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Frostbite, Blizzards and Reckless Folks

Minnesota winters are often harsh, never predictable and usually too long. But they lend themselves to a lively, snowballing wealth of folklore

Published in 1993
in Skyway News

What could be worse than piercing your feet with an awl and then filling them full of brandy? Losing your feet to frostbite, of course.

Faced with the predicament of frosty feet - or so goes this bit of Minnesota winter folklore - fur trader Charles Oakes preserved them with his painful remedy. Two frozen feet, one awl, many holes and a pint of Christian Brothers.

There's also the tale of Samuel Kile, a thresher in northern Minnesota whose hat blew off in the blizzard of 1880. Kile and his hat turned up in the spring, his hat a bit ratty from the storm and Kile quite dead in a snow bank.

Gruesome winter tales from the annals of Minnesota history make the proverbial "I walked six miles in school in four feet of snow" story seem shamefully tame. Countless tales of town folks freezing to death appear again and again, along with lighter gems, such as the one about the coat that was so stiff from icy buildup that it stood alone in a doorway.

Yet as grisly as the winter and the stories get, Minnesotans every year still try crazy stunts to test their wits in the harshest of winter weather. At the first sign of a big snow storm, they're known to get in their cars, spin the wheels and hope for a collision-free journey into the heart of a blizzard. It's the Midwest version of Russian roulette.

Minnesotans' chilling love of inclement weather baffles uninitiated tourists and newcomers to the state, a group that includes Bruce White. Now a local historian and writer with an interest in Minnesota's frozen history, White first visited this winter wonderland while visiting from his home in Virginia at age 10.

"For us, going back to Minnesota was an exciting thing to do," said White. "For kids, you really looked forward to those snow days, and the worse the weather, the better.

"But then I noticed that a lot of adult Minnesotans carried on this excitement about the weather," said White. His curiosity about the antics of Minnesota grown-ups eventually led him to study the folklore and culture of Minnesota winters. As a publications editor for the Minnesota Historical Society during the late 1970s and early 1980s, White says local accounts of winter storms kept drifting his way like blowing snow.

There was the blizzard of Jan. 7, 1873, a three-day storm that dumped mounds of snow on unsuspecting immigrants, some of whom weren't found until the spring thaw. The storm of Oct. 15, 1880, which was then followed by a challenging winter for Minnesota settlers, was called "the season of Siberian frigidity." There was also the great blizzard of 1888 among others that fade from collective memory as newer memories take their place.

But it's the storm that drops two feet of snow the evening after a spring-like day that fixes itself in history. Or when a storm blows in on a holiday, naming it becomes even easier, such as the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940.

"The Thanksgiving Day storm of 1983, that's one of those things that's going to show up in the county histories some day," said White.

For Minnesotans, part of the fascination with winter is the attraction of living by shear wit. It's part of the "Minnesota snow ethic," White said. "It's kind of a double-sided thing; we know it's foolish to do these things, but some people can't help themselves. It brings out a certain recklessness in people."

To be suddenly at the mercy of the weather takes us back to another era, as well. "We think that we're thousands of years away from living in caves, but in a modern weather disaster, we're thrust right back to our primitive roots," White said.

For some people, a winter storm can be a very invigorating experience. For the survivors, if it's something that many people had in common, people will joyfully share what happened to them. That's for the people who survive. "There's a real horror for people who may have been injured or are family members of those who did not survive," White said.

Winter storms have their upside, however, and we're not talking about snow drifts. Being trapped inside or lending a hand to the crazy folks who intentionally get stuck in the snow builds camaraderie among friends and strangers. It can also bring out the best of humanity.

When the blizzard hits, people gather for cookie bakes and jumbo pots of soup from an old family recipe. Or others create less tame traditions, like the scatter-and-gather parties my friend Maggie thrust upon me during my first Minnesota winter.

"You scatter about for munchies and liquor then gather at my house for the party and watch people dig out their cars," she told me. Of course, I joined in.

"This making of community is why weather makes Minnesota culture," White said. "Just by getting together and doing our best to survive, we create something that wasn't there before." Who knows? The events might end up as part of Minnesota's ever expanding folklore, as well.

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david southgate
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