By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, McLEOD, CARVER COUNTIES, 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.
“We had a hell of a storm,” Winsted resident Dick Genty said. He was 14 at the time, living in southeast Minneapolis.
“My dad was hunting down in southern Minnesota,” Genty said. “He ended up staying in a farmhouse for a few days because he couldn’t make it back.”
Wright County Commissioner Dick Mattson was only about 5 years old, 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.
Ed Fasching remembers picking his siblings up from school that day. About a half-mile from their home, the snow got too high for the car, and they had to walk the rest of the way.
“We got home OK, but we had to walk fast,” Fasching said.
Turkeys in the wind
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,” Fasching said. “About six of them we found two weeks later in the snowbank still alive.”
Wright County Commissioner Jack Russek’s family also had turkeys, but they weren’t as lucky.
“They all went out with the wind,” Russek 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.
Even though Rozeske and his family lived next door, they weren’t able to make it to the wedding.
“I’ll tell you what we were doing that morning we were catching chickens,” he said. It was a race to get them all inside, so they wouldn’t die in the storm.
Rozeske’s wife, Irene (Quast), grew up near the current Winstock grounds.
She remembers about 35 people getting stuck on their way to school and staying with her family.
“That’s where they landed at our house,” Irene said. “One girl passed out when she came in.”
Irene’s mother used up a good portion of their canned goods feeding the hungry crowd.
“I remember how the people grabbed for the food,” Irene said. “That was quite a time.”
Irene’s family had electricity in 1940, but the power went out during the storm. Many households, however, didn’t have much technology or outside communication.
“There were very few people who even had a radio,” Rozeske said.
Milk to the creamery
Clara Ernhart was a young farm wife living just east of Winsted that year.
“It was horrible,” she said. “All you could do was go from the house to the barn to get your chores done. I think we were snowed in 11 days.”
In order to get their milk to the creamery, her husband had to haul it to the end of their long driveway with a sled and a team of horses. From there, the milk hauler was able to pick it up.
Wright County resident Wally Grotz said some farmers had to store their milk in bathtubs, because the milkman wasn’t able to get through.
“There was no such thing as a bulk tank,” he said. The milkman by their farm ended up getting stuck and staying at their house overnight, Grotz said.
Gordy Wetter of Wright County 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.”
Loss of life
Livestock and milk weren’t the only losses from the blizzard on Armistice Day (known as Veterans Day after World War II).
It also took the lives of 49 Minnesotans, and more than 150 people nationwide.
“It came up suddenly, and they didn’t have the technology we have now,” Genty said. “I don’t think they saw it coming.”
Many of the people 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.
“Afterwards, it was frozen solid you could drive right over it,” Russek said. As an 8-year-old, Russek said the huge drifts were exciting.
“We could slide right off the garage roof,” he said. “We had a great time.”
The state climatology office ranks the Armistice Day blizzard as the second-most significant weather (or weather-driven) event of the 20th century, just behind the 1930s dust bowl.
“People talk about all the storms we’ve had, but there were none as bad as the Armistice Day blizzard,” Fasching said. “You could write a book on it.”