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Armistice Day Blizzard: 'I saw one friend sitting against a tree. He was frozen to death'

A beautiful three-day weekend in southeastern Minnesota drew many into the woods and rivers for duck hunting and fishing. Then the storm hit. The Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 killed more than 150 people, including 49 in Minnesota.

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Four rescuers row a boat to search Mississippi River islands near Winona on Nov. 13, 1940.
Contributed / Goodhue County Historical Society

Duck hunting had been a little slow in the fall of 1940. That year, November 11, Armistice Day—renamed Veterans Day in 1954—fell on a Monday, so hunters were out taking advantage of a three-day weekend and hoping to improve their luck.

The weather had been good all weekend, and some hunters reported listening to the Gophers’ football game on Saturday_a 7-6 win over Michigan—in their shirtsleeves. The long weekend was a hunter’s dream, and many had made plans to get outside and enjoy it.

The morning was mild. Hunters from Prairie Island to Winona headed out to islands in the Mississippi River and occupied their favorite blinds. Wood decoys floated in the waters in front of them as the hunters waited for ducks to fly in. ...

Dan Kukowski from Winona left home that morning and rode his bicycle across the bridge to a spot on the Wisconsin side, where he and some other hunters had locked their boats along the shore. He paddled his canoe to an island, where he found other hunters.

As the winds changed, the hunters were excited, because the ducks were flocking in. The shooting was good. “We thought the ducks would come, so we stayed,” Kukowski recalled in a 1985 issue of the Minnesota Volunteer. “And sure enough, they came in. Well, it started to get so windy that when you shot a duck the wind carried it a couple of blocks away.”

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Soon, he said, the willow trees were lying flat because of the wind. The temperature quickly dropped. Then came the snow.

Like many others, Kukowski was dressed in light clothing. With the storm worsening, he felt he would freeze if he stayed on the island, so, at 4:30 p.m., he got in his canoe and headed for shore.

Other hunters were looking around for any dry branches for firewood. Many were forced to burn their wood decoys to keep warm. Kukowski said many hunters huddled together and others hid under overturned boats for protection. The scene was rapidly turning tragic.

“I saw one friend sitting against a tree,” Kukowski said. “He was frozen to death. I had seen him that morning. He told me he was going hunting and fishing both, because the weather was so nice.”

The river was choppy, and big waves tossed Kukowski’s canoe around.

“It took about an hour,” he said. “You couldn’t see over the waves. That’s how big they were. It was the only time I was ever scared on the river. I thought I was going to die.”

Another friend on shore recognized Kukowski’s boat bouncing around in the waves and watched him struggle. Kukowski finally reached shore far down from where he had originally crossed, and his friend took him home.

Stranded in snow and ice

Many people did not get home that day.

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Mrs. Frank T. Dahlgren, a Sunday correspondent with the Winona Daily News in 1963, recalled how she and her husband owned 13 acres of land near Wabasha and were in the process of remodeling buildings and making a home for themselves there.

They had a dock where they rented slips to houseboats and a few boats that they rented to hunters. By 5 a.m. on November 11, Dahlgren had rented all her boats and the hunters had headed out. She had seen several hunters pass by her property, headed for the backwaters. She was disappointed that she could not go hunting that day, as she needed to monitor the dock to help boaters. She spent the morning fishing from the dock.

“About 10:30, a boat owner called from Rochester, worried about the family boat, the Gypsy Jan,” Dahlgren wrote. “She said the barometer was dropping rapidly. She asked if I would start a fire [in the stove of] the boat so the water lines wouldn’t freeze if it turned cold. I assured her that the weather in Wabasha was mild.”

Not long after, Dahlgren’s husband called her from St. Paul and said it was snowing there. It was blowing so hard that he and some others had formed a human chain to help a woman get into a building. He said he wouldn’t be home that night.

“I looked upriver past the interstate bridge, and saw ducks flying downriver as fast as they could move,” she wrote. “I watched several flocks go by and realized they were flying before a storm. By then the sky was becoming heavily overcast. It got worse by the minute, and the wind was rising.”

Dahlgren changed her mind and gathered firewood to start a fire inside the Gypsy Jan and another in the potbellied stove in her house to warm a soup kettle in case cold hunters came in. She threw all the anchors of the remaining boats upstream to hold them solid and keep them from banging into each other.

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Rescue workers carry out the body of one of three hunters near Red Wing.
Contributed / Goodhue County Historical Society

By then it was 4 p.m., and the sky was darkening. A couple of hunters returned, talking about their oars freezing in the oarlocks.

Bill Swenson, a Rochester carpenter, and his guide, Jack Hughley, arrived. Dahlgren said they were so cold they could hardly talk. Swenson called his son in Rochester to have him drive over and pick him up, but his son said there was no way he could drive in the storm and would have to wait to drive over in the morning.

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Dahlgren saw the headlights of two cars approaching in the storm. The first was the car of policeman Chuck Gilbert, and the second car carried two men from Hayward, Wis., with news that they needed help rescuing seven men stranded on an island.

When the cold moved in, these two men had taken thermos bottles and gone to Alma, Wis., to fill them with hot coffee and bring them back to the other hunters. By the time they filled the bottles, they were unable to row back to the island to get the other men.

Gilbert asked Hughley to help. Hughley chose a boat called the Lazy Daisy, and Dahlgren gathered wood and started a fire in the heater. Then she and one of the hunters from Hayward climbed aboard and they set out after the seven stranded hunters.

“It was dark now, snowing hard and blowing,” Dahlgren explained. “Bill untied the bow line and I the stern line. Bill got on and Chuck and I pushed the bow out to get it away from the dock. I jumped on board. I was going along as I was responsible for letting the boat go without the owner’s permission.”

As they left the dock, Dahlgren watched the boat shed disappear in the darkness. She knew the river area well, but at that point, everything was black. Hughley asked her to watch for any lights at Pugh’s Point.

“That is when I looked down river and saw nothing except black and white,” she said. “Our searchlight pierced the darkness only about three feet, snow was piling past, absorbing the light. I strained my eyes for bonfires along shore and the light at Pugh’s. I couldn’t even see the shore.”

The wind howled, and at one point, a gust lifted the small lifeboat off the back of the Lazy Daisy and hurled it into the night. The waves were high enough that, at times, the propeller was lifted out of the water and spun freely in the air until the stern dropped back into the water.

Then the motor stopped. Hughley said it was wrapped with weeds. They were close to a small island, and they managed to tie the boat to the island.

Dahlgren offered to get into the water and clear the propeller, but Hughley said, “We aren’t going any place or doing anything tonight.”

They ate some food they found in the boat, then wrapped themselves in blankets and stood near the heater, rocking endlessly in the storm.

Just after midnight, the boat stopped rocking and Dahlgren looked outside to see what was happening. The Lazy Daisy was frozen in ice.

In the morning, Hughley cut a sapling about 10 feet long and had the others hold on to it. He used another stick to test the thickness of the ice. They set out on foot to cross a quarter of a mile of ice to reach the Wilcox farm. ...

The crossing was a delicate one. They stepped gently.

“We walked like we were stepping on eggs, slowly,” said Dahlgren. “No one said a word. I was so scared I don’t believe I shivered. I don’t remember taking a breath. It was difficult to breathe the cold, sharp air.”

When they reached the shore, Dahlgren looked back and could barely make out the shape of the Lazy Daisy with its bright orange deck paint covered in show and ice. They walked to the Joe Wilcox farm where they were able to eat and get warm. They also learned that the Wabasha barber, Herbert Juenemann, had drowned. His hunting partner had been able to swim to shore, and Juenemann’s body had not been recovered.

Mrs. Wilcox also told them about a hunter from Rochester who had been trapped on the same island where the Lazy Daisy had spent the night.

He had started a bonfire about 300 yards from where the Lazy Daisy had been icebound and burned his boat, oars, and decoys. He was rescued about one o’clock in the morning, but those aboard the Lazy Daisy had not seen him or the rescue boat, and no one on the rescue boat had seen the Lazy Daisy.

Dahlgren also learned that the seven men they had set out to rescue made it out. One of their group realized that the two men who went to get coffee were not going to make it back, so “he removed his clothes and swam to shore to get a boat,” Dahlgren wrote. “He made six trips, taking one man off the island at a time. He swam, pushing the boat ahead of him.” He ended up in a Menomonie hospital being treated for exposure.

The pilot

Gunnar Miller from Cannon Falls and Walter Prigge from Red Wing were living in Lewiston near Winona on the day of the blizzard.

They had gone out about noon that day, hunting in a swampy area not far from Winona. By 4 p.m., they realized the weather was changing and decided to leave.

“All at once there came this terrific storm,” Miller said in an article in the Cannon Falls Beacon in 1979. “The wind was so terrific it took the air right out of your lungs. You couldn’t breathe.”

The motor on their boat froze, so they paddled to an island. When they reached the island, they met two other hunters, and the four of them worked together to build a wind shelter. Prigge had matches, so they built a fire. Later, around 10 p.m., another hunter saw their fire and joined them. They spent the night keeping the fire going and helping each other stay awake.

“We tried to keep everyone awake,” Prigge said. “If you fall asleep you can freeze to death and not even know it.”

In the morning, they discovered two other hunters frozen to death just a few hundred yards from the bonfire.

“If we had known they were there, we could have saved them,” Prigge said.

On the morning of the thirteenth, rescue parties were moving out. One of the hunters with Prigge and Miller had a father on the Winona police force. He knew where his son was hunting, so he arrived at the island. The river was choppy, so Miller and Prigge decided not to crowd into the boat.

The rescue boat left, but waves soon killed its motor.

About that time, Winona airplane pilot Max Conrad flew overhead in his Piper Cub training plane. He saw the stranded boat and flew over it, directing other rescuers to that location. Then he spotted Miller and Prigge and flew over them, opening his plane door and shouting, “Sit tight, boys. Help is on the way,” according to Miller.

By noon, another boat had picked up Miller and Prigge, and they returned to their car and drove home.

Conrad flew more than a dozen flights over a 15-hour period that day, logging some five hundred miles surveying the Mississippi River islands and shores.

Many others put in heroic efforts over those few days as well.

The aftermath

The Rochester Post Bulletin reported that, in the end, the blizzard killed 154 people throughout the Upper Midwest, including 49 in Minnesota. The snow depths reached as much as 16.0 inches in the Twin Cities; the highest depth was 26.6 inches, reported in Collegeville, west of the Twin Cities.

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Snowdrifts cover vehicles in Minneapolis.
Contributed / Minnesota Historical Society

“Evidence of the Armistice Day Blizzard is recorded in newspaper clippings, photos, and museum collections, and stories of this event have been captured in cookbooks, journal articles, and passed on through family oral traditions,” wrote the National Weather Service.

“This storm produced an impact on society due to the death and destruction left in its wake. If one measures the impact of an event by the diversity of the information that remains, this storm was indeed memorable.”

The football game, the patriotic parade, Tallulah Bankhead

From the Post Bulletin:

“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.

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. ...

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.”

Related Topics: WEATHER
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