WINONA, Minnesota (WXOW)- Veteran's Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, marks an infamous anniversary for residents of the Coulee Region. A ferocious and a deadly blizzard struck the area, impacting the lives of thousands.
Armistice day, November 11, 1940, began with sunshine and unseasonably warm 50 degree weather. Many duck hunters were out on the Mississippi River enjoying the ideal hunting conditions. As one hunter, Dale Engler, recalled, the hunters "…had never seen a sky so black with ducks…the shooting sounded like a scattered string of giant firecrackers going off".
Unaware to the hunters and most Midwesterners, a record setting storm was churning north from Oklahoma. As the powerful low pressure system pulled down bitterly cold air from Canada, a blizzard erupted, dropping the temperature 50 degrees, with rain then sleet then heavy snow falling, and the wind howling at 50 mph or greater. A record low air pressure reading of 28.72 inches of mercury was measured in La Crosse, Charles City, and Duluth (a record that would stand until the 1980's, and only topped twice more after that).
The blizzard caught many in the Midwest off guard with its sudden ferocity, and a lack of warning from the National Weather Service. During the 1930's, the National Weather Service issued forecasts for the entire Midwest region hundreds of miles away in Chicago. At that time, the office was only staffed during business hours, so the explosive growth of the storm was not discovered until the next morning.
Duck hunters were caught off guard and unprepared for the harsh winds, snow, and cold without winter clothing. Many had to hunker down and spend the night out in the storm on the backwater islands because the cold froze up boat motors, and the high winds caused waves to reach 4 feet or higher in the river.
A La Crescent author, Jon Steffes, captured some of the harrowing experiences in his book, "Wings in the Wind", based off of his father's experience enduring the storm.
"My dad kept a journal about the Armistice Day storm, and about other duck hunting adventures he had, so I used that information from my dad to guide the story," says Steffes. His dad's boat motor froze, so the elder Steffes had to row to shore. "I read about duck hunters who would walk in circles around trees, to try to stay warm. huddle together. some of them would spar or box with each other, to try to generate heat, to try to stay warm through the night."
The tragic lesson to be learned is to always be prepared for the worst, even when the sun is shining and danger does not seem imminent. Steffes says he always carries an extra set of warm clothing with him when adventuring outdoors, and adds that most hunters and outdoorsmen are prepared for rapidly changing weather with modern outdoor clothing.
While the hunters attempted to ride out the storm, many Minnesotans, including a crowd leaving up-and-coming pianist Liberace's concert in Winona, struggled to get home or became trapped on snow covered highways as the snow drifts reached 20 feet or higher.
The next morning, Winonans gathered supplies and helped Max Conrad, a famous aviator who lived and gave flight lessons in Winona, get into the air and brave the high winds to search for stranded hunters. Conrad dropped clothing and matches to those who survived the night, and coordinated with Army Corp of Engineers boats out on the Mississippi River rescuing stranded hunters.
In total, 4 to 16 inches of snow fell in Minnesota. 49 Minnesotans perished in the storm, half of those being duck hunters. Over 150 lost their lives across the Midwest. The outcry from the Armistice Day storm pushed the National Weather Service to staff their offices 24 hours a day, as well as starting to issue forecast from regional offices, first in Minneapolis, and later, in La Crosse. The Winona airport was named in honor of Max Conrad, in part for his heroics on November 12.
For those interested in learning more about the Armistice Day Blizzard, "Wings in the Wind" by La Crescent author Jon Steffes can be found at the La Crescent Library and on Amazon.com. A collection of personal essays and accounts about the storm entitled "All Hell Broke Loose" by William Hull can be found at your local library.
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