A deep and abiding respect for winter

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As I filled up my gas tank earlier this week before the deep freeze descended upon the Flathead, Dad’s voice was drumming in my head.

“Always have a full gas tank in the winter, especially when it’s below zero,” he had advised on numerous occasions.

The temperature was already minus 5 and there was a breeze with a bite coming off Big Mountain. I shivered unabashedly and pulled my scarf over my face as the gas dribbled into my tank. Apparently I was all but convulsing there in the bitter cold because the guy at the next gas pump over commented how cold I looked.

“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “I’m from Minnesota and I used to be able to handle this kind of weather. I’ve gone soft living in Montana.”

“I know,” he commiserated. “I’m from Minnesota, too. Forty below used to be nothing, and the wind…”

No matter where we end up, Minnesotans wear their winter war stories like a badge of courage, and as I started reading “The Children’s Blizzard” this week, I was reminded why.

This true account, brilliantly written by David Laskin, tells about the Jan. 12, 1888 blizzard that swept through the Dakotas, Minnesota and as far south as Nebraska and Iowa. It came without warning on a day that had started warm enough for children to hurry to class at their country schools without heavy jackets or gloves. Homesteaders were out doing chores that had been postponed because of previous cold snaps.

“One moment it was mild, the sun was shining, a damp wind blew fitfully out of the south — the next moment frozen hell had broken loose,” Laskin wrote. “The air was so thick with fine-ground wind-lashed ice crystals that people could not breathe.”

By the time it was over upward of 500 pioneers — men, women and so many schoolchildren — had perished. “Fathers who died with their coats and their arms wrapped around their sons. Sisters who lay side by side with their faces frozen to the ground...”

The blizzard was so severe it ripped the roofs off one-room schoolhouses, the sod roofs from log cabins.

And as Laskin so aptly observes, “in the imagination and identity of the region, the storm is as sharply etched as ever.

“This is a place where blizzards kill children on their way home from school,” he notes as he unfolds the personal stories of the Norwegian and German immigrant families who lived to tell about it.

Their stories are tightly connected to my own family’s homesteading legacy. Immediately enthralled by the details of the 1888 blizzard, I dug out the family history of my great-grandparents, Andreas and Mina Heiberg, Norwegian immigrants who homesteaded in 1882 on the farm where I grew up. At the time this historic, killer blizzard swept through, they were among many still living in a log house with a sod roof. I plucked through the family tree to discover they had four preschoolers they would have sheltered on that fateful day in January. My grandmother was born three years later, in 1891.

Had their children been of school age, they, too, may have perished on their way home that day, but the family — my family — survived. The following year, however, in 1889, the log home was replaced with the wooden frame house where I was raised.

That blizzard was one of many such storms homesteaders and their future generations would endure on the wind-swept prairies. Parents taught their children early on to respect the weather, especially in the winter.

There were two times in my life when blizzards rolled in without warning and caught everyone by surprise. I was in the second grade when a blizzard bore down and all the “country” kids had to stay in town with their pre-assigned storm families until the roads were cleared. I remember the bus barely making it to the home where I and my older brother stayed overnight along with at least a dozen other kids. It was a frightening ordeal for a 7-year-old.

The next time I was blindsided by a blizzard was in early February 1984, when I had traveled home to Minnesota to tell my parents I was expecting their first grandchild. We were at my future sister-in-law’s apartment — about 30 miles from the farm — when we stepped outside to an absolute white-out. We weren’t going anywhere.

My folks ended up spending the night one Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle’s home during an impromptu blizzard. I was grown and gone by that time.

It’s easy to joke about Minnesota winters and tease others about being wimps because they’ve grown up in warmer climes, but there’s also a deep-seated, serious respect for the weather, especially among us descendants of those hardscrabble homesteaders. We can only imagine what they endured during those winters so long ago. And we are ever mindful that we are here because they survived.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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