Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 8, 2004

1940 Armistice Day blizzard: a storm like no other

By Jane Otto

For most people who lived through the 1940 Armistice Day blizzard, it’s a memory that hasn’t faded with time.

“That was a storm, I’ll tell ya,” Winsted’s Brian Cafferty said. “The snow just kept getting heavier, heavier, and heavier, and blowing, blowing and blowing, until you didn’t see anything.”

The Minnesota State Climatology Office rated the Nov. 11, 1940 snowstorm as the No. 2 weather event of the 20th century. Only, the 1930s’ dust bowl outranked it.

The storm took the lives of 49 Minnesotans, mainly duck hunters caught unaware by the deadly weather.

Nationwide, more than 150 people died in the windy, snowy assault that cut a 1,000-mile-long swatch through the country’s middle.

An innocent beginning

Several people in the area, old enough to remember, recalled the day having a warm, rainy start.

Some areas of southeast Minnesota had topped 60 degrees, according to the state climatology office.

At that time, the 21-year-old Cafferty had a garage at Sherman Station, four miles west of Winsted. The garage stood next to the creamery, which Bertram Nelson ran. Both buildings are now gone.

Rain changed to snow later that morning. “It was nice and wet and coming straight down,” Cafferty said.

Cafferty spent much of the late morning pulling out cars getting stuck in the rapidly falling snow on their way to the creamery.

Some farmers brought their milk in horse-drawn wagons, but the horses found it too deep to plod through, Cafferty recalled.

That same morning Cafferty’s younger brothers, Jimmy, Frankie, and Jerome left the Cafferty farm, which was on Falcon Avenue, 1 1/2 miles north of Sherman Station. The three boys were stranded en route to the dentist.

Not far from the creamery, the boys got their older brother to pull the car to his garage.

Temperatures dropped quickly, however, and the winds picked up that afternoon. For 24 hours, winds averaged 25 mph and gusted at more than 60 mph.

As the storm worsened, the four brothers huddled around the creamery stove for warmth. The wind was so strong it blew the curtains horizontal, Cafferty said.

Later that night, the window was gone and snow piled high inside.

The long crawl home

Concerned about milking the cows, Cafferty left the creamery at about 4:30 a.m., with Jimmy and Frankie.

“We figured the cows weren’t milked and we didn’t know how long it had been since they were,” Cafferty said. “We had no phone then and you couldn’t holler.”

Only about 12 or 13 then, Jerome stayed with the Nelsons, who lived above the creamery.

Before bucking the blizzard, Cafferty recalled Nelson giving them rugs to block the wind. “Nobody had heavy clothes. It was so warm that morning,” Cafferty said.

The gusty winds and blowing snow became too much for Frankie. Pale and winded from the storm’s gale, Frankie almost died, Cafferty said.

Covering Frankie in the rugs, they waited until he could go on.

“Frankie got his air back,” Cafferty said, and the threesome continued their trek through that wild, white world. “We just kept scratching and crawling, not knowing where we were going.”

Cafferty couldn’t recall how long the trip took, but the brothers made it home, only to learn younger brother Mark had milked the cows.

Jerome didn’t return until two days later, after the winds died and the roads were somewhat passable.

Other stories

Not everyone in the area had as treacherous a 1940 Armistice Day as Cafferty.

For most people, it was like running outside for a snapshot and then quickly returning to cover.

“Everybody that was home, stayed home,” Don Gutzke of Howard Lake said.

Ten years old at the time, Gutzke lived in town. Most merchants lived above their businesses, with no need to travel to and from town.

“When you think of how many people were home, there weren’t many disasters,” Gutzke said. “It was really fortunate the town was so closely knit.”

Living in town and being the local paper boy, Gutzke knew much of what went on in the then 10-square-block area. He knew Doc Meintsma, the town dentist, only made it half-way home that Nov. 11.

Meinstma lived on 13th Avenue, the town’s western edge. “He never drove,” Gutzke said. “He’d walk to work, walk home for lunch, and back again.”

Heading home during the height of the storm, Meinstma was forced to stop at Hank Gruenhagen’s, Gutzke said. “He just waited too long.”

Just 24 at the time, Verna Glessing also lived and worked in town. She recalled going to work that morning in warm, wet weather that quickly turned foul.

She worked at the bank her father owned. At that time, it stood where the Posey Patch is now.

“We opened the bank, but nobody came in,” she said. “It was very deep snow to walk in.”

Closer to Winsted, Ed Fasching, then 14, recalled his family raising pullets for laying hens. Due to the warm fall that year, the Faschings hadn’t prepared the brooding house for winter yet.

“The next morning, we found them hanging upside down frozen, with their feet still stuck to the limbs,” Fasching said.

Two to three weeks later, Fasching found about a dozen of his neighbor’s turkeys, still alive, huddled under a snow bank.

Fasching couldn’t remember another storm like it.

Those who had electricity then, didn’t have it for up to a week.

For three days, no mail and no trains came.

By Wednesday, snowplows attempted moving 8-foot high drifts of heavy, wet snow, but needed men shoveling to aid their progress.

Howard Lake’s Don and Dorothy Mitchell well remember those snow drifts. The newly married couple had just moved to the white house opposite the county fairgrounds.

They stayed put during the storm’s wrath, but ventured outside the next day, Don Mitchell said. “I remember taking a walk the next day. The only way to get around was to walk. The drifts were too big.”

They turned the corner onto Highway 12 and saw a snow-clogged east-west artery.

The couple walked on and then up a massive snow bank to be face-to-face with the street light that was strung across the intersection.

“We were as high as the top floor of the old Custer Hotel,” Don Mitchell said.

Mitchell, as well as the others, said the 1940 blizzard was like no other, whether it was the sudden turn of events, the snowplows used then, or no TVs to forewarn folks.

Fasching and Glessing remembered a 1941 St. Patrick’s Day storm, and of course, the 1991 Halloween blizzard, which the state climatologist ranks as the No. 3 Minnesota weather event.

“I can remember back to the 1930s and that was the worst one,” Mitchell said of the Armistice Day storm. “Nobody ventured out. They just sat home by the fire.”

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