Ten minutes ago I walked out to the mailbox and the sky was blue, the sun was shining through bright white clouds and there was only a little snow drifting across the highway. Now, the farmstead is socked in. I can’t see much further than the barn, which is a few hundred feet from the house. Beyond it, the world dissolves into white.
Had I lived out here in the Red River Valley 125 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have survived the Children’s Blizzard that hit in a similar fashion. I would have been one of those who took advantage of the nice weather and walked to town for supplies, or out to the haystack ½ mile away to collect fuel to burn in the fireplace, or I would have been one of the children on the way home when the weather changed.
According to a recent article in MinnPost, 250 and 500 people died in in 1888 in what’s known as the Children’s Blizzard of 1888 it struck in the late afternoon when children were on their way home from school.
Farmer and Norwegian immigrant Austin Rollag, Valley Springs, S.D, wrote that air turned silent and ominous and in the next moment, the blizzard crashed in.
“About 3:30, we heard a hideous roar. … At first we thought that it was the Omaha train which had been blocked and was trying to open the track. My wife and I were near the barn when the storm came as if it had slid out of sack. A hurricane-like wind blew, so that the snow drifted high in the air, and it became terribly cold. Within a few minutes, it was as dark as a cellar, and one could not see one’s hand in front of one’s face.”
The stories of the deaths re-told by the MinnPost are still shocking.
Ten-year-old Johnny Walsh of Avoca, Minn., froze to death trying to find his house.
Six children of James Baker froze to death while trying to make it home from school near Chester Township, Minn. They were found with their arms entwining each other in the snow.
Erik Olson, a Swedish bachelor farmer, was found a mile and a half from his house several days after the storm; only his feet were visible under the drifting piles of snow.
O.A. Hunt, a transient peddler who traveled about southern Minnesota, wasn’t discovered forthree months, when enough snow melted away.
A German immigrant named Herman Brueske walked to town on Jan. 11, but his frozen body wasn’t found in Renville County for another week. He left behind three children and his wife, Johanna, who was eight months pregnant at the time of her husband’s death.
The Minneapolis Tribune macabrely noted that recovered corpses were so solidly frozen they “give forth a metallic sound” when struck.
The loss of human and animal life reverberated in Minnesota for years after the storm. Many survivors wore the physical scars.
“For years afterward, at gatherings of any size in Dakota or Nebraska, there would always be people walking on wooden legs or holding fingerless hands behind their backs or hiding missing ears under hats,” wrote author David Laskin in "The Children’s Blizzard."
By the way, the weather looks better now. I can see the barn. No wait. It's gone. It's all white again.