By Starrla Cray
DELANO, MN Chickens frozen upside down in trees, snowbanks as high as rooftops, and wind so strong people wore pails over their heads . . . it’s no wonder the Nov. 11, 1940 blizzard is still iced in the minds of area residents.
“One of my brothers came home before the storm started and accidentally left the car window open,” Delano resident Clarence “Deacon” Bruhn recalled. “We quickly had a vehicle full of snow.”
Bruhn was living in Cedar Mills at the time, and his father was a railroad worker.
“There were high banks about 10 to 12 feet high on either side of the tracks,” Bruhn said. “Those were the days of steam engines, and they came out with one that had a snowplow on the front. When it went through, it looked like another blizzard with the snow it kicked up. As a kid, that was impressive.”
Wright County Commissioner Dick Mattson was only about 5 years old in 1940, but one memory of that day is crystal clear.
“We just about lost a hired man,” said Mattson, who grew up on a farm north of Waverly. Cameron Anderson had gone out to check the cattle, and the storm suddenly got so bad that he couldn’t see where he was going.
“If he wouldn’t have found the fence line, he would never have made it home,” Mattson said. When Anderson finally appeared in the doorway, Mattson said he looked like a snowman.
“We were so happy to see him,” Mattson said.
In order to avoid the same fate, Gordy Wetter’s family tied a rope from the house to the windmill, and from the windmill to the barn.
“We tried putting pails over our heads to avoid the wind, but it didn’t work,” Wetter said. “The wind was so strong it came up underneath and took your breath away.”
No school for a week
From a child’s point of view, the storm wasn’t such a bad thing.
“I know it was a fun day for us kids, because you didn’t have to go to school,” Wetter’s wife, Marilyn, said. “I didn’t realize how serious it was.”
Wetter said they had hardly any outside communication at all, and were out of school for at least a week.
“We were kind of happy,” he smiled. “We didn’t want to see it end.”
Later on, Wetter and a group of children “carpooled” to school in a sleigh.
“They’d haul us to the highway with a team of horses,” Wetter said. From there, Wetter’s uncle, William, took them to school in a station wagon. William eventually purchased a small bus, which was the beginning of the Delano bussing system.
As an 8-year-old, Wright County Commissioner Jack Russek said the huge drifts were exciting.
“Afterwards, it was frozen solid you could drive right over it,” Russek said. “We could slide right off the garage roof. We had a great time.”
During the storm, however, even children didn’t want to venture out into the blistering weather.
“The wind was blowing so bad, we didn’t dare play in the snow,” Wetter said.
“You couldn’t see out the windows it just howled and snowed like crazy,” Delano resident Bill Eppel added. “They wouldn’t even let me go outside. We were snowbound three or four days where we couldn’t get to town.”
Going to the creamery
When the weather finally cleared, Eppel’s family took a horse and sled to the creamery. He remembers seeing Third Street covered by a huge drift, and men were shoveling as fast as they could.
“It was so hard, you had to cut it out in cubes,” he said.
Because of impassable roads, many farmers couldn’t get their milk to the creameries.
Delano resident Wally Grotz said some farmers had to store their milk in bathtubs until the milkman could get through.
“There was no such thing as a bulk tank,” Grotz said, adding that the milkman by their farm ended up getting stuck and staying at their house overnight.
Wetter said his father skimmed the cream off their milk and put it in an 8-gallon pail. He then walked more than two miles in deep snow to Highway 12, to meet the milkman.
“We met a truck, and the driver hauled the cream to town,” Wetter said. “The rest of the milk, we fed to the animals. A lot of it was dumped, too.”
Wetter said he remembers the biggest snowdrifts about 11 to 12 feet high where the Delano Sports Center is now located.
On the Eppel farm, the 10-foot-high chicken coop was encased in snow.
“The drift came right off the end of the building, and we had to chop down to get to the door,” Eppel said.
Many farmers lost livestock that day, but some animals proved to be resilient.
“Our neighbors had turkeys, and we didn’t know where they went after the storm,” Ed Fasching said. “About six of them we found two weeks later in the snowbank still alive.”
Russek’s family also had turkeys, but they weren’t as lucky.
“They all went out with the wind,” he said. “They hit the windbreak and blew away. We found them frozen on a neighbor’s property later on.”
After losing 30 to 40 turkeys that day, Russek said they never purchased them again.
“That was the end of the turkey experience,” he said.
Fasching’s chickens came to an untimely end that day, as well. His family’s laying hens liked to roost in the trees, and when the storm came, they froze right on the branches. The wind tipped the chickens upside down, but their feet were still clutching.
Leonard Rozeske also recalls a strange sight from the blizzard. His neighbor’s daughter was getting married that day and having the celebration at the farm. Because the roads were impassable, a hired man had to pick everyone up with a team of horses.
“The wedding party rode in the manure spreader,” Rozeske said.
Despite all of the interesting scenes, photos of the blizzard are hard to find.
“Everyone was so busy shoveling, they didn’t even think to take a picture,” Eppel said.
Simple tasks proved to be difficult in the harsh weather.
Marilyn Wetter said she remembers her brother and dad struggling to put on a storm window, against the ferocious wind.
“That was a battle,” she said.
Many people didn’t enjoy a good night’s sleep the night of the storm.
Bruhn said one of his wife’s relatives had been on a date with his girlfriend that day. They couldn’t make it back, and ended up having to stay in someone’s haybarn.
“There weren’t motels around in those days,” Delano resident Ruth Russek said. She was a teenager at the time, working at the general store in town.
“I know we had a lot of strangers were stranded in town,” she said. “People were stopping in to buy warm clothing.”
According to Russek, it was quite a while before the town got moving again.
“Everything kind of shut down,” she said.
“Some of the roads weren’t open until spring,” Wetter added.
Loss of life
The Armistice Day (changed to Veterans Day after World War II) blizzard claimed the lives of 49 Minnesotans, and more than 150 people nationwide.
Many who died were duck hunters, trapped by the sudden weather change.
The day started out mild, and according to a Minnesota Public Radio article, some areas of southeast Minnesota topped 60 degrees.
That morning, the weather forecast predicted colder temperatures and a few flurries, but few people were prepared for what was to come. By 4 a.m. Nov. 12, it was 5-above zero in Minneapolis, the Star Tribune reported.
The Twin Cities received 16.7 inches of snow, Collegeville had 26.6 inches, and 20-foot drifts were reported near Willmar, according to the Minnesota State Climatology Office.
The Armistice Day blizzard is ranked as the second-most significant weather (or weather-driven) event of the 20th century, just behind the 1930s dust bowl.
“Those were the days,” Wetter said.