In 1941, spring suddenly vanished as deadly Red River Valley blizzard killed 72

The front page of The Forum from Mar. 18, 1941.
The front page of The Forum from Mar. 18, 1941.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 12, 2016.

GRAND FORKS-A blizzard 75 years ago, a horrific March 15, 1941, storm 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.

Seventy-two people died in storm, mostly in the northern valley. Thirty-eight of the deaths were in North Dakota, with 28 in Minnesota.

Even today, 75 years later, people who experienced the storm have vivid memories-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."

Two residents of Fargo, Mr. and Mrs. John Lennox, died in the blizzard while visiting near Detroit Lakes, Minn., according to Forum archives.

During the storm, a Moorhead woman, Mrs. Oscar Sandy, was forced to flee a home near Ada, Minn., due to a chimney fire. She was trying to reach a neighboring house but was found dead in a Highway 75 ditch, still clutching her 9-month-old son Harlan, who also died, The Forum reported at the time.

Memories frozen in time

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.

"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."

"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."

"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."

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."