Highlights of infamous Armistice Day Blizzard

Published 7:35 am Friday, November 13, 2009

Nov. 11 is a date on the calendar that will always be associated with World War I, plus one of the most deadly blizzards in Minnesota’s history.

Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day) was designated to observe the end of World War I in 1918. And 22 years later this same name was given to a blizzard that’s still a vivid memory for some Minnesotans.

William H. Hull of Edina, an authority on the disastrous Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940, wrote, “On a mild November morning when there had been neither killing frost nor snow in most of the state, when roses were still in bloom, when gardens were still yielding some of their produce, 59 Minnesotans froze to death in a fast-moving storm that swept (the Upper Midwest region) with no advance warning.” (The total death toll for this blizzard was 144 people.)

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Hull wrote a book in 1985 called “All Hell Broke Loose” which is based on some of the harrowing experiences of the storm’s survivors. Included are narratives of students and teachers isolated in country schools, bus and train passengers stranded in remote areas, people caught in very precarious situations as they desperately struggled to find shelter from the vicious storm, and others who used their ingenuity just to survive.

The Armistice Day Blizzard blocked all highways and railroads, disrupted electric, telephone and telegraph service, and destroyed several million dollars worth of property and livestock.

However, the real extent of life lost in the disastrous storm really didn’t become apparent for several days. Then rescue workers started to find the frozen bodies of people in snow bound vehicles, plus those of others who somehow were unable to find shelter from the storm’s fury.

And over half the Minnesota deaths caused by the blizzard 69 years ago took place along the Mississippi River where waterfowl hunters suffered real agony from the wind, sleet, snow, and killing cold. Most of the isolated hunters were rescued, but others died before help could arrive.

The Tribune reported, “More than eight inches of snow fell in Albert Lea. This was whipped by the winds into great snowdrifts that blocked all highways in Minnesota and North Iowa. … Albert Lea was isolated from the outside world. The first train to arrive (on Nov. 14) was the Rock Island from Minneapolis after the crew had battled for 35 hours.”

A news report in the Tribune’s Nov. 12, 1940, issue was based on a deadly incident near Mountain Lake over in Cottonwood County. A 45-year-old farmer went from the house to the barn to get more wood for the stove so his wife and six children could stay warm. He somehow became lost in the intense blizzard conditions and froze to death in the barnyard not far from the house.

During the years I attended college and lived in Mankato, I met several people who knew the man and his family. They would recall this incident whenever the topic of the Armistice Day Blizzard came up.

One incident I heard about several times after moving to Albert Lea was based on the 4,000 turkeys that froze to death on the Otto Ahnemann farm near Conger.

There’s more about the topic of the famous, or infamous, Armistice Day Blizzard worth passing along. In Sunday’s Lifestyles Section we’ll feature Sherm Booen who gained well deserved recognition for his public services during this brutal storm. And in next week’s column there will be several more details about this blizzard, including information based on the late Bob Wolf of Waseca and his ill-fated hunting adventure on Freeborn Lake.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.