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DAKOTA DATEBOOK: Blizzards

February 5, 2018 — It was on this date in 1949 that the North Dakota Air National Guard was called up to drop feed for stranded starving animals in the western part of the state, where a storm had dumped 16 inches on top of the 14 that were already on the ground.

In terms of duration, the worst blizzard on record blasted the entire upper plains March 2-5, 1966. In Bismarck, visibility was zero for 42 consecutive hours, and a new record for single storm snowfall was set at 22.4 inches.

The most deadly blizzard in North Dakota’s modern history hit on March 15, 1941, killing 79 people—39 in North Dakota, 32 in Minnesota, and eight in Canada. Hitting on a Saturday night, the storm caught many travelers by surprise. Winds gusted to 85 miles per hour at Grand Forks, and snowdrifts reached 12 feet in north central Minnesota.

The term “blizzard” was used for the first time in 1870 by an Iowa newspaper, the Estherville Vindicator, to describe a severe snowstorm that hit Minnesota and Iowa. Early settlers were particularly vulnerable to these storms.

Agatha Jerel immigrated with her family from Switzerland when she was fifteen. She married Lorenz Arms in 1883, and they homesteaded near Wimbledon. In her memoirs, she wrote, “The winter of 1889 was a severe one. There were many cold days and bad storms, including a real blizzard. One morning the sun was shining, but it was twenty or twenty-five degrees below zero.”

“Just before noon everything seemed to change; the air turned hazy and smoky; the sun disappeared from out of sight; and before anyone realized what had happened the storm was here. My husband had gone to Wimbledon after a load of coal and was half way home when the storm started. He knew too well an old-fashioned blizzard was approaching. Driving into a farm, he unhitched his team and put them in the barn.

“Being greatly worried over me who was home alone, he started on foot across the field. The storm grew worse, and facing that terrific wind that was coming directly from the north made matters all the worse. Lorenz hurried, but it was hard plowing through the snow. He was growing very stiff and cold; the fine powdery snow was switching in his eyes, nose, and mouth. He was sure he was going the right direction and kept on plowing through drift after drift. One time he fell; but, staggering, he lifted himself up and was on his way.

“Glancing across the field, he could see a little light, which he followed for about a mile. Soon, he came closer and closer and hazily saw a house. He walked to the door and pounded; the door flew open, and he fell to the floor. When he woke up, he was lying on a bed, not in his own home but exactly ten miles north of the farm. Several people froze to death during that blizzard. Many bodies were not found until the snow melted in the spring.”

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org.

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