Winter Fury In The Valley

by

Debbie Dykhuis

Senior High Division

 

Perhaps nowhere in the world are people so subject to theextremes of the elements as they are here in the Red River Valley. The weather,in days gone by to the present, has dominated the conversations of peopleliving everywhere and no doubt will continue to be the center of conversation,worry, and complaint.

The weather in the Valley has not always been pleasant,and long time residents won't hesitate to share those memories of the difficulttimes they had. From temperatures reaching beyond the hundred degree markin the summer to seventy-five below in the winter, the people of this valleyhave burned their noses and frostbitten their toes. Of all the adverse weatherconditions experienced in this area, perhaps no other type of storm hasembedded a fear in so many people as the blizzard. The howling of the wind,the unheard of temperatures, and terrific amounts of snow are rememberedby many people in many ways.

In December of 1825, one of the worst blizzards ever recordedin the Valley killed thirty-three people, and froze hundreds of hands andfeet. During the rest of that winter, the snow drifts piled to five andalmost six feet. (1)

The heavy snow of October 15, 1880, came so early thatit caught many of the settlers off guard and unprepared for the winter.Many hadn't even started storing adequate supplies of food and fuel. Anarticle in the Warren Sheaf stated that "never in the history of Minnesota,have we heard of it being so cold for so long a time as it has this winter."Because it was so cold, another problem arose. The water in the river becameso polluted that the cattle would not drink it. The reason it was pollutedwas because it became so cold in the lower depths that the fish could nolonger survive. Consequently, they died and polluted the water. Becauseof this, many of the farmers had to haul water from as far as a mile away.

Many people had a hard time keeping a supply of fuel thatcould sustain them through a blizzard. One farmer explained that the reasonhe ran out of coal was because the storms lasted so long and seemed to followone right after another.

During the winter of 1886-87, it was not only stormy, butit was cold. Cold enough to force people into buying better heating equipment.A low of forty-six degrees below zero was recorded. This may not seem soserious compared to temperatures today in which wind chill factors can betaken into consideration, but it was serious then, when heat and travelinvolved more work and more time out in the cold. Also, to add to theirproblems, it remained that cold for six consecutive weeks. It was timeslike these when living in the Valley was more challenging than comforting.

Farther south, in Richland County, sever storms startedon December 20, 1887. One person in the storm described it like this. "Thestorm hit like an explosion . The snow was so thick that it bothered mybreathing." (2) Those who died in this storm were later examined bydoctors. It was found that they hadn't suffered from exposure, but theyhad actually smothered from the density of the snow in the air and the forceof the wind.

The winter of 1887-88 started out beautifully, but by theninth of February, the temperatures had dropped to fifty below zero. OnFebruary 15, the first blizzard started and they came regularly for thenext four months. By March 28, the snow was piled mountain high and stillcoming. John Tofte of West Fargo, had a fourteen by eighteen foot house.He had a pole in front of it to indicate where he should start shoveling.In the terrible storms of 1888, his house was often completely buried, andhe had to tunnel his way out.

The winter of 1896-97 is generally remembered as beingthe worst winter in the history of the Valley. From November until March,it stormed almost every week, and immense amounts of snow fell as driftspiled to nine and ten feet. Storms like these, particularly this one, alsocaused another problem. When spring came and the snow melted, these terrificamounts developed into some of the worst floods this Valley has ever seen.

The winter of 1916 came in with a lot of snow. Silas Matthewof rural Humboldt, reports that there were between four and five feet ofsnow on the level. He also says that it didn't thaw until the tenth of April,and then a Chinook wind came and took it all in a matter of hours.

In February, 1928, Mother Nature again took it upon herselfto send those flakes of fury upon the Valley. This storm is vividly rememberedby one of the Valley's long time residents.

The children had departed for school that morning, andthe canvas covered wagon which served as a school bus had picked them upas usual. Soon after they had arrived at school, it began to storm. We hadno telephone because of the oncoming depression. We were so thankful tothe bus driver for walking to our home to tell us where the children wereand that they were all right. When he arrived at our home, his pockets werefull of snow. (3)

The reason that bus driver, who happened to be Dan Meyerof Humboldt, couldn't bring his horses to their home is because the horses'eyes would cake with ice and snow as did their nostrils, and consequently,they refused to move.

On March 15, 1941, the howling winds of the evening broughtin the worst storm ever recorded in the history of the Valley. It was akiller blizzard taking a toll of seventy-six lives, thirty-eight in NorthDakota, twenty-eight in Minnesota, and six in Manitoba. This storm, describedby people involved in it, was absolutely beyond belief.

It was a Saturday and it was mild. A perfect day for shopping.No one suspected what those gray skies held. It was snowing lightly andthe temperatures were warm. Suddenly, lie the roar of distant airplanes,out of the north, the winds came. They gusted to over eighty miles per hourin Grand Forks. In two hours the temperatures had plummeted to sub-zeroreadings. In a matter of minutes the visibility was nil. Many of those whohad gone shopping found themselves stranded with snow choked engines. Manymet their deaths as a result of abandoning their cars. Courageous peoplerisking their lives for loved ones found that their strength was far unequalto their courage. Travel was unsuitable even for the hardiest. Many of thedead were found far from their destinations. One resident explained it likethis:

Snow and dirt, lashed by the thundering wind, choked todeath many victims, or caused them to drop exhausted, far from their intendedpaths, there to slowly freeze as the snow swept in grave-like mounds overtheir bodies. (4)

Searchers went out with iron probing rods uncovering thebodies of the scores of people killed. When the search for the dead endedon March 19, authorities found the death toll of that raging blizzard hadreached seventy-six.

Most of the dead had tried to make their way for help butwere battered to exhaustion by the wind. Some of them froze in their carsand again many suffocated from the fine snow and dirt blowing so wildlyabout them.

This storm had taken more lives than any storm in the Valleyand it had implanted a fear of these storms in many, many people. From thereafter,people cautioned each other against travel in March, believing a blizzardcould strike again. The clutching fear of blizzards still remains in manyof the Valley's residents today.

In the Valley today, there are perhaps better systems ofheating, travel, and more accurate ways of warning against these storms,however, this is still no safeguard against the perils of the blizzard.This fact is very obvious after the storm of January 10, 1975.

The Red River Valley has been the victim of many blizzardsand it is sure to suffer through many more. Remembering the complexitiesof life in the storms of yesteryears may make our problems seem a littleless serious. The snow will continue to fall, the winds to howl, but mostimportant, the people of this area will continue to brave the violent winterweather of their homes, here in the Red River Valley.

(1) Vera Kelsey, Red River Runs North, Harper & Brothers,New York, 1951, p. 106

(2) Hiram M. Drache, The Challenge of The Prairie, NDIRSFargo, ND 1971, p. 153

(3) Not shown

(4) Kittson County Enterprise, Vol 58, No. 42, March 19,1941

 

Bibliography

Drache, Hiram M., "Storms, Stems, and Stamina",The Challenge of The Prairie, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies,Fargo, ND 1971 p. 41 and pp. 151-155

Kelsey, Vera, Red River Runs North, Harper & Brothers,New York 1951, p. 106

Kittson County Enterprise, Vol. 58, No. 42, March 19, 1941

Matthew, Silas, Interview, January 28, 1975

Matthew, Silas, Interview, January 28, 1975. 42, March 19, 1941

Matthew, Silas, Interview, January 28, 1975

Matthew, Silas, Interview, January 28, 1975