Minnesota lore is full of stories about weather-related events that were quirky, unexpected and sometimes deadly.
Some of those are winter storms that wreaked havoc on a state that knows a thing or two about coping with winter weather. The Halloween blizzard and ice storm of 1991 and the incredible late-season snowstorm of May 2013 come to mind.
But the granddaddy of them all is the infamous Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. The storm, which seemed to materialize out of nowhere in an era when weather forecasting was a rudimentary art, struck with a sudden fury that is still mentioned with awe even by Minnesotans who weren’t alive at the time. “See what can happen around here?” seems to be the whispered precaution.
The storm was all the more surprising because that Nov. 11, 1940, dawned unseasonably warm with temperatures in some spots in the balmy 50s. The holiday in Rochester was to feature a patriotic parade, the traditional Rochester High School football game against Winona, and an evening rally and dance at Mayo Civic Auditorium.
During a morning memorial service at the auditorium, the temperature started to fall, and the wind began to howl. From 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., the temperature dropped from 45 degrees to 24 degrees, and was still plunging. Rain turned to sleet and by noon, snow was falling -- or rather, was being driven by the wind.
George Haun, Rochester football coach, announced that the scheduled game would go on as planned, although it soon became evident that the expected crowd of up to 6,000 fans would not materialize. Instead, about 600 fans showed up at Soldiers Field, according to the Post-Bulletin.
As the game progressed, the Post-Bulletin reported, it became difficult to tell one snow-covered team from the other. Indeed, the blowing snow made it difficult to see across the field. At one point, the Winona punter kicked into the wind and the ball landed behind him. Rochester won, 13-6, but only about 50 fans were still there at the end.
Meanwhile, the parade, as well as the afternoon and evening events at the auditorium, were canceled. Highway 52 was closed heading north, airplane service was suspended and trains were running late. About 70 fans from Winona in town to attend the football game sought shelter at Dunlap Bowling Lanes rather than risk the trip home.
In the region, duck hunters along the Mississippi River were stranded by the sudden storm, and those who didn’t find shelter lost their lives. Several area communities were marooned by the storm.
In downtown Rochester, a 39-year-old man heading home from work at Mayo Clinic at 5 p.m. was blown over by the 60-mph wind and suffered a broken leg. Some downtown pedestrians had their eyeglasses swept from their faces by the gale, and women had purses blown out of their hands, according to the Post-Bulletin.
The next day, Nov. 12, battered and stunned area residents tallied the damage, counted the dead (49 in Minnesota), and began to dig out. Traffic and life began the struggle to return to normal.
In Rochester, actress Tallulah Bankhead was in town to perform that night in the play “The Little Foxes” at the Chateau. Somehow, despite storm damage, snow drifts and blocked roads, 1,000 people found their way to the show.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.