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The Winter of 1965-1966


Ralph Giffen

In December 1965 I had no idea what was in store for me. Like any other high school boy, all I could focus on was sports, girls and more sports. Little did I know what a tremendous winter this would turn out to be. Tremendous not only in the sense of personal insight to life, but in the wonder of the most powerful natural event I had ever seen, and may ever see in my lifetime.

For most of my childhood, I grew up on the Robert Ash farm, about 3 miles north of Humboldt, a little over a mile south of the Canadian border, and next to the Joe River. In the winter, we got a break from field work, but we didn't have a break from farm work. On our farm we had cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, and odds and ends of other types of animals thrown in to make it interesting. Taking care of livestock in the winter isn't all that easy, especially if you have milking cows. Also, we had a grain cleaning mill. In the winter time, we would take a lot of the grain we had raised and clean out the weeds and other foreign material in order to produce seed for the next year. So, it seemed that we had an endless supply of work to do. Chores had to be done. The cows had to be milked, livestock fed, water carried, water holes in the ice chopped open, and grain to be cleaned. However, in between, as much as possible, we kids had to have fun!

Every year we would have family and friends visit us over the Christmas holidays when all the kids were out of school and all the farming was done and we were taking a break. Each winter, if the river was up and the snow was not too deep, we would shovel the snow off the pond and nearby river and flood the area with water to make a skating rink. In a good year, you had little flooding to do and a lot of skating. One year we could skate almost as far upstream as Ward Finney's place, and downstream to the Canadian border, with only an occasional cattail patch to interrupt a good sprint.

In the winter of 1965-66, the river was good for skating on the pond and for about 300 yards on the river either way from our pond. The snow was not real plentiful until after Christmas and the New Year. During Christmas break skating, sledding and building snow forts was the agenda for the day, once all the chores were done. On Christmas day, to my great surprise, my dad presented us with a snowmobile. It was a Polaris. The old round nose blue and white version that seated two. This was a most incredible gift! We had a lot of family visiting, and it became a wonderful time of play. During the winter, as the snow came and the ground got covered we would ride that snowmobile all over the place. We would pull toboggans and inner tubes and anything else that could be towed or have someone attached to it. A side benefit of the snowmobile was the fact we could use it to move hay and buckets of water around the farm instead of carrying them by hand.

As the winter turned to spring, we were thinking of the springtime and the mud and flood days ahead. In early March one gets ready for spring and then the wonderful summer season. As we passed from the last days of February of 1966 into the first weekend of March, the largest winter storm ever known in that area, hit with a vengeance. It howled for what seemed an eternity. As kids, we thought that it was great, however, we had wished it would have all hit during the week so that we could get out of more school.

Even during the storm, all chores had to be done. In near white-out conditions, I would trudge out to the barn by following a fence or some inner instinct, to feed and tend the livestock. Each time I went out, I could feel this incredibly powerful force of nature hammering away at the world. To many other people it might have seemed the end of the world, but to me it was so invigorating. Everyday, through shear boredom and cabin fever, I would don my heaviest coats, pants, and face mask and go out to inspect the farm. My dad had a pair of long snowshoes that I wore so that hiking in the storm became less a chore and more of an adventure. I would stay out an hour at a time hiking through a nearby woods and then venturing into the open to slide down 20 to 30 foot snow drifts, all the time being more excited than ever about this tremendous energy around me. I am sure my mom felt great dread whenever I went outside during that time. However, being young and immortal, I enjoyed the storm immensely.

As the storm died away, my dad and I took our snowmobile out to where our beef cows were held for the winter. This was about a mile away from the house. As we rode over the fields we could see the tremendous amounts of snow that had piled up, and could appreciate the enormity of the storm. After finding our cows had survived in a small woods where hay was stacked, we fed them and headed out to see what the world looked like in white. We rode cross-country to neighbors to see if they were okay or if they needed anything. To our relief, everyone had fared well, and few of them didn't much of anything. We did deliver some milk to a couple of places on our return from Humboldt. As we approached Humboldt, we could see the enormous snow drift covering the highway just north of town. It always drifted snow there, but this was different. The drift was between 10-15 feet high, and packed nearly hard as a rock from the wind. On the town side of the drift was a snow plow ramming the drift numerous times. It took some time to break open the drift. After a short time visiting with friends in town, we bought some milk and headed on home.

We had snowdrifts that went to the tops of our grain bins, some of which were two stories high. Our drive-way and farm yard was one big drift about 6 feet deep on average. My dad spent 2 to 3 days with our tractor scooping up snow and pushing it wherever he could so that we could get in and out of the farm. Needless to say, we had great pleasure in riding the snowmobile all over the place. We played a lot in the snow, and watched as the snow vanished.

For our family, the big snow storm of 1966 had not finished with us until later that spring. You see, we lived on the wrong side of the river, on the side away from town. Every year, during the flood period, we would have to wonder if we would be blocked into our farm from the snow-melt flood covering the road. Most springs it happened. In the spring of 1966, it was not a matter of if we would have a flood, but how big of a flood would we have.

As with every year, we would look out the window as soon as we got up in the morning to gauge the height of the river. I could easily see it from the second floor window of my bedroom. We would check to see how far it had come up and if our road and bridge were covered. It was a game of great expectations. If the flood was too high and the back roads too muddy, we would get a vacation from school! That spring seemed to come shortly after the storm, and the river quickly rose to ever greater heights. Backed up water from the ice jammed Red River held the water in the Joe River. For days our little front road was under water and the bridge partially gone. The back road was too muddy to travel on. Eventually the water got up near our yard. It got within 40 feet of the house, and to its highest level ever. Another 2 feet in depth and it would have flooded our basement.

Our flood holiday was short lived. My uncle brought his boat and motor and we used that to get back and forth across the river until it receded days later. There was a blessing of fun with the boat though. It provided a wonderful opportunity to have some good times motoring around the river and around the ice floes. It was nearly as much fun as the snowmobiling.

Every so often I pull out the photo album to view the wonder of that winter. It's great fun for me look at those photos of Christmas, family, the Polaris, the snow, and the flood.