Since the anniversary of the Armistice Day Blizzard is upon us, it’s time to remind folks of that fateful day. Fewer people are here to tell us firsthand what happened in our community on November 11, 1940, when one of the deadliest blizzards the heartland has ever seen struck. The Armistice Day Storm killed 150 people. One of the most tragic chapters of the storm occurred on the rivers, lakes and wetlands of the Midwest. Hundreds of duck hunters, trapped by the storm, found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. There was practically no warning the blizzard was on its way. It is a Midwest moment forever frozen in time, certainly for us in Northeast Iowa.
The fall of 1940 was a warm one. The war in Europe was front-page news. Calmar native, Bea Frana, told me her story a few years ago when she was in her 90’s. She said she remembered that day clearly. Her and her late husband Ed were farming and Bea was excited to go to the Armistice dance in Ossian that night when she awoke to a beautiful Indian summer day. “It was just awful,” explains Bea. “The snow came so fast and the flakes were huge, bigger than I have ever seen.” In no time Iowa was blanketed with 20 inches of snow with a fierce wind causing a deathly blizzard. “We gathered up the animals and put them away. We managed to milk our cows, but not sure how we found our way to the barn and back that night.” Some people tied a rope to the house all the way to the barn to find their way back that night. “We were okay, the snow plow wasn’t able to get us plowed out for many days, but we hooked the horses up to the sleigh and were able to get to town after the storm was over, we even were able to go over fences since the snow was that high,” remembered Bea. Bea pulled out her scrapbook of days gone by and found some photos of her late husband Ed standing on a car and the snow on each side of the road that was as tall as him. The date on that particular photo was in 1935, but it was a prime example of another blizzard that they survived. Bea explained, “In the 1940 blizzard there was not time to take photos, we were busy caring for the animals and ourselves in the terrible cold and blizzard conditions.”
Dick Frana of Calmar said he was farming in Ridgeway at the time. The day was beautiful and he was surprised to learn the school children were left out at 11 that morning. It wasn’t long before the weather changed and Dick was out chasing chickens into the chicken coop. He milked his cows that night but he said the cream was what he sold, not the milk. The cream was safe from danger and he gave the milk to the hogs to eat.
The late Louise Kapler of Ft. Atkinson passed on her memories of that fateful day when she was teaching school at the time. The students walked to school on that mild fall day that changed in a hurry. First she recalls there was rain, then wind and when the temperature dropped the rain became sleet and then snow. Within a short time, a raging blizzard had taken hold of the Midwest. All the parents soon arrived to pick up their children and Louise went out to her car to go home and found the doors froze and even the wheels were frozen to the ground. Luckily, her brother-in-law Edward (Gladys) Wagner had the foresight to realize that Louise was in trouble and came and rescued her with his truck.
Ruth Elsbernd, of Ft. Atkinson remembers her late husband, Linus, being a bachelor at the time, farming by Calmar. Linus rounded up his chickens to put them in the hen house and a few got away and they flew up to roost in the tree branches and froze to death by morning.
Cornelia Bina of Spillville remembers that day like it was yesterday. She was worried, wondering if she would ever see her husband again! Her late husband, Jim, and another man headed out early to do some carpentering work for people either in Burr Oak or Bluffton. She held her first child as she watched the weather increase in fury, but by late afternoon she was grateful that the men arrived home safely.
They say that many duck hunters had taken time off from work and school to take advantage of the ideal hunting conditions and headed to the Mississippi River. Weather forecasters had not predicted the severity of the oncoming storm, and as a result many of the hunters were not dressed for cold weather. When the storm began many hunters took shelter on small islands in the Mississippi River, and the 50 mph winds and five foot waves overcame them. Some became stranded on the islands and then froze to death in the single-digit temperatures that moved in over night. Others tried to make it to shore and drowned. Duck hunters made up about half of the deaths. It was recorded that by the time the storm ended, it had dropped more than two feet of snow, buried vehicles and roadways beneath 20-foot drifts, killed thousands of Iowa cattle, and destroyed incalculable amounts of poultry, including more than a million Thanksgiving turkeys. All told, the storm claimed 150 human lives.
I heard the story about one survivor on an island near Harper’s Ferry who is still here to tell his story. He was sixteen-year-old Jack Meggers and was one of the hunters who fought for his life that fateful day. As a retired Iowa game warden currently living in Mason City, Meggers, has spent his fair share of time on the water. Yet today, no outdoor event remains more deeply imprinted on his mind than the morning of Nov. 11, 1940, and no wonder!
This is his story: “It was Armistice Day (now called Veteran’s Day) and we were out of school. “Me, my Dad, and two brothers headed out to an island at Harper’s Ferry. One of the things I remember most is that, just before the storm hit, the sky turned all orange. It’s hard to explain, but I remember that it was really strange. The big winds arrived suddenly recalls Meggers, and with the wind came ducks. Not just a flock here or a flock there, but rather hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. It was a scene seldom witnessed,” explained Meggers.
“We’d never seen anything like it,” says Meggers. “When the ducks arrived, they came in unending waves and they came in all species.
They lost no time in taking advantage of the astonishing flight. But although waterfowl continued to pour down in unending supply, connecting with the wind driven birds presented a major challenge, recalls Meggers. The boys concentrated so hard on the task at hand, that none of them seemed to notice as the winds began to attain hurricane force.”
“All of a sudden, Dad said, ‘Grab the decoys --- We’re getting out of here.’ But we were throwing an awful lot of ammunition into the air, and none of us wanted to quit. Then we began to see how bad the weather was getting.”
Meggers’ Dad had made the right call. In addition to raging winds and unfathomable legions of ducks, the storm had also begun to deliver pelting rain which quickly turned to sleet, then heavy snow. Visibility dropped to near zero as hunters all up and down the Mississippi River struggled, sadly, many unsuccessfully to return back to the shore.
“It was really rough. By the time we finally made it to the shoreline, you couldn’t even see the shoreline,” Meggers recalls. “By then, the combination of snow and wind was just incredible. Our group made it back. But not everyone did.”
Have the older members of your family tell their story, so you can pass the stories down to the next generation of that fateful day in history before it's to late. May people I talked to find out first hand what happened that day are no longer with us. If you can, get their stories down for your family history what it was like living in Northeast Iowa years ago.
Also you can read more about what happened as others all over the Midwest share their story of that fateful day, by reading the book by William H. Hull, “All Hell Broke Loose.” As the snow soon begins to fall, we can be thankful there are now much better weather forecast systems.