orth Dakota is famous or more likely infamous for bad, worse, and worst winters in memory. Many who grew up there have at least one story about how bad the winter of … was.
Rolvaag’s novel Giants in the Earth tells about pioneer times and how the Hansa family copes with life in the Dakota Territory. Hansa’s wife insists that he brave a storm to get a minister for a dying neighbor, but he gets stranded in the blizzard and dies alone on the unforgiving prairie.
My immediate ancestors survived the winter of 1917-1918 – one of the worst in North Dakota documented history. North Dakota’s coldest temperature, -60 was recorded at Parshall in February 1936. Van Hook, near Parshall, is the setting for some of my winter memories. With a few exceptions, because we did not understand the seriousness of the situation, the winter of 1948-1949 was fun for kids. That was the winter of the mid-west hay lift when military C82 Flying Boxcars dropped hay to feed the starving cattle in what was called Operation Hay Lift.
School being closed for long periods of time was more enjoyable for us than for adults. Many nights we could not see through the blowing snow to the light on the utility pole next to the road. During some of the stormy days we could not see the outhouse only a hundred feet towards town from the house. These were good enough indicators that it was not safe to send children to school.
One day the blizzard stopped and there was not a cloud in the sky. Even early in the morning, looking outside was painful to the eyes. I was twelve and knew about snow blinding. Two of my younger school age brothers and I were summarily pushed out the door with scarves over our faces and our lunches in mittened hands. Can you imagine how welcome the clear still day was for my widowed mother who was weather locked into a three-bedroom house with seven children under the age of thirteen? Among other things, we hadn’t been able get to the outhouse, so we filled buckets in the cellar. During any break in the weather Mother would dig open the outhouse door and dump the waste on top of the frozen pile in the pit of the three-hole facility.
We got to the school and found it closed. I read the note on the door, “Pipes frozen – closed until further notice.” A news broadcast that night told us that the temperature in some parts west central North Dakota had been -53 degrees the previous night.
We returned home and saw that Mother had managed to get enough of the hard-packed snow away from the outhouse door, so a boy and a bucket would fit through. I was the oldest boy so guess what! She didn’t have to tell me to close the door and latch it when I was through dumping the pails of waste. I remember one time earlier in the winter (or it could have been the winter before) when the door blew open and the snow filled it up to the seats. I had to shovel it out.
I heard a story that outhouses in towns were always placed towards the town so if someone missed in a winter storm, they would end up in town instead of on the open prairie like Per Hansa. Our house was at the edge of town and our farmer neighbor tied a rope from our back porch to the outhouse, so we could guide ourselves back and forth in the dark. He told us that having the rope was also a good idea in case of the arrival of a sudden blizzard while someone was indisposed away from the house. But that winter, our rope-line was buried like Mother’s car with only the radio antenna showing above a drift.
That Christmas my six siblings and I got two sleds from an anonymous giver. We had our share of hand me downs even at Christmas, so we were extra excited because the sleds were new. The Trailblazer sled was long enough to seat two boys in tandem, but the Flexible Flyer was just a one boy sled.
Before a new sled ever came into our possession we had learned that the paint or last year’s rust had to be removed from the runners and the runners had to be waxed for efficient sledding. One of the best ways to accomplish the removal of paint or rust was to belly flop the sled few times on the gravel road. After that, we coated the runners with paraffin from Mother’s canning supplies. Sometimes we would hold a small piece of that wax with jam or jelly still on it near the stove to soften it and then chew it like gum. I liked the crab apple jelly or orange marmalade the best.
The surface of the snow was so wind whipped that its crust was thick enough to support a full-grown man. It was perfect for sledding. We usually went sledding where the road had been cut through an ancient river bank just a few hundred yards outside of town. The drifting snow had filled the cut, so the original shape of the bluff was restored. And, it formed a cornice on which we dared each other to slide. It was wind packed so well that it never did break even when the older boys took our Trailblazer to test their mettle. They asked to use it, but more often than not we had to bargain to get it back. It was a really good sled.
All of the roads and even the railroad had been closed for some time so there was no way in or out of town except by horse and sled. Nearly every local farmer had both but not many in town were so equipped. It would not have made much difference anyway; the nearest ‘store bought’ supplies were probably in Minot about 70 miles away. I remember hearing that some of the townsmen borrowed a horse and sled to get what was left of the coal in abandoned lignite mine just outside of town. Lignite is the lowest of coal grades, so people did not use it because more of it turned into clinkers than heat. However, when the good stuff ran out, it turned out to be a suitable substitute for no fuel at all.
On a day when the wind was not blowing, my brother and I took a grocery list to the store. The store shelves were nearly empty and had none of the items on Mother’s list. We did have home canned vegetables and our farmer neighbor kept us in eggs and milk. We made butter for our homemade bread by whipping the cream that rose to the top of the raw milk.
I don’t remember listening to a Minot radio station, but I do remember WCCO Minneapolis and KFYR Bismarck. Every evening one or the other would have Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Captain Midnight, and other shows designed to stir the imagination of boys my age. This was good listening for those long, cold nights. I was fascinated with the latest news about the Berlin Airlift too.
That winter, Van Hook, North Dakota, was snowed in for over thirty days. When school was out in 1949, we moved to Minnesota where frozen lakes became part of our “That winter was so bad that…” stories.