friends and family gathered to watch the Vikings in the Super Bowl, they hoped that their beloved team would escape the curse that recently plagued the weather. Unfortunately, the team fell short and lost to the Steelers 16-6.
The storms of yesteryear may not have been any worse than those we have today (though some will disagree). What has changed, however, is our preparedness and our tools. Storms are reported days in advance and people can make arrangements, meaning fewer people are “caught out” in a blizzard. In addition, snow removal has improved so much that a big snow is normally cleared out within hours of a storm's end. Of course, our automobiles are also better equipped to handle snow. Tires are better, roads are better, and many vehicles come with traction control, four-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive. One can see, however, that if we were to lose these modern conveniences, we, too, would be at the mercy of the elements just as our forefathers were so many years ago.