Surviving the Armistice Day Blizzard in a boat

Published 7:34 am Friday, November 20, 2009

For quite a few years the Tribune had the weather forecast printed on the front page up in the left corner of each issue.

Thus, the weather forecast in the issue for Monday, Nov. 11, 1930, should have had a warning that a brutally severe and even deadly blizzard was coming into this area from the Dakotas and the western part of the state. Instead, here’s what was actually printed in that issue:

“Cloudy and colder with occasional light snow tonight, moderate cold wave extreme east tonight; Tuesday cloudy, occasional light snow; slightly colder east portion. Maximum, 45; minimum. 13; noon, 44; rain over weekend, 2.07 in.”

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This sounds like the weather for the rest of that day and into the next day wouldn’t be too bad at all. Yet, one of the headlines and an Associated Press news report on the same front page said a blizzard was sweeping across all parts of the state. Something just didn’t connect here at all.

Just for the heck of it, I also checked the Tribune’s weather report or whatever on the front page of the Nov. 12, 1940, issue. Here it is:

“Partly cloudy, snow flurries north tonight and northwest Wednesday; slightly colder tonight. Maximum, 44; minimum, 5; noon, 10; 6 inches snow.”

This still doesn’t sound too exciting, except for the snow depth. However, a headline summary in this same Tuesday issue said, “Communication and traffic paralyzed by worst November storm in history of state; 60 mile wind whips snow into huge drifts; 10 persons reported dead.” (I’m aware of the fact that the word people should have been used instead of persons, but I’m using a direct quotation with the mistake included.)

As I mentioned in last week’s column, this blizzard’s final death count was 144 people with 59 of this number being Minnesotans.

No one died in this county; still there were some close calls. And the one person who really suffered during this blizzard was the late Bob Wolf of Waseca.

On the morning of Nov. 11, 1940, Armistice Day, the 29-year-old hunter drove form Waseca to Freeborn Lake to do some waterfowl hunting.

He went out on the lake alone in his small boat. About noon the high winds quickly came up and forced his boat out into the middle of the lake. Right at this point Bob was trying to get back to shore and to his car. He just wasn’t dressed to cope with what was quickly becoming a wild storm situation.

In his efforts to control the boat, Bob’s punt pole broke in half. Thus, he was without an oar or any way to control his boat. He had to stay with the watercraft as it drifted with the wind into a weedy marsh on the south side of the lake and became stuck. At this point he didn’t dare trying to wade an estimated 900 feet to shore in cold water two to three feet deep.

Bob managed to stay awake and tried to contend with freezing hands and feet. Just before 4 a.m. the next morning he through the ice in the marsh was thick enough for him to painfully crawl to shore.

He somehow made it to shore on the fairly thin ice, and despite the poor visibility managed to crawl to the Brandenburg farm on the lake’s south shore.

The Brandenburg family decided to put Bob in their car and take him to Albert Lea’s Naeve Hospital.

It took all day for the Brandenburgs to fight and dig though snowdrift after snowdrift to travel the 19 miles from their farm to the hospital.

Bob Wolf was in very serious condition for a few days with frozen hands and feet. He reportedly spent a month or to at the hospital and lost all his toes as a result of this blizzard.

In later years Bob was part of operations for the family’s Wolf & Habein general stores in Waseca, Bricelyn, Blue Earth and Fairmont.

By 1990 he was retired and living in Waseca, and that’s when I had a short telephone visit with him for a Tribune column. He was courteous, but rather reluctant to talk about the incidents based on his hunting trip to Freeborn Lake in 1940.

Linda Evenson at the Freeborn County Historical Museum Library did some recent research and found out that Bob Wolf of Waseca died April 25, 1992, and is buried in Woodville Cemetery.

We’re not through with the storm topic yet. In the next column we’ll have more information, plus memories, of the two icy storms of 1991.

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