The Great Storm

The Ides of March are famous in history because Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15.  But they are famous also in the annals of Griggs County and eastern North Dakota because of the Great Storm that swept through the area, killing 500 people.

It came out of the northwest, stealing up with pretenses of balmy weather and gentle breezes.  It was 30 degrees above zero at 5 p.m. that March 15 of 1941, and by midnight it was 20 degrees below zero, snow was pouring from the blackened skies and the wind was hitting 85 miles an hour.

I was standing on the corner of Almklov's Pharmacy, where the mercury thermometer and barometer have stood for half a century.  The barometer had fallen alarmingly and was still going down.  There was a strange lull in the air.  Bob Miller and Whitey Johnson drove up in the Miller bread truck and pulled up at the stop sign.  Whitey rolled the window down.  "What's the temperature?" he asked.

"Thirty above.  But the barometer worries me.  It's going down fast."

He didn't answer.  Bob waved from behind the wheel, Whitey rolled the window up and they took off for Valley City.  I stepped off the curb and walked up the street to Frank Smith's barbershop to get a haircut before going home for supper.  When I came out, the storm had begun; the wind was rising and snow had begun to fall, building up on the sidewalks.  Before I could get home, the darkness was complete, and I had to feel my way from one house to another.

I thought about Bob and Whitey.  They were probably out on the road somewhere.  Maybe they had turned back before they got out of town.  I had barely got into our apartment, when Lloyd Howden staggered in.  He was lost and decided he couldn't make it to his own home and had decided to seek shelter wherever he could find it.  We didn't have a telephone at the time, so we couldn't call his wife and let her know that her husband was safe.  We thought about trying to cross the street to the neighbors, but gave it up.  There was no guarantee we could make it, and many possibilities that we wouldn't.

Nine hours later, the storm was over.  It died as fast as it rose.  But now it was cold, and the pale light of the emerging moon showed a world covered by snowdrifts, as if it was mid-winter.

In the morning the details of the storm began filtering in.  Four school children had died by the side of the road near Dazey, all in one family.  Scores of cars had been marooned on the highways, and the people who stayed in their cars survived, but most of the others didn't.  The storm had lashed through Manitoba, North and South Dakota, and Minnesota, roughly following the Red River Valley.  In that area, five hundred people perished.  Doctors said that some of them suffocated, the air being so heavily filled with snow that they could not breathe.

The big, local tragedy was the death of Whitey Johnson.  He and Bob had only made about a half-mile out of town when they decided to turn back.  But in trying to turn the truck around on the highway, they slid into the ditch.  The truck could not pull itself out, so they decided to abandon it, and walk back to town, but they did not reckon with the wind, the blackness and the snow.

They lost the road.  The wind blew them into the field, and in the snow they could only struggle on with it.  They came upon a fence, where a drift had already built up.  They tried to follow it in the darkness, unable to see a hand before their faces.  Whitey, big and burly, found the going more than he could take.  In some places the snow was up to his waist. But they dared not leave the fence, because it was the only guide they had.  Bob tried to lift Whitey onto his shoulder, but he was too heavy, and Bob fell down in the snow.  He realized then that their plight was desperate; he couldn't carry Whitey, and that meant he needed help.  Perhaps the fence led to it.

He propped Whitey against a fencepost and stumbled on alone.  Eventually the fence led to a building, a shed.  He worked his way around it, found a door and got inside.  It was pitch dark in the shed, but he rummaged around and came upon a roll of binder twine.  He doubled the twine, knotting it in several places, tied one end to the door clasp, and began working his way once more in the howling wind.  There had to be a house somewhere, with people in it.  Eventually he found it, tied the twine to the door handle, and barged in.

But there was no one in the house.  He realized they were probably all in town, and had elected to stay in town because of the storm.  He found some food, and ate it, to gather strength.  He found some work clothes, stripped off his own wet garments, and put them on.  He also found a pair of boots, and a flashlight.  Then, following the twine, he made his way back to the shed, and moved around it to the fence.  The snow along the fence line was deeper now, but it seemed to him that the wind was not so strong.  He struggled on along the fence until he found Whitey.

But it was already too late.  Whitey was dead.  Bob, completely spent, sat down in the snow beside him.  He said afterwards that he had given up, that he had decided to sit there in the storm and the snow and the wind until he froze to death.  But the sky lightened as he sat there, the wind began to subside.  And with his flashlight he could see for a few feet around him.  He staggered to his feet, followed the fence northward and eventually found the road.  When he reached the hotel lobby in Cooperstown, it was 4 a.m.  "Whitey's out there," he gasped to marooned guests in the lobby, and collapsed on the floor.

Oswald Tufte

Source: Cooperstown, North Dakota 1882-1982 Centennial Page 262

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