The Jan. 22, 1936, edition of the Fargo Forum gave its readers hope in the form of a five-paragraph story on the front page. The article, carrying the awkward headline "Predict Break In Cold Today," suggested that a brutally frigid cold snap could end and "a Fargo-Moorhead populace, thawing out from some near 30-degree sub-zero weather this morning, can look forward to rising temperatures."
This was fake news before there was fake news.
That day, according to weather records, saw a high temperature of 29 degrees below zero and a low of minus-37. The next day's high was minus-21 with a low of 30 below. The day after that had a low of 31 below.
And on it went. On and on and on.
A cold snap that began on Jan. 15 didn't end until Feb. 21, a period of 37 days when the temperature never got above 0 degrees Fahrenheit. It reached zero on two separate days, but didn't climb above.
It's the longest stretch in Fargo-Moorhead's recorded weather history when the temperature didn't get above zero. Most days were far below, including 22 days when the low temperature was 20 below or colder.
Given the brief stretch of frigid weather we're enduring now, with lows expected to drop below minus-20 and admittedly dangerous wind chills, the winter of 1936 should give us a healthy dose of perspective. It's why Daryl Ritchison, the former WDAY-TV meteorologist, spent part of his Tuesday researching cold snaps and posting some of the information on Twitter.
This Arctic blast is forecasted to last three days before a weekend warmup. Three stinking days.
"Yes, no doubt it's cold outside, but this stretch of three days in a historical perspective is very, very short," said Ritchison, now the interim director of the North Dakota Agricultural Network based at NDSU.
Ritchison said a three-day stretch of minus-20 or colder wouldn't rank in the top 50 of Fargo-Moorhead's coldest stretches.
"That's how tough the weather has been in the past compared to what we're going through now," he said.
The toughest was 1936 and it's not close. A year known far more for its brutal heat and drought later in the summer, not to mention the world marching toward war in Europe and the United States still being crushed by the Great Depression, also brought a bitter and deadly winter.
Per request.... This is top 10 longest stretches with temperature at or below 0 F in Fargo. In comparison, this cold snap will be 3 straight days. pic.twitter.com/Ig8Xe9tIHb— Daryl Ritchison (@DarylRitchison) January 29, 2019
It didn't really catch anybody's attention, judging by the Fargo Forum, until Jan. 24, when the weather finally garnered a major headline.
"Mercury Remains Under 20 Below 48 Hours," it read, just below a headline trumpeting new taxes that were coming to help pay for the Farm Bill.
As the days and weeks crept along, and the cold didn't leave, it became a bigger story. Combined with strong winds and blowing snow that drifted to block highways, railroads and airports, the weather soon became dangerous at a time when farmers and small-town residents were easily isolated.
In late January, the Forum reported that Theodore and Bertha Gotejohn of Hankinson, N.D., were severely frostbitten after their car went into a ditch returning home from a dance in Lidgerwood, N.D., and "they wandered for four hours in the bitter cold before reaching shelter."
"Their doctor said it remained uncertain whether hands of the two people would be crippled or whether Bertha would lose the sight of one eye," the newspaper reported on Jan. 25.
As the cold continued into February and the wind continued to blow snow into spectacular drifts, the stories became more dire. There were reports of 12-foot drifts that blocked railroad cars from reaching Watertown, S.D. A tiny town in western South Dakota, Marcus, was cut off from communication for more than a week while "a searching party strove to reach them." Coal, used almost exclusively to heat rural homes, was dwindling. In Hastings, N.D., "bread and flour stocks were being exhausted and at Kathryn grocery shelves were rapidly being emptied," a Forum story said on Feb. 12.
A resident named Obert Soberg delivered mail to Hastings for the first time in a week by taking a team of horses and a sleigh to Valley City, battling snow drifts as high as 20 feet. It took Soberg seven hours to travel the 21 miles to Valley City and seven hours to return.
A plane flew from Bismarck to Sioux Falls, S.D., to drop two 50-pound bags of yeast so that city's bakers could make bread. Highways and rail transportation to Sioux Falls was cut off and snow drifts prevented planes from landing at the airport.
On Feb. 15, Denbigh, N.D., near Minot recorded a temperature of 56 below zero. In South Dakota, dynamite was used to blast snow drifts that plows couldn't break. A float plane delivered 800 pounds of food to several rural communities.
Deaths were reported near the end of the snap. Jens Stenson, a 79-year-old bachelor farmer from Pekin, N.D., was found dead in his farm shack, apparently from a stroke, "laying by his cold stove, his body badly frozen," according to the Forum. Mike Huber, a farmer from Fingal, N.D., was found frozen in a snowbank, "heightening fears that a break in the cold wave may reveal a serious death toll from the recent storms," the newspaper reported Feb. 20.
And then there was this: A farm wife from Barnes County identified as Mrs. William Danforth suffered from gall stones and was attended to by a doctor flown to her farm from Cooperstown. She was taken by horse-drawn sleigh to Valley City, more than 20 miles away, where she died. The Forum reported the story Feb. 15. It was likely 20-below or colder on the day Mr. Danforth traveled by sleigh to Valley City, according to weather records.
The spell finally ended Feb. 21, when the recorded high temperature was 8 degrees. Two days later, it was 30 degrees and even the low temperature stayed above zero at 9 degrees.
It was more than five weeks when the temperature wasn't greater than 0 degrees.
"In climate circles, it's referred to as a 'black swan event' because it's so unusual," Ritchison said. "There's nothing even close to that in the record books."