By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL, COKATO,MN Turkeys and chickens froze to death, pigs suffocated in haystacks, people were stranded, vehicles were stuck in drifts along highways, and the drifts of snow were so high it took days to unplug the streets and roads.
The Armistice Day blizzard Nov. 11, 1940 was one not soon forgotten.
“The day started beautiful, it was nice and warm,” said Audrey Tack of Cokato, who was 9 years old at the time.
“There was car after car going down Highway 12 to Minneapolis,” she continued.
Dallas Murphy of Dassel, who was only 3 at the time, said the storm came up fast.
“My sister and I went to a movie at the Empress Theater in Dassel. It was nice when we went in, but by the time we came out, it had snowed so much we couldn’t walk back home.”
They walked to the grocery store and got a ride home from the owner in his Packard car.
“It started in the forenoon,” said Willard Ferguson of Dassel, “By noon, it was snowing so hard you couldn’t see.”
With the quick approach of the storm, many people were caught off guard.
Giving rides, getting stuck
Because the day had started out so nice, many people who left home in the morning were ill-prepared for the freezing rain and blowing snow that began in the forenoon.
Those who had cars helped get others home from work before attempting their own journey home.
Marge Nepstad of Cokato was 16 years old when the storm came, and her dad worked on 8th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis.
When the storm became bad in the afternoon, they closed up shop and sent everybody home, she said.
Most people took the street cars to work, but they were getting stuck in the snow, so her dad gave rides to people.
After dropping the last person off, his car became stuck in the snow, recalled Nepstad.
With nobody around to help him, he started walking to a friend’s house he knew lived in the area.
When Nepstad’s dad finally found his friend’s home in the blinding, disorienting snow, they shut the door on him, not recognizing who it was.
He called out for them to let him in and they recognized his voice.
Nepstad reminisced that her dad was covered in snow and looked like a snowman. His clothes were frozen to him and had to be cut off.
He stayed at the friend’s home for four days recovering, with no way home.
“Emergency vehicles weren’t even able to get to people,” Nepstad recalled.
Ferguson also remembers giving people rides home that day in his new Desoto.
When the storm began to get bad, he picked up his wife from work and gave her a ride home. “I should have stayed home, too, but I didn’t,” he said, chuckling.
He ventured back into the storm to help others get home.
“The snow was blinding and the drifts came up over the headlights, but we had put big truck chains on the tires, so I didn’t get stuck,” recalled Ferguson.
He explained that he worked at a garage that borrowed a car to a man whose car was being fixed so he could bring his wife to the hospital.
The man got stuck over by the hospital, so Ferguson and a few others went to help pull the car out, pulling the bumper of the car off while trying to get it unstuck.
A woman across the street offered the men some coffee. “I was shaking so hard from the cold, I couldn’t even hold the cup, the woman had to help me drink the coffee,” recalled Ferguson.
When Ferguson finally went home to his wife, “I made it just over the sidewalk into the driveway, then became stuck. The car was stuck there for three days,” he mused.
Ferguson also remembers how the police drove right behind a snowplow in order to reach people having emergencies.
Stranded by the storm
There were many people, including school children, stranded by the sudden storm.
Phyllis Carlson of Dassel was teaching school at Pillager, a small town near Brainerd, when the storm hit.
The school’s superintendent went home and left her in charge of the students, who were stuck at school with no way to get home.
The students she was unable to find town people to keep overnight, slept on the floor of the gym.
“The home economics teacher and I made the best of it, though,” she recalled. “We had a good time cooking meals for the students the next day.”
Don Danielson of Dassel was 23 years old. He had driven his brother and sister to Dassel High School in his Ford Model A.
He recalled they were all stranded in Dassel, and Hannah Johnson was kind enough to let them stay at her home.
The next day, Danielson remembers how he and his siblings walked home on top of the frozen snowdrifts. His car could not drive through the hard-packed drifts.
Tack recalled her dad sleeping at the town hall, even though they lived in town, because he didn’t dare to walk home.
The Cokato Enterprise reported people being stranded at the Webb service station, their breakfast and supper consisting of pop and candy bars.
The Merchants Hotel was filled to capacity, with two people sleeping on chairs in the lobby and the landlady sleeping on the floor.
Loss of life
During the storm, there were some people and many livestock lost to the storm because there was no warning it was coming.
Marie Komula of Cokato remembers many duck hunters that died in their blinds. They had not dressed for a snow storm, because the day had started so nice, and they froze to death.
Orville Peterson of Cokato remembers trying to pick the chickens out of the trees and coop them up, but they did not get all of them.
In the spring, when the snow melted, he said they found the chickens frozen under the drifts.
The Nov. 14, 1940, Cokato Enterprise reported many turkeys froze to death, some farmers lost more than a thousand turkeys.
It also tells of hogs that had tried to take refuge in haystacks, but suffocated to death under the weight of the heavy, wet snow.
The Nov. 14, 1940, Dassel Dispatch reported a Canada Goose frozen alive in Lake Washington. Oliver Broberg chopped it out, “and it’s now hissing again in a lively manner at his home,” the newspaper stated.
The storm happened on a Monday, and by Tuesday morning, the heavy task of moving all the snow began.
“The horses pulled skids to clear the snow, which was then shoveled by hand into trucks,” said Bill Nelson of Dassel.
He was 9 and lived in Brainerd at the time. “It took a couple weeks to clean up all that snow,” Nelson said.
Lloyd Glessing of Cokato remembers, after the wind died down, chains were put on the tractor and five to six men helped make a path into town about four miles away.
Brad Finch of Cokato remembers that his dad was an engineer in a town just south of the Minnesota border in Iowa, and was responsible for all the snowplows.
“They had the old-fashioned snowplows with steel tracks. After the storm, someone had to stand on front of the snowplow to make sure it was still on the road, because the ditches were filled with snow,” he said.
He recalled his dad saying there were hundreds of pregnant women, along with the sick and disabled, who needed the roads cleared.
The drifts from the storm were so high, sometimes tunnels were made to get through.
LaVerne Peterson of Cokato was 8 years old and remembers a drift “as big as a mountain” in front of the family’s granary.
She recalls her older brother shoveled a tunnel through to the door.