Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reader Memories: Blizzard of 1941

I heard once again from Ernest Gunerius this morning. Ernest shares that he first sent this story to the online list; it concerns the infamous blizzard of 1941, which he experienced first-hand. Here are his memories, and amazing they are...
While waiting for inspiration to answer Marilyn's questions on Clergy and the Social scene in 1850's North Dakota, I thought I would comment on Weather in that region both historically and my personal experiences. This little story will also have elements in it that touch a little on some of her other questions, such as the ethnic heritage of the people that immigrated to the Red River Valley and the type of people they were. At least to show the mettle of the people in 1940. The men that enlisted in the armed forces from Pembina on December 8, 1941.

In Pembina, while still a resident, there was a saying : The only thing that can be said for sure about Pembina weather is: "It never snows in August". Once, in the late 1930's, I saw it snow during the Baseball game at the Pembina Ball Park on the Fourth of July.

The great Blizzard of 1888, while not the first recorded, was the most disastrous recorded. 400 lives were lost and uncounted cattle and other animals. I would suppose the Buffalo survived well. I have seen it claimed that cattle from North Dakota, drifting with the north wind were eventually shipped home from Texas where they stopped. That may be an exaggeration.

Saturday, March 15, 1941 began as a normal morning. I recall the sparrows in the ivy on the north wall of the house to the right of the door off the porch (on the old Wardwell house) were making their normal annoying, loud, twittering. The sky was generally clear. Around four in the afternoon, I noticed that the sparrows were silent. Looking to the west out the bay window on the south wall of the kitchen, I could see, on the horizon a faint black cloud.

My sister and I were planning to go to the movie that evening. The movie was shown in the auditorium of the City Hall. Which was one and a half blocks north and across the street on that block that was "kitty corner" from our block.

When we left for the movie the black cloud had moved much closer to town, but my sister was fifteen and I was twelve and we had no worry. The movie was over around 10 PM. However as the lights came on someone, probably the town Marshall, announced that no one was to leave the hall as there was a really bad Blizzard raging outside.

The adult men present organized our exit by alternating adults and children as a chain all holding hands, actually I was not so much holding hands as being held by two adults at either hand. With one of the "Iron Men", possibly George Renville, leading the way we went out, down the long straight staircase that led down to the sidewalk. I was almost immediately disoriented.

I sort of realized we had turned left and then left again and were moving south , but could see nothing , not even the person leading or following, or for that matter, my own hands. I had to keep my eyes shut because if they were open they soon filled with icy snow. The visibility was such that I could not see my hands held six inches from my face.

The chain of people was led south to the corner, then left to the middle of the block to Mrs. Cassidy's restaurant which was open. At this point my sister and I were about 300 feet from our house. We were not allowed to go home by ourselves. We waited till about Midnight when there was a lull in the storm and a group of men led us and some of our friends that lived in that direction to our homes. At that time it was still snowing hard, but the wind had died a little.

In the morning my father woke me to tell me he had a chore for me. And it was to dig a way out of the house through the porch door. The porch was glassed in all round the two open sides and snow covered all windows. Fortunately, probably by design, the door opened in. When opened, a solid hard packed wall of snow appeared.

I tunnelled up, making steps, as I reached the surface, I was treated to a most wondrous sight. All that was visible in the whole town as far as I could see was the roofs of the two story houses and nothing of the single story dwellings. The eaves of our house were about 16 feet from the ground, maybe a little more. I was standing even with the roof on the hard snow. The snow was hard packed and I could walk on it. In the center of the street the snow rose to 20 feet.

My friend Bill Borg (he with the Buffalo skin coat) called me to ask if I would take his Sunday paper delivery. I recall telling him I would lend him my skis so he could deliver his own papers. The train could not get to Pembina that morning so there were no papers to deliver and it wasn't a problem.

Snow removal in the city was a major project. The entire city was buried so the snow had to be loaded on trucks and carried out of town. The crews started from some where out side of town where the snow cover was thin on the highway and plowed to the point where it was necessary to start loading. The clearing as I remember took more than a week.

The Northern Pacific Railroad sent an Engine from Grand Forks to force a way through the snow drifts and to clear the tracks. This engine found a grim and most heartbreaking and sad reminder of the deadly force of the winter blizzards.

Katherine(21 yrs) and Florence(14 yrs) daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Mike Howry of Pembina had attempted to walk into town to help their mother, Mrs. Mike Howry, who was working at Mrs. Cassidy's Cafe, walk home from work.

The girls lost their way in the storm and turned south on the tracks and were apparently frozen to death on the tracks. Their bodies were picked up by the "cowcatcher" on the engine and were discovered when the engine arrived at the depot.

Myself and a few of my friends attended the funeral because their younger brother Frank was our friend. The funeral was to my young years most impressive and solemn. It was held in the old Ukrainian Church in South Pembina. I remember being very impressed and moved by the service and especially by the deep bass voices of the choir who were fathers of my other friends in town, now seen in another light. Because it was spoken and sung in the Ukranian language it added to the mysterious quality.

In the blizzard of 1941, 72 were known dead by Friday March 21. Many people were forced to spend the night in their cars away from home.

During the winter of 1888 and prior to that there were storms of equal or greater fury. I don't know of any record of those storms. I can only assume that the hardship was greater. Later as inspiration urges, we can consider the clothing worn by the early "First People", Metis and settlers.