Hundreds of people died during the January 7-9, 1873 blizzard which struck the Midwest with ferocity. Twelve people died in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota. These victims were ordinary people, doing ordinary things to help their families and they traveled familiar routes. Men and women were selling or grinding grain, cutting firewood, tending to cattle, visiting family, caring for loved ones. All tried to survive during the storm or from their injuries. All experienced the intense emotion to do everything possible to get home to family during time of adversity, to save loved ones, or, when dying, to be together with those you love. The need to be safe, warm, and with family is powerful.
In 1982, almost 110 years after the 1873 blizzard, I experienced something similar when my father, mother, and I struggled to get home during a powerful Christmas Eve blizzard. My father had this strong need to care for his family and to get home to safety, no matter the danger. Here is my story.
In December 1982, while I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, I made plans to take the Amtrak train home for the Christmas holidays, but a Minnesota blizzard altered my plans. I was looking forward to this Christmas because it was the first year that my home church, First Lutheran, was going to have an evening candlelight Christmas Eve service. When I was growing up and singing in the church choir, the congregation had Christmas Day morning services. This was to be my first evening candlelight service. However, the weather dictated otherwise.
During my 3 years at UW I did not own a car, so driving home for the holidays was not a choice. On December 23 a friend drove me to the Columbus WI train station about 25 miles northeast of Madison; I met the train at noon. The train was scheduled to arrive in St. Cloud MN during the evening hours. My parents planned to meet me at the St. Cloud train station in Stearns County, which was a one-hour drive from our farm in Kandiyohi County.
The weather was extremely cold that day, but there was no blizzard when I left Columbus WI. Because of the cold temperatures the train had to travel slowly. Normal speeds could have broken the brittle rails. Thus I knew the train would arrive late in St. Cloud. Where along the route the blizzard started, I do not remember, but the weather was getting progressively worse. Because of the extremely cold temperature and wind: 30 degrees below zero, with wind gusts up to 50 mph. (That is a -70 degrees wind chill.) I assumed Mom and Dad would not make it to the train station. I planned to find a motel room in St. Cloud and hoped I would find one near the train station.
The train pulled in to the station on December 24, at about 2:00 am. Mom and Dad were there; they had driven my brother Kurtís 1976 Ford Granada, not their 1972 Ford Torino. I was surprised by the choice of car, because it was Kurtís, not theirs. When I saw Mom and Dad I was happy, relieved, and angry--all at the same time. I was happy to see them and to be with them, relieved that they were safe, and angry that they drove such a distance in the storm. I tried to talk Dad into staying at St. Cloud that night rather than traveling home because the storm was not over. But he insisted on driving home in the middle of the night. The wind was blowing; the snow was falling; the temperature was dangerously cold; it was dark; and we had a rear-wheel drive car. Not the best formula for an easy drive home. But Dad was an experienced driver and this was not his first blizzard. My level of unease increased when Dad stopped for gas in St. Cloud. He didnít stop the car's engine while he filled the tank because he thought the car might not start again due to the cold temperatures.
We drove on Highway 23, then a two-lane road from St. Cloud to New London. This night the typical one-hour drive took more than 3 hours. Dad drove with the headlights on dim because using bright beams in the snowstorm was blinding, almost hypnotic, as the snow reflected back at the driver. It was difficult to see the road due to the snow, darkness and growing snowdrifts on the road. Mom kept her eyes on the right side of the road to be sure we didnít veer off the road. I kept my eyes on the centerline, which was sometimes visible between snowdrifts, to help keep us in the correct lane. There were few vehicles on the road that night. Dad plowed through numerous drifts on our journey.
By dawn, we made it to New London--only 9 miles left to the farm. At the corner of Highways 40 and 9, by the high school, the car died. Dad managed to start it again and get it to a mechanic in town; the car needed some minor repairs. While we waited we ate breakfast at the Walnut Chalet. At 8:00 am Mom walked across the street to her scheduled shift at the hardware store. Later that morning, after the car was repaired, Dad and I decided to head for home. The twist to the story is that Dad and Mom made it home on Christmas Eve and I didnít.
When Dad and I left New London the winds were howling, and the roads were drifting shut. We made it 8 of the 9 miles, but the final mile, on the gravel road, proved the most difficult of the journey. The road drifted shut just west of Earl and Eldora Petersonís home. This location has always been a problem during snowstorms. The winds come from the west and the snow drops into drifts just east of the hill, a very predictable and typical winter storm event.
So Dad turned around and we drove to his brother's farm, only a Ĺ mile from our location. Dad and I visited and then Dad went back to New London to get Mom. I stayed with my aunt and uncle waiting for them to pick me up on their return. Meanwhile Kurt has been home on the farm the entire time, listening to the furnace run constantly because it never got ahead of the cold. He worried that the furnace would stop working.
By the afternoon First Lutheran had cancelled the evening service. Mom had finished work; she and Dad tried for home thinking they would pick me up and we would have our family Christmas at the farm. The winds continued to blow; the roads continued to drift shut. At some point they started following a slow plow, the road-grader with special attachments driven by a neighbor, Gordon Skindelien. Following Gordon's route, Mom and Dad took ďthe long way homeĒ past First Lutheran, then the Hande farm, East Norway Lake Lutheran, and the Hatlestad farm, arriving home from the west, rather than from the east.
By following the snowplow they made it home. Mom and Dad planned to backtrack and pick me up, because I was still at my uncle's farm, only 1Ĺ miles away. But the roads had blown shut again, so they had to stay home. I celebrated Christmas Eve with my extended family. We were all safe and warm.
I made it home on Christmas Day.