RUGBY, N.D. – On March 15, Myrna Baumann will celebrate her birth and mourn for the 72 people who died on that day 80 years ago.
“I was born right in the worst of the March 1941 blizzard,” Baumann said. “Over the years, I have been told and retold the story surrounding my birth.”
Although March usually marks the annual thaw in the Dakotas and Minnesota, it's a month that often is accompanied by vicious blizzards that throughout history have proven deadly and remain burned in the memory of longtime state residents. Two of the state's worst are marking milestone anniversaries this month, including the so-called "Ides of March" blizzard on March 15, 1941, and another that hit on March 15, 1966.
The 1941 blizzard left 38 dead in North Dakota, 28 in Minnesota and several more in Canada. In the March blizzard of 1966, at least eight died.
Baumann wrote a story called “Beware the Ides of March,” about the memories her family and their friends shared with her over the years when she lived near Lakota, N.D. Baumann now lives in Rugby but frequently visits Lakota and owns land near there.
"My sister remembers it taking him a couple of hours to thaw Dad out."
- Myrna Baumann
As Baumann’s story recounts, the family’s hired man had no weather-related difficulties driving her mother, Frances Geritz, to the hospital in Lakota on the afternoon of March 15, 1941. Mrs. Geritz was having labor pains.
“Many other people were out that afternoon doing their weekly shopping on a very nice Saturday and enjoying the snow melting as we do in March in North Dakota,” Baumann said.
But, as can happen on the North Dakota prairie in March, the weather quickly changed. Baumann's father, Jacob, who had taken his father-in-law to a medical appointment in Canistota, S.D., arrived at the hospital just before the wind began blowing fiercely, Baumann said.
“During the height of the blizzard, which my mother described as sounding like a roaring locomotive, I was born at 9 p.m.,” she said.
Shortly after Baumann was born, the hospital’s owner told her father to walk a couple of blocks to the house of a night nurse and tell her she was needed at the hospital. Her father went to the nurse’s house and delivered his message, but when she tried to walk back to the hospital with him, the winds were so strong she couldn’t move, Baumann said.
“My dad carried the night nurse to the hospital, only to collapse from exhaustion when Mrs. Wallum opened the door of the hospital,” Baumann said.
Jacob Geritz recovered and didn’t suffer any lingering effects from his harrowing experience. He was among the fortunate.
In Nelson County alone, 11 people lost their lives in the blizzard, Baumann said. A page in the Tuesday, March 18, 1941, Grand Forks Herald included dozens of funeral services planned for people who died. Services included a triple funeral for Nelson County brothers Sever and Melvin Reep, and Melvin’s wife, Rosella.
Sever Reep was found dead near his home and Melvin and Rosella Reep died after they left their car. The couple tried to walk the remainder of the way to their destination of Noonan School, south of Devils Lake, where Rosella taught, according to the Herald.
The service announcements also included a double funeral planned in central Nelson County for Rosalie Anderson and Bernice Smaage, best friends who lived a mile apart. The girls, who froze to death after becoming disoriented in the blizzard, were buried in a double grave.
It was a common cause of death for many of the blizzard's victims. For example, a group of Grand Forks residents – Mr. and Mrs. E.L. Ellington and Harriet Coger – were returning from a weekend trip when their car stalled on U.S. Highway west of Crookston, Minn., near what is now the University of Minnesota Crookston.
According to the March 18, 1941, Grand Forks Herald, Mr. Ellington, who worked at a Grand Forks theater, his wife, a longtime Grand Forks teacher, and Coger, Winship School principal, were found frozen in a field about a thousand feet west of the agriculture school entrance.
Not only did Baumann’s father, Jacob Geritz, survive his walk to and from the nurse’s house during the blizzard, he also lived to tell stories about his trek home to his farm the day after the blizzard, Baumann said.
“He walked those 13 miles in subzero temperatures. The snow drifts were packed so hard he could walk on top of them,” she said.
Her sisters, Kay and Joanne, described their father as an “iceman” when he returned, she said.
“He was totally white. Grandma told him to sit down and remove his clothing and boots. She placed his feet in a pan of warm water.
“My sister remembers it taking him a couple of hours to thaw Dad out,” Baumann said. But when he did, her father went to help their hired man with the evening chores, she said.
The next Wednesday, March 19, her father drove a team of horses pulling a stone boat through the drifts to the hospital. Her sisters made the trip in a wooden box perched on top of the stone boat, Baumann said.
Digging out from the blizzard was slow, and it took a week for a single lane of Highway 1 to be plowed, Baumann said.
Twenty-five years later, snow removal equipment had improved, but plowing out from under the March Blizzard of '66 was slow going. The three-day blizzard, which began the night of Tuesday, March 2, and didn’t dissipate until the afternoon of Friday, March 5, dropped between 27 and 34 inches of snow on a triangle from roughly Jamestown to Devils Lake and Grand Forks.
Publication of the Herald was suspended March 5 and March 6, the “first time in the memory of employees of the newspaper,” a Herald story said.
It took several days after the blizzard for residents to shovel out their cars and, for some, to uncover their homes and businesses. A Herald photo published on March 7 shows a man skiing off of the roof of Good Samaritan Center in East Grand Forks. In another Herald photograph, a dog standing on the roof of the Sunset Acres Motel in East Grand Forks is watching a group of men below as they shovel a path to the building.
Nine North Dakota and Minnesota residents died during the 1966 blizzard, the Herald said. The death that was nearest to Grand Forks that was recorded in the newspaper was a Bagley, Minn., woman. She died from exhaustion near Bear River, Minn., after she left her stranded car and began walking.
The toll of blizzards like those in 1941 and 1966 is something Baumann won’t forget as she celebrates her 80th birthday on March 15. The day she was born was one of great joy for her family, yet so tragic for others, she said.
“For understandable reasons, whenever we are faced with a North Dakota blizzard, I like to place a candle in the window as a beacon of warmth and welcome, and of hope, that all people will be safe,” Baumann said.