We may be wrapping up an unseasonably warm December week, but Minnesotans are well aware that this is borrowed time.
Soon the temperatures will be dropping, and it’s inevitable that at some point, the snow will begin to fall again and fall hard. Weather warnings will be coming across TV screens and radios, warning residents to hunker down when the big storms roll in.
But Minnesotans haven’t always been so lucky to have this state of the art technology to predict dangerous storms. One day long ago, early Minnesotans also experienced a similar bout of unseasonably warm weather one week in January, but unlike us, they had no idea what was about to hit them.
The deadly ‘Schoolhouse Blizzard’
It was Jan. 12, 1888. Pioneer settlers around Minnesota and the rest of the Great Plains region had been dealing with some harsh, snowy, winter weather. So when they woke up that day to find it was an unseasonably warm, sunny day, it was certainly a welcomed treat.
The warm day brought everybody outside; people ventured into town, and housebound kids readily bounded off to school. Little did they know, an incredible storm was headed in their direction. Their false sense of security left them vulnerable to what was about to happen.
That warm weather drifting over the area from the Gulf Coast that seemed so welcoming, turned out to be an aggravating element to the situation when it collided with Arctic air pushing down from Canada. For Minnesotans and people throughout North Dakota and Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, it happened very, very quickly.
“Even in a region known for abrupt and radical meteorological change, the blizzard of 1888 was unprecedented in its violence and suddenness,” wrote David Laskin, author of the book The Children’s Blizzard. “One moment is was mild, the sun was shining, a damp wind blew fitfully out of the south - the next moment frozen hell had broken loose.”
It was reported that when the blizzard struck in the early afternoon, temperatures in Western Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota plummeted from above freezing to roughly -40 degrees. Moorhead was recorded at -47 degrees. Flash-frozen droplets of hard flakes were firing from the sky sideways with the 60 mile per hour winds, pelting and surprising people who were out and about.
The blizzard was so heavy, people reported struggling to see in front of their own faces. Eyes were literally being frozen shut, as already ample snow on the ground whipped around.
School was just letting out when the blizzard struck, so many school children were just walking home - or trying to. Many kids had reportedly left home that warm morning without mittens or hats. Some lost their way and never made it home. Others were luckier, as teachers in some little schoolhouses made the decision to keep their students there to wait out the storm.
Even that proved challenging, though, as they struggled to keep warm in the frigid temperatures. The roof of one schoolhouse in Nebraska even reportedly blew off in the violent storm. Another Plainfield, Neb., teacher, Loie Royce, tried to lead three children to the safety of her own house less than 90 yards from their school when they became lost. All three children died and Royce’s feet became so severely frostbitten they had to be amputated.
Six siblings in Chester Township, straight north of Fosston, were on their way home from school when they became stranded in the storm. They were found frozen to death with their arms entwined around each other in the snow. It is why the event was later dubbed “The Schoolhouse Blizzard” or “The Children’s Blizzard.”
Weather experts say there was almost zero visibility in this storm and very few landmarks in the rural areas, which proved deadly for many people, even as they were steps away from shelter without knowing it. Some froze to death in their own yards, becoming too disoriented to even find their houses. Alexandria man Hanley Countryman was walking home from town with 40 pounds of provisions when he became disoriented and lay down in the snow to die just 150 yards from his house.
Although it is estimated that somewhere around 235-250 people died in the Blizzard of 1888, it is still today unknown exactly how many it was. Some victims were not found until the spring when the snow melted. Others became victims of the storm even after finding shelter, ultimately succumbing to illnesses like pneumonia and infection from amputations. Some estimates put the final death toll upwards of 500 people.
The Detroit Lakes newspaper, then called The Record, was quick to report the information its reporters had. In the Jan. 13, 1888, edition, the top of the front page was prefaced with,“Snow-bound sheets have delayed this issue, and we are in search of the fiend who predicted an open winter.”
Reporters then indicated that they had received reports of people losing their lives in the storm, but it appeared too early for details by the time the first issue went to print. Instead, local coverage of the event was mainly focused on the incredible nature of the storm. It says:
“There are old settlers in Minnesota who tell of fierce storms, deep snows, and bitter cold in the early days of this country, but now they acknowledge that those experiences have been completely outdone. The night of January 12th will long be remembered.”
It also reported how the storm had delayed or even stranded trains in and out of the area. “Towards evening, a fierce wind swept down from the north, which continued with increased frigidity and fury until midnight, and today all roads are completely blocked. Not a wheel is being turned on the Northern Pacific today… Today the weather continues very cold with the snow still drifting, so that any attempt at opening the railroads is almost useless, the snow is drifting back into the cuts as fast as it is taken out.”
One week later when The Record came out with its next edition, it did have more details on the deaths throughout Minnesota, although it did not mention any in Becker County. Reporters then wrote about which people were making it into town from rural areas and from Audubon and what reports they had regarding the storm. Articles also talked about less severe, post-storm struggles. The Jan. 20 edition stated: “Many people about here have been anxiously watching their fast disappearing wood piles and wondering if the time will ever come when it will be possible to haul more from the timber. Between the large amount of snow everywhere and the present flooded condition of the lakes, it has been difficult to get enough wood for ordinary use. No wheat in town for a week. This is something unusual but not surprising, considering circumstances.
“Our school teachers report a very unsatisfactory attendance on the part of their scholars lately owing to the severity of the weather, which makes impossible for many of them to attend school regularly.”
Much was learned from the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888. The U.S. Weather Service, then called The Signal Corps (which at the time was a newly formed governmental service run by U.S. soldiers), made great advancements following the tragedy. Toned-down warnings of the time took a more serious tone and school administrators were no longer lulled into a false sense of security based on the sky above them.
It was a hard lesson that Mother Nature taught that day - that warm, welcoming, winter weather in these parts is often times nothing more than the calm before the icy, cold storm.