Blizzard of the Century

In the 70s we were living in Minnesota. At the time I was working for the Cold Spring Granite Company running their construction subsidiary. We were building a house on a small lake about 8 miles from the town of Cold Spring, population 2500.

When I say “building” I mean actually doing the work ourselves; nights, weekends and holidays. I had finished laying up the granite split face fireplace interior in time to get carpet down for Christmas, but the chimney was unfinished. Although we had a wood supply, the unfinished chimney would play a role in January of 1975 on Super Bowl weekend.

 

As Super Bowl weekend approached the people in Minnesota were hopeful that the Vikes could prevail on their third try at a victory. But…

A troubling storm was forming in the Pacific and came ashore on January 8th. It crossed the Rockies on the 9th where it performed a classic Panhandle Hook and swung south to Oklahoma. There it met warm tropical air coming up from the Gulf and heading for the upper Midwest and intensified. As it approached the Minnesota border the barometer hit a record low of 28.38. After colliding with Arctic air moving southward the snow began.

Mike, our youngest, was 2 ½ at the time and his sister, Karen 4 ½, and our oldest, Tara at 6 ½, the only one attending school. They sent the kids home from school early anticipating the heavy snow and the narrow roads that the buses would need to traverse to get all the kids to their rural farms and homes.

 

It started to snow heavily on Friday afternoon of the 10th and I decided to head home early. Charlie Krebsbach car pooled with me. He lived on the north of Big Fish Lake, the lake adjacent to our own Watab Lake. These lakes are common in this part of Minnesota due to millions of years of advancing and retreating glaciers.

I drove a ’68 Pontiac, a heavy bodied sedan, that had been further fortified by its previous owner and looked like a reinforced stock car for racing. We called it the “Freeway Flier”.

Image result for 1968 pontiac sedan

The snow started falling heavier as we headed up the narrow two-lane road toward home some eight miles away. The flakes were like duck feathers, the kind that stack up in a hurry. With snow-covered farmers fields on each side and white out conditions, I was really worried about putting the Pontiac in the ditch. Charlie had his nose glued to the windshield picking out the next telephone poles and directing me to “go a little left or right” trying to keep us in the middle of the road. I was staring straight ahead, sweating the sudden appearance of a truck coming the other way.

We made it to Charlie’s place and I headed the mile or so to my turn off. We lived in a small complex of about fifteen homes on an oval-shaped dirt road. Six or so of the houses, including ours, perched on the lake front side. The problem: There was a steep hill to climb to get up to our little complex. I barely made it up and, it turned out, was the last car to do so.

The wind picked up and they were predicting temperatures dropping to 10 degrees below and wind speeds up to 90 mph, meaning it was almost a certainty that we would lose power. I went next door to talk to our neighbors, the Fahrney’s, a couple with two teenage daughters. They were generous Christian people and Bill and I agreed that our family would freeze without a functioning fireplace. He offered for us to move into their house for the duration of the storm. Bill and I would keep his two fire places going 24 hours a day and use his wood pile and mine to feed them.

I went back to our house and drained the pipes and sponged all the water out of the toilets. Our place had electric heat, so without power, our place would get as cold as outside. We also had a central well in our little group of houses, but without electricity, there would be no pump so we would have no water, either!

The wind howled and it snowed heavily throughout Friday night, and we lost power early in the evening. Bill and I fed the fireplaces. The five kids and two mothers huddled around the fires. Bill’s fireplaces were not “heatilators”, the kind that allows cool air to enter at the bottom and to flow around the firebox before exiting at the top as heated air. They are much more effective than simply relying on radiant heat. In addition, the high winds blowing across the chimney caused the heat to be sucked up the chimney and promoted infiltration of the freezing air from outside. But it’s all we had, so we kept the fires roaring.

Dawn Saturday revealed a total white out and roaring winds. You couldn’t see 10 feet. The temperature had dropped to -10. The wind chill reached -80 degrees. When we went outside to get more wood, any exposed skin felt like a blowtorch had been applied.

Without water and nine people in the house, we were soon worrying about the toilets. You can’t flush them without water.

Everyone in the complex needed water so two neighborhood guys who owned snowmobiles made a heroic trip to fetch a generator. From who I had no idea. I don’t know how they found their way either. They told us the landscape had completely changed with huge 20’ snowdrifts and visibility near zero. With the generator we could get the pumps running and get water to all the houses.

The wind and snow continued at the same intensity all Saturday night and into mid-morning Sunday. Then it just stopped. Still cold… maybe zero, but people from Minnesota are used to that. We crawled out of our houses to almost two feet of snow on the level and daunting snow drifts. As we dug through the stuff we noticed black streaks veining the snow, topsoil blown off the plowed fields of the Dakotas and western Minnesota. We called it “snert”.

After all the neighbors finished digging out the cars at the bottom of the hill and manhandling them up the hill so the snowplow could get through it was midafternoon. Wonder of wonders, the power came on minutes before the kick off for the Super Bowl. The Vikings lost to the Steelers 16 to 6.

One footnote: Once we had all recovered and dug out from the blizzard, including the massive snowdrift that had piled up on the corner of the road, I started to think about how helpless we were during the storm. There was absolutely no way for an ambulance or fire truck to get to us. And, if one of our kids got sick or injured no way for us to find our way to the St. Cloud Hospital over the back roads. There were no snowplows out because they could not see where in the Hell they were going! Anyway, if you were stranded or stuck you would freeze to death in very short order. It was the first and last time I ever felt completely isolated and helpless.

A couple years later, after the blizzard of 1978.

 

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