75 years later, survivors recount the nightmare that was the Ides of March blizzard
The banner headline in the March 18, 1941, edition of the Grand Forks Herald reflected the stark reality: 72 die in storm: 38 perish in N.D.; 28 in Minnesota.
The March 15, 1941, blizzard, also called the Ides of March blizzard, ranks as one of the worst in the Red River Valley's recorded history and one of the most disastrous ever nationwide.
Even today, 75 years later, people who experienced that storm have vivid memories of that blizzard—how it slammed into the valley virtually out of nowhere with the force of a tornado or a hurricane and turned what had been a bright, sunny, warm springlike day into a raging nightmare.
The blizzard was memorialized in a book, "Looking for Candles in the Window: The Tragic Red River Valley blizzard of March 15, 1941," by Douglas Ramsey and Larry Skroch. The book, published in 1992, documents the blizzard through articles in daily and weekly newspapers throughout the region, as well as through first-person accounts.
The title, they said, was borrowed from an article at the time in the Traill County Tribune in Mayville, N.D. The editor had explained that early pioneers placed candles or kerosene lamps in their windows during winter storms. The tradition continued during the 1941 blizzard.
"(T)rue to the training of the early pioneer, lights burned from every window and every home the country over, trusting that such service might be of value to unfortunate ones."
'Just another 100 yards'
In its March 18, 1941, edition, the Herald told the stories of several victims.
It included a front-page photograph of three Polk County Highway Department workers, Lloyd Ofstedal, Robert Sawyer and Ralph Larson, probing the hard-packed snowdrifts 5 miles west of Crookston for the body of Mrs. Orland Bailey of Bemidji. Her body was found a short time later.
"Just another 100 yards and Mrs. Orland Bailey of Hibbing, Minn., might be alive today," the accompanying article read.
The story explained her family's car had stalled along U.S. Highway 2. With her ailing husband and their three young children in the car, she got out to check on another stalled car. Then, "the furious wind swept her away into the swirling, blinding blizzard."
She struggled as she walked 3 1/2 "tortuous miles" toward Crookston, the article read.
"Then, cold and exhaustion overtook her. She sank down into the 5- or 6-foot space between two small, unused buildings on the Minnie Ross farm, almost within a stone's throw of the warm house and safety.
"It was there, between the small shacks, that the searching party found her."
Another article told of three Grand Forks residents, including Harriet Coger, principal of Winship School, who perished after they left their vehicle, which had stalled near present-day University of Minnesota-Crookston.
"Growing up, we always heard from our parents that if something happens, don't leave your vehicle; don't leave your vehicle," Skroch, Grand Forks, said in a recent interview. "We think it's because of the '41 blizzard that they remember. A lot of people that died in that storm were people that tried to walk off to safety. But the few people who stayed in their cars, they survived that storm."
Memories frozen in time
The Herald asked those who remember the Ides of March blizzard to share their memories.
Charles Gehrke, Aneta, N.D., who was 10 years old at the time, recalls the day his grandfather, Carl Hillesland, died in the storm.
"I was in Aneta with my dad. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the snow melting, water was running off the roof of the implement (Ulvick Chevrolet/John Deere dealership) in Aneta.
"My grandfather was there with a team of horses and an enclosed sled.
"When we got home, on a farm 10 miles north of Aneta, Earl, my brother, and I went out to the barn to do chores.
"About 5 p.m., big snowflakes started coming. Then all of a sudden the barn just shook. We couldn't see anything. We walked to the house and slammed into the northwest corner of the house. The door was on the south side.
"The wind went from 0 to—I saw one report of 90 mph—in a matter of minutes.
"While we were in the barn, it sounded like a jet airplane—except they didn't have jets back then—had gotten stuck on the barn.
"My grandfather left the implement dealer, heading home to his farm, about 6 miles northeast of Aneta. They found him about 100 yards from the house. ... His footprints were still in the snow. "He was following the fence, trying to find his way to the house. When the snow drifted over the top of the fence, he lost the fence.
"He was found frozen on his knees with his hands frozen together out in the field.
"(My grandfather) lived with his wife. She didn't speak English. She was from Norway. She sat with a lamp in the window. She knew he was out there somewhere."
Connie Kurpius-Hannesson, Crookston, shared a story, as told by her father, Edward Kurpius, about the blizzard of 1941. The story is preserved in a family history of her grandparents, Steve and Clara (Knosalla) Kurpius and their seven children, the youngest being her father, Edward, who died in March 2015 at age 90.
"March 15 dawned a beautiful, warm day hinting at the approach of spring. Following a long, hard winter that had begun with an Armistice Day blizzard, many had cabin fever and took advantage of the sunshiny day to be out and about. Little did anyone know that the worst blizzard of the century was only hours away.
"During the summer of 1940, Steve (Kurpius) and his sons, Ted, Stanley and Edward, had put up haystacks on the Bub Yuergens farm southeast of Beltrami, (Minn.), and about 3 miles from the Kurpius farm. The sunny day seemed an opportune time to haul the hay home for the livestock.
"Hitching up the horses to a wagon, Edward left early in the morning to bring home the first load of hay.
"By midafternoon, the second wagonload of hay was topped off and ready for the journey home. Ed drove the team into the barnyard around 4 o'clock and decided to unhitch the horses and not return for a third load that day. Instead, the horses were fed and watered, and the wagon sat by the barn waiting to be unloaded the following morning.
"Besides, it was almost time to eat supper and help with the evening chores. When the milking was done and all of the animals were fed and bedded down for the night, Steve and Edward headed back toward the house. Edward remembers it sounding 'like a freight train hitting the house.'" The blizzard winds would reach 80 to 85 mph."
The story told of the dozen of deaths throughout Minnesota and North Dakota.
"One such tragedy was the Foss family, relatives of the Kurpius family's former neighbors in Caledonia, N.D. The family worked on the Melvin Stromstad farm near Beltrami. The mail carrier would find the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Foss and their 14-year-old daughter Rosalind huddled together down in the ditch. They had evidently attempted to seek refuge from the blustery winds after abandoning their car.
"Edward's guardian angel was on duty that fateful day in March, for the third load of hay would remain in the haystack to be brought back to the farm on a day devoid of danger."
H.A. Bohn, 91, Edina, Minn., survived the blizzard after walking some 3 miles with a group of friends.
"It was maybe 35-40 (degrees) above that day when the sun was shining. We just had light jackets on.
"That evening, seven of us were in a car. We were going west of Langdon (N.D), out about 3 miles when the storm came. It hit like a wall, the whole storm.
"The next thing we knew, we were in the ditch.
"We walked west a ways. We knew we were near a farm, but we couldn't find it.
"We turned around, three in front, four behind. We locked arms and walked toward Langdon. It was so bad we couldn't see the ones in front. We would hit their heels when we were walking.
"It was a bugger. You couldn't see nothing. The only thing that really saved us was the blacktop road that we were on. We'd get blown off the road and have work our way back. The snow was packed in underneath our jackets so tight that we'd stay warm.
"We finally got right under a street light in Langdon before we could see anything. When we finally got back to town, we stopped at a gas station.
"They said, 'Where did you guys come from?' We told them, and they couldn't believe it."