Blizzards of yore

It was because the local news stations had called last week’s snowstorm a blizzard that my fingers found their way to Google. In the search field I punched in “Minnesota Blizzards,” and soon I was on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website reading a chronological account of all of the major winter storms that passed through our fair state since they started keeping records in the early 1800s.

Interestingly, the article noted that the term “blizzard” wasn’t adopted for fierce snowstorms until 1870, and was borrowed from the lexicon of boxing, where blizzard meant “a volley of punches.” (An interesting side note, I guess).

Delving into the article I already knew that Minnesota had seen it’s fair share of blizzards, but it wasn’t until reading many of these DNR accounts that I really grasped how significant a true blizzard really was. And what astonishing damage would come in tow.

From an early November snow squall in 1835, which claimed the lives of 254 sailors on the Great Lakes, to a three-day storm in January of 1975 which halted freight trains, resulting in the demise of thousands of livestock near Wilmar, these storms have tremendous power. And reading about them makes humility swell up inside one’s self.

Can you imagine being a 14-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder, living inside a small shanty covered in tar paper and lathe boards, huddled around a small wood-stove during The Long Winter of 1880-81? In this sixth installment of her Little House on the Prairie series, the first sign of the ominous winter ahead was when Pa found a formidable muskrat den down in the slough while cutting hay.

“We’re going to have a hard winter,” Pa said to Laura.
“Why, how do you know?” Replied Half-pint.
“The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses,” Pa told her somberly. “I never saw a heavier-built muskrat house than that one.” 

Reading about these blizzards of yore, storms that covered barns in snowdrifts and shutdown roads for days or weeks at a time, got me thinking about my own muskrat den. It got me thinking about the modest winter survival kits in our vehicles, our stockpiles of hay and feed for the livestock, how thick the insulation was in our house’s attic, and how much bottled water and food we had in the cellar.

But of course we are now fortunate that much of the element of surprise of these storms is tempered with sophisticated forecasting and radar. These advances in technology help us anticipate a storm’s arrival, ready the plow trucks and make sure we minimize the damage. But of course they can’t change the storm’s path or intensity.

When a storm is headed toward our farm, we scurry around like muskrats ourselves, moving our cattle to lounge behind the windbreak of our north woods, bedding down the hogs with extra stray and woodchips, and plugging in the block heater on the tractor – ready to plow out the driveway the following morning.

And then you just sit and wait. You wait to see how hard the wind will blow. How much it will snow. If the snow will be wet enough to knock out power-lines. If the back of the storm leaves it so cold out that you can hear the maples and oaks pop and snap as they contract and the sap freezes.

As of writing this, winter is only ten days old, so there’s plenty more to come before we see light at the end of the tunnel in spring. Winter is a peaceful time on the farm, with a slower pace. But we stay vigilant and mind the weather forecast on a semi-hourly basis.

Here’s hoping you and yours stay warm, drive safely and have enough nails and a good hammer, in the event that you need to batten down the hatches for an old fashioned Minnesota blizzard.

Thanks for reading!

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