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HOME > History > History Club > Karen Christofferson - Armistice Day Storm


1940 Armistice Day Storm
Presentation to the Annandale History Club
February 2, 2005
Karen Christofferson


In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day to observe the end of WWI on November 11, 1918.  A law adopted in 1938 made the day a federal holiday.  In 1954 Congress changed the name to Veterans Day to honor all United States veterans. 

The Armistice Day Blizzard took place in the Midwest region of the United States on November 11 and 12, 1940.  The intense early-season storm cut a 1,000 mile wide path through the middle of the country from Kansas to Michigan.

The type of storm was a cyclonic blizzard called a Panhandle Hook.  The heaviest snowfall was 26.6 inches in Collegeville, Minnesota.  16.8 inches fell in the Twin Cities.  There were 154 storm-related fatalities with 49 of these in Minnesota.  Half of the Minnesota deaths were duck hunters, most of them along the Mississippi River.  Damages nationwide were estimated at $6 million in 1940 dollars.  Thousands of game birds, livestock and poultry were killed.  Losses to the turkey industry alone were staggering. 

Winds averaged over 25 mph for a 24 hour period, and gusted 50-80 mph, whipping snow into drifts up to 20 ft. deep and isolating whole towns.  Gales on Lake Michigan caused ship wrecks resulting in 66 deaths when three freighters and two smaller boats sank.  Two trains, a freight train traveling west and a passenger train traveling east, collided in Watkins in the blinding snow.  The fireman on the passenger train was killed and three other members of the crews were seriously injured.  The collision happened by the Soo Line depot in Watkins, Minnesota, and townspeople formed a human chain to lead the passengers to safety in the blinding snow.  According to Soo Line employee George Herbst of South Haven, 39 cars were off the track and splinters from the box cars went through the depot and stuck in the stove pipe. (October 10, 1983, The Annandale Advocate, "Reliving the old railroad days.")

The weather was unseasonably warm.  It had been drizzling on the 10th with some fog and moderate temperatures in the 40s and 50s.  The low pressure system moving toward Minnesota and Wisconsin from the southwest intensified and winds strengthened.  New barometric low pressure records were later established at LaCrosse (28.72 inches) and Duluth (28.66 inches), and a near record at Minneapolis of 28.93 inches. 

Rain turned to sleet and snow in the late morning on the 11th and worsened to blizzard conditions very rapidly, as snowfall rates approached 3-4 inches per hour.  The air temperature fell over 40 degrees in a 24-hour period.  Ice as thick as an inch coated poles and phone lines, breaking many of them.

The weather had been deceptively mild.  Sunday, November 10, the official U.S. Weather Bureau forecast was "Cloudy with flurries. Colder Sunday; Monday cloudy and continued cold."

The sports page headline read:  "Change in weather heralds good deer season."  The hunters flocked to the woods in the north and to the river bottoms in the south.  Hunters dressed lightly because of the warm weather.  Downtown workers went to work Monday with light clothing. 

There was no warning of the impending "Storm of the Century," as it was sometimes called.  In 1940 District forecast centers had responsibility for large geographic areas.  The Chicago office issued four forecasts per day for eight Midwestern states including Minnesota.  Early the morning of November 11th they had issued a moderate cold wave warning for Minnesota.   One story in "All Hell Broke Loose" said that in southwestern Minnesota, a duck hunter's car was stuck in a snow drift on the side of the road.  He turned the radio on and heard Cedric Adams say that snow flurries were expected in southwestern Minnesota -- just as snow drifted over the hood. 

The Armistice Day Blizzard and another snowstorm March 14 and 15, 1941, changed the way storms are forecast.  Governor Harold Stassen and Congressman R. T. Buckler of Crookston criticized the Weather Bureau for inadequate storm warnings and lack of facilities in Minnesota to provide 24-hour forecasting.  Soon thereafter Minnesota had a 24-hour forecast office and a larger staff.

Because of the mild weather, preparations hadn't been made for winter.  Because antifreeze was so expensive, most people put alcohol in their radiators.  If they put alcohol in when the weather was too warm, it would evaporate.  Many cars stalled out and had to be left, or got stuck in drifts, or wouldn't start because they were parked facing the wind and snow was packed solidly around the engine. 

Poultry and livestock were out in the elements and farmers risked their lives to try to bring them to safety.   People had delayed their purchase of coal and fuel for heat because of the warm weather.

By afternoon of Monday, November 11, downtown hotels were packed with workers who couldn't make it home.  A furniture store, the Minneapolis House Furnishing Company, opened its doors to people with no other place to go.  Storekeepers took in people staggering down the street against the wind and literally saved their lives.

One farmer got lost in the storm between the house and barn and froze to death.  Some became lost while looking for cattle and made their way along fence lines to find their way home.  Several people were found frozen in their snow-bound cars right in the Twin Cities, one by Minikahda Golf Course on Excelsior Avenue where many cars were stalled, and two on Highway 8 in New Brighton.  It was estimated that 2,000 people were stranded on Wayzata Blvd. Twenty duck hunters were taken to a make-shift morgue in Winona.  Some had drowned trying to get to shore in 2 1/2 to 5 foot waves, and others froze to death in the wet and cold.

One farm family near Jordan took in 20 students and the bus driver for three days.  Fortunately they had just butchered two hogs and had plenty to eat.  The wife baked bread, cake and cookies every day.  She and her husband took turns staying up all night to feed the wood furnace to stay warm, and also because they worried that a house fire might start. 

All Hell Broke Loose by William H. Hull was the only book about the Blizzard in the book stores and library.  It is full of harrowing stories of catastrophes and fortunate rescues.  The author included in the book 167 of 512 different experiences he received from Minnesotans in 166 communities.  The two local stories in the book were the Watkins train wreck and one from Howard Lake with the title, "We plowed 58 hours straight" An Internet web search resulted in a lot of good information about the Armistice Day Blizzard.

For over 40 years the Armistice Day Blizzard snowfall of 16.8 inches held the Twin Cities record for the heaviest total storm snowfall.   It was broken twice.  17.4 inches fell January 22 and 23, 1982.  A record storm snowfall of 28.4 inches fell in the 1991 Halloween Blizzard, which still holds the record.  However, the Armistice Day Blizzard holds the record for the most dense heavy snowfall, as the ratio of snowfall to liquid precipitation was 6 to 1. (16.8 inches of snow produced 2.66 inches of water, far more dense than the 10 to 1 ratio of the Halloween Blizzard where 28.4 inches of snow produced 2.83 inches of water.)   

In 1940 snowfall was measured every 24 hours after it settled and packed down.  In 1982 snowfall was measured every hour when the snow was fresh and fluffy.  There are those who believe that if measurements were taken the same way, the Armistice Day Blizzard would have more snow.

Members of Minnesota's climate community were asked to select the five most significant Minnesota weather events of the 20th Century.  The Armistice Day storm was No. 2. 

1.  1930s Dust Bowl
2.  1940 Armistice Day Blizzard
3.  1991 Halloween Blizzard
4.  1997 Red and Minnesota River Flooding
5.  1965 Fridley Tornado Outbreak and the 1965 Mississippi and Minnesota River Flooding (Tie)

Famous Minnesota Winter Storms are listed at http://climate.umn.edu/doc/historical/winter_storms.htm

The following news is from The Annandale Advocate, November 14, 1940, "Annandale Digs Out After Storm."

Storm in Annandale

The 75 foot flag pole on the corner of the Library grounds blew over during Monday's blizzard. 

Annandale had no mail from Monday until Wednesday noon, all bus and train service was out.

Five large cedar trees on the Mrs. Kate Bullock lawn were blown over.  A large spruce tree on the boulevard near the Mrs. Kate Packer residence is resting on the telephone cable.

Herbert and Paul Hoffman were out in the blizzard Monday and sought shelter at the J. F. Lee home.  Russell Houghton and Fremont Gruss ended up a hunting trip near Clearwater Lake by going to the Lee home for refuge from Monday's storm. 

Walking along the west side of main street is like walking in a channel, with buildings on one side and 10 foot banks of snow shoveled from the walks on the other side.

A daughter was born to Mr. and Mrs. Nanford Otterdahl of Southside Township on Tuesday, November 12.  The blizzard made it impossible for the family physician to take care of the case.

Paul Kelly lost some yearling stock in the storm.  The animals were so badly frozen they had to be killed.

A hog was frozen at the J. F. Lee farm, and snow banks are so high the family had not located all the poultry by Wednesday when the storm ended.

Mr. and Mrs. Miles Johnston of St. Paul were enroute to Annandale Monday.  Between Delano and Buffalo they picked up a young man, Chuck Gordon, who was headed for Annandale also.  His car was stalled and he was suffering from cold.  The Johnstons were stalled between Buffalo and Maple Lake and remained at a farm home together with other motorists who were storm victims.

On Sunday Mrs. Earl Gordon picked a bouquet of petunias from her garden and on Tuesday the same place had a five foot snow bank on it.

Dr. A. M. Ridgway took his niece, Miss Helen Locke, to St. Cloud Monday, and decided it wise to remain there in safety, returning home Wednesday.

Telephone service remained intact in this vicinity, but it was impossible to get Minneapolis.

Annandale Bus Drivers

Henry Lundeen, driving one of the school buses, became stalled and stayed at the Eastling country store.

The bus driven by J. F. Lundeen is still in the snow north of Bass Lake.  The six remaining children were taken to the Knickerbocker home and later Lundeens went out with a car and brought them to Annandale.  The children have been cared for at the J. F. Lundeen and Herbert Gall homes.

Jed Bullock drove a school bus for Bahr Monday and was stuck in the vicinity of the John Lundeen farm.  He and the children in the bus at the time were given shelter at the John Mattila home.  Mr. Bullock walked to Annandale on Tuesday.  Neil Bahr left town with a car to help him and became stalled and spent the storm period at another Mattila home.

The bus driven by Fred Heim got as far as the Nick Raisanen home where it bogged down.  Fred and the school children were given quarters by the Raisanen family and Fred walked to town Tuesday. 

Pete Eagy and the school bus he drove were stranded near the Frank Olson farm, Lake Sylvia.  The Olsons took him and the children in during the storm period.  The buses are all out as yet.

The November 14, 1940, headlines of the Cokato Enterprise were a little more dramatic:  "STORM SHATTERS RECORDS."

"CHIMNEY OF STOCKHOLM CHURCH TOPPLES IN DRIVING WINDSTORM.  The ferocious gale, approaching at times a velocity of 50 mph, toppled a chimney on the Lutheran Church in Stockholm Township.  The chimney crashed through the roof and into the structure of the building, crushing seats in the church balcony and damaging the interior."

10,000 Turkeys Perish Here in Storm; Kokko Loses 2,600. 

A capacity of 36 persons registered Monday night at the Merchants Hotel in Cokato.  Two persons slept in chairs in the lobby.  Many were turned away because all rooms were occupied.  Seven people, including out of town persons whose cars had been stalled on the highway, spent the night in the Webb gasoline station.  Six persons found a haven in the Cokato village hall and two others occupied the jail.  Residents of Cokato found the blizzard too brisk for only a few blocks' walk.

Branches were blown off trees; part of the roof of the P.E. Nelson cottage at Brooks Lake was ripped away by the gale.  The storm door on the Cokato post office was blown in.  Here and there windows crashed.  The next day locks were frozen on doors; heavy wet snow, followed by the intense gale and dropping temperatures, froze the locks solid.

Telephone service between Cokato and Minneapolis was interrupted.  The Knapp Telephone company lines north of Cokato were badly damaged.  Some homes in Cokato were without light and power. 

Reports came in about losses of hogs on farms about Cokato.  Taking refuge in straw stacks, the animals were suffocated.  The highest hog loss reported was at the Strolberg farm northwest of Cokato, where 17 animals suffocated after taking refuge in a straw stack.  Several hogs perished at the Hasti place.

Students at the Knapp School remained over night at the Rudolph Carlen home near the school.  Teacher Alice Nelson (Mrs. Jake Hoikka) and ten Temperance Corner School pupils stayed at the schoolhouse all night.  Some students at the French Lake School stayed with the Ernest Lantto family next door to the school.

Wright County Journal Press November 14th headline was "RECORD BLIZZARD.  Snow storm lashes for 48 hours and closes all highways here."

Annandale History Club Attendees' Armistice Day Storm Remembrances

Rosemary Nelson -- Lee and Sandy Stringer, former neighbors of the Nelsons, related the following story to Rosemary and her husband.  On the day of the Armistice Day Storm Lee went duck hunting on Grass Island in East Lake Sylvia.  Sandy went out there to warn him about the storm, and they became stranded on the island. They huddled together under an overturned boat to conserve body heat.  They were there a long time before they could make it back home.

Art Geisinger -- The Geisingers lived two miles north of Albion Center.  The drifts were so high that when they walked on them they were even with the top of the granary.  Chet Sparks came out with a Cat to plow snow.  While trying to get through a 15 foot high drift, he made a tunnel and drove the Cat right through.

Marilyn Gordon -- Marilyn was home recovering from a tonsillectomy.  They were quickly snowed in, and her parents were concerned that Marilyn might have complications and not be able to get help.  Her brother had enlisted and was to leave that day but was delayed by the storm. 

Norman Oletzke -- Norm was 23 and lived four miles south of Annandale.  The morning of the Armistice Day Storm he took a load of milk in his car to West Albion Creamery.  On the return trip he became stranded.  He started walking.  He could see the fence posts, but couldn't get his breath in the strong wind.  His clothes were frozen on his body.  He got as far as Dykeman's Corner (County Roads 5 and 37) and the nearby Alfred Rathje house.  Norm stopped there and got a change of clothes and a sheepskin coat with a high collar, so he could walk to his home which was one more mile east.

Alfred Rathje's well went bad and he came with horses and barrels to get water at Norm's farm.  The horses' nostrils plugged up with ice and snow and the horses fell over.  They cleaned the ice and snow from the horses' noses so they could breathe.  The horses recovered and Rathje went for home with the water.  (Note:  There were many reports of livestock suffocating because ice and snow plugged their noses.)

It was three days before Norm went to West Albion with milk.  The car was still there, one-half way between West Albion and home.  The car was filled with snow.  They pulled the car out with horses.  It was three more days before the snowplow came and they could get to town.

Ruth Sellnow -- Ruth had been married since August 1940.  They lived 9 miles north of Staples.  They had two plow horses and one cow.  Her husband worked in town earning $15 every two weeks.  He went to work the morning of the storm, and about 2:00 p.m. he told his boss that he should go home.  He got three blocks and stalled.  He walked to his folks' place.

Ruth was alone.  Fortunately, she had enough wood to keep warm.  The snow was over the top of the house.  She couldn't get out the door, so she climbed out the top window in the kitchen.  She needed to take care of the horses and milk the cow.  She had to carry water from the house to the barn.  Ruth was alone until the fourth day when her brother came out with a horse and sleigh.  Ruth's story, entitled "Prisoner of the Snow," is told on Page 33 of "All Hell Broke Loose."

Aloys Olson -- Aloys father worked at a furniture store downtown and couldn't make it home.

Ken Rudolph -- Ken worked for the telephone company as a bookkeeper.  He decided that if he was going to be snowed in, he would bring the books home and get caught up.  He didn't know if he would get back home or not because he couldn't see to drive.

The drifts were so hard that he could walk right on top.  Instead of a path, he made steps that he could walk up and then down to get to the barn.  He had to shovel along the fence or the cattle would walk right over it.

Muriel Rudolph -- Muriel was 17 and lived in the city.  Her dad dropped her at a meeting of a YWCA organization.  He came back 15 minutes later to pick her up.  He said it didn't look good.  He took all the girls home.  Muriel's family lived at the top of St. Anthony Drive.  Her dad couldn't make it up three of the streets, but tried a fourth one and made it home.

Ruby Geisinger --There was no thought of not going to school.  She had to stay with the Bahr's several days.  Neil Bahr owned the school bus company.

Ethel Rudolph -- Ethel worked for a family near Highway 12 in Montrose taking care of their kids.  Monday morning there were six extra people stranded at the house.  There was just an outhouse and a path had to be shoveled out there.  The cows needed help and the hired hand and Ethel went out to save the cattle.  Four were lost.

Bob Danaher -- He was 16 years old at the time of the storm. Bob and friends came out to the family cabin at Clearwater Lake the weekend after the Armistice Day storm.  He could drive only half way down to the cabin. The people who lived there year round, the Heatons and others, hadn't been out because there were no tracks.  He said by Christmas the snow was gone.

Karen Christofferson Karen's mother, Pearl Salmela Hermann, worked at Johnson Produce in Cokato.  Their boss sent them home early and gave them towels to tie around their waists so they could hang on to each other.  Several of the women had rooms at the Morris house.  It took over an hour to walk the seven blocks home. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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