Who survived the winter of 1979?

Published 10:02 am Friday, February 4, 2011

Column: Between the Corn Rows

Not long ago Jake Loper asked me to check out the significance of a message on a badge or pin he recently found. This pin-on device clearly implied the wearer was a survivor of the winter of ‘79. It was sponsored by First Bank-Albert Lea.

Right at this point I encountered a problem. In 1979 three local financial institutions had the word first as part of their legal designations.

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One was First Federal Savings & Loan Association, 143 W. Clark St. It’s obvious this wasn’t the badge’s sponsor. The key word, after all, was bank.

Another place was First Northwestern Bank, 122 E. Main St. I initially thought this was the originator of the salute to the wild winter of 1979. However, there was a lingering doubt about the place previously known as First National Bank and is now Wells Fargo.

According to the 1979 city directory, there was a place known as the Freeborn National Bank, 331 S. Broadway Ave. Then I found the real answer in the 1980 city directory which confirmed that the Freeborn name had been changed to First Bank-Albert Lea, and is now US Bank.

(The actual First Bank name change came in 1978. I might add that city directories are sometimes a year or two behind the actual events, like a bank changing its name.)

One detail I’ve noticed here in Minnesota is the way folks have names for their infamous blizzards. Good examples can be found with the deadly Armistice Day storm on Nov. 11, 1940, plus Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Good Friday, Easter and St. Patrick’s in other years.

For some reason, I thought the miserable weather in 1979 might be based on a St. Patrick’s Day blizzard I recall from that era. I was wrong. Then I decided to check the month of January 1979 with microfilm copies of the Tribune at the Freeborn County Historical Museum Library.

A Front Page article in the Jan. 7 issue included three tips to be used to start a car on a really frigid winter morning. Also, one of the local service station operators interviewed for this article said he used jumper cables to start 50 cars during one day. It’s obvious this article was inspired by some brutally cold days.

On Jan. 13 a blizzard swept through south Minnesota. Winds up to 35 mph and plenty of snow resulted in blocked roadways all over the county. The Rochester office of the Minnesota State Patrol reported that there were five accidents within two hours on Interstate 35 between Albert Lea and the Iowa border.

As a result of this particular storm the Jan. 15 issue of the Tribune had a different definition for the word “snowbird,” This word is traditionally used for an area person who goes south for the winter. However, the Tribune declared in print that a snowbird could also be used to describe a snow-covered car parked on the side of a street. The result was a problem for the snowplow driver. To help illustrate this point, this Tribune issue had four photos of snow-covered cars. By the day, in that era any car parked on the street next to the curbing had to be moved every 12 hours.

I was unable to find out how much snow actually fell during this early January storm. Yet, there was an indication there was a real surplus of snow in the city. A Tribune editorial on Jan. 18 said high piles of snow at street intersections were causing dangerous conditions for motorists.

Right about this time in 1979 the temperatures went up into the high 20s above zero and another storm with more than 6 inches of wet snow came into this area. On the morning of Jan. 19, 1979, the Albert Lea City Council held a special meeting and approved an emergency snow ordinance.

At this point I though there was enough information to justify the issuance of the badge back in 1979.

Now, I’m wondering if sometime in the near future, like early spring, if some local firm or bank will issue a badge or pin to salute the wearer:


Winter of 2011.

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