Thursday, November 15, 2007

Woolly Dog Nights: Tale of a Prairie Blizzard

On January 7, 1873, the day before my great great grandmother's 32nd birthday, a severe blizzard struck the upper Midwest. It was swift and overwhelming in its onset and lasted for several days. Many Minnesota and Iowa settlers and their livestock perished from it.

Bertina Johnson had been widowed only six months before. Baard Johnson, the husband with whom she had emigrated from Norway in 1866, was dead prematurely at age 37, from typhoid fever. Johnson lay permanently at rest on his homestead of five years, and could not know what challenges lay ahead for his wife and two children.

The day started out quite warm for that time of year, and the snow on the ground began to melt. The break in the cold weather provided an opportunity for people to go outside to work, or to run errands and make visits that were long overdue.

By afternoon, a frightening change occurred. Witnesses reported a rumbling in the northwest that sounded like distant thunder, followed by a hundred-foot high white mass that bounded across the prairie at a terrifying speed. People caught on the prairie without shelter were enveloped in an avalanche of whirling, blinding snow, along with an intensely cold wind. Many were without coats or extra protection because of the warm afternoon, and they froze to death.[1]

The annual meeting for the Wegdahl Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Chippewa County, Minnesota, was scheduled to be held on January 7th at Ole Anderson's cabin, a couple of miles from the Johnson homestead. In 1873, the congregation did not yet have a chapel, so meetings were held at various locations.

The following is an account of what actually happened to many of Bertina Johnson's friends and neighbors during the blizzard of January 1873:

About 11 o’clock [on January 7th] the sky became cloudy, and by noon it began to snow and blow and shortly a big storm came up, making every object invisible. Stranded were 35 men who had come for the meeting in the one-room log house of Ole Anderson with the wife and children, 38 in all. The storm got worse and very cold. Luckily a few days before Mr. Anderson had been in New London and purchased a sack of flour and a gallon of syrup. They made [mush] which they lived on for 2-1/2 days.

The chopped wood gave out and the wood pile was completely covered [with snow]. Near the house was a pile of wood rails, so the men made a line from the door of the house with Mr. Anderson at the end. This made a line long enough to reach the pile. One by one they handed the rails to each other until they had enough to hold out.

Pastor Edward Eriksen was there and had devotions every day. When the first night came, the bed was given to [Mr. Anderson's] wife and children. A big, brown woolly dog had come with one of the members. It also had to come in the house during the storm. Pastor Eriksen, who thought of occupying the place under the bed, had the dog as something warm to sleep by. The postmaster of Wegdahl also crawled under with them, and slept with the rest of them on the floor. Every few hours they would change off so all could get some sleep

On the third day, the storm let up at about four o'clock. No one was allowed to leave alone. In small groups, homesteaders and farm hands helped each other to get home. At one farm, cattle had to be dug out of their stalls before they could move at all. At another, a man was helping shovel snow when he uncovered a rooster, which promptly jumped out of the snow and crowed in relief.

Although Bertina Johnson may have been fortunate enough to have some family members at home when the blizzard struck, many neighbor women could not have been equally as lucky. If thirty-five men were stranded at the cabin of Ole Anderson, it meant that nearly as many local families awaited the return of the head of the household after the storm. As it often happened, pioneer women were required to fend for themselves and use their own wits and strength to protect their children, elders, and livestock during disasters.

Lars Eriksen Winje, Bertina Johnson’s soon to be father-in-law, was probably among the men stranded at the Anderson farm during the blizzard. Lars Winje was a charter member of the Wegdahl Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, first organized in 1870. There were 99 Norwegians, 16 Swedes, and 2 Danes (25 voting members and 115 persons) making up the initial membership.

Among the initial tasks of the church’s charter members was to determine where to locate a permanent church and cemetery. They decided on 80 acres on County Road No. 6, along the south edge of Leenthrop Township in section 31, bordering Granite Falls Township. The Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad donated ten acres of land to the community, and the remaining 70 acres were purchased for $650.00.

In 1886, the existing Saron Lutheran Church, a gleaming, gothic chapel, was built at a cost of $4,750.00. The church’s initial framework was later damaged during a windstorm, so the height of the steeple was lowered a bit during the rebuilding. The cemetery went into use soon after the land was secured.[3]

Saron Lutheran Church, Chippewa County, Minnesota, from a postcard, ca. 1900. Johnson Family Collection.

All four sets of my maternal great grandparents met during the early settlement years of Chippewa County, and many relations are buried at Saron Lutheran Cemetery. As a family historian, I can't help but ponder just how many of their stories, whether spectacular, humorous, poignant, or mundane, could have been preserved. Instead, many details have filtered down through generations of family lore, and have since slipped into the dark whirlpool of unrecorded history, much to the dismay of those, like me, who long to know.

From "Waves of Grass," Chapter 3 in "A Long Way Downstream: the Life and Family of Thibertine Johnson Winje, Norwegian-American Pioneer," by Chery Kinnick.



[1] The Midwest blizzard of January 1873: Tvedten, Lenny, “Blizzards in Martin County,” Martin County Historical Society. (accessed 15 January 2006).

[2] Saron Lutheran Church annual meeting and the experiences of attendees during the blizzard of 1873 are described in: Christianson, Mrs. John. Our First 100 Years: 1870-1970. Chippewa County, Minnesota: Saron Lutheran Church, 1970, 7.

[3] Details about the Wegdahl Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church and the building of Saron Lutheran Church is described in Christianson, Our First 100 Years: 1870-1970.

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