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Patrick Springer, Published October 28 2010

Similar storm claimed lives in early 1900s

Adolph Wohlka and his four younger brothers left their country schoolhouse just as a snowstorm started blowing on the afternoon of March 14, 1920.

They never made it to their farm in rural Ward County in northwestern North Dakota – five among 34 who were killed in a severe blizzard caused by a freakish low-pressure system nearly matched by this week’s storm.

The draft horses leading the Wohlka boys’ wagon became exhausted after slogging through drifting snow and could go no further, stranding the children in open country.

When they didn’t return home that night, their parents became alarmed. But winds howling at 60 miles per hour and darkness made a search impossible.

The next morning, the four younger boys’ frozen bodies were discovered, huddled in blankets in the box of the wagon and covered by snow.

Adolph, the oldest, who had set out on foot “into the teeth of the storm,” collapsed just a few yards from the family’s farmhouse, where he succumbed to the cold, according to The Forum’s archives.

In Oliver County, in west-central North Dakota, 18-year-old Hazel Miner sacrificed her life to save her younger brother and sister.

Their father became concerned by the worsening storm and set out on horseback to their rural schoolhouse, where he found his two younger children “safely huddled” within their horse-drawn wagon in front of the school.

Emmett, 11, and Meredith, 8, waited while their father went to a shed behind the school, where he had tethered his horse. When he returned to the front, as the storm raged, the wagon was gone.

He presumed the horses made a break for home, so he set out in pursuit, plodding through a blizzard so fierce he could only see a few yards in any direction. He made it home without finding them.

A search party of 40 neighboring farmers mobilized and searched without result that night. The next day, they found the wagon, overturned midway between the school and the Miner farm.

Despite being exposed to frigid cold and blowing snow for 25 hours, Emmett and Meredith, swaddled in a blanket by their older sister, were unharmed.

“Indications were she had frozen to death during the night,” The Forum reported.

Another tragedy and tale of self-sacrifice happened between Fort Totten and Devils Lake, where Mrs. Andrew Whitehead’s horses also became exhausted in the snow and bogged down in the storm.

Her body was discovered on a road. “Her three-year-old son, whom she had wrapped in part of her own clothing, was still living, his feet and hands being frozen, but he will recover,” the newspaper reported.

An escapee from the state penitentiary survived by burrowing into a haystack. Deputies arrested him after tracing his footsteps in the snow.

The highest wind in the storm was 70 miles an hour reported north of Grand Forks, but the most destructive effects, and loss of life, happened in western North Dakota, where between 10 and 15 inches of snow fell, according to a report by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau, the predecessor of the National Weather Service.

“In some places cattle were smothered in huge drifts which formed in sheltered places where herds of cattle had gathered,” the Weather Bureau reported.

The extremely low barometric pressure that caused the deadly storm, 28.54 inches, was recorded in Ellendale and Devils Lake.

In this week’s storm, the atmospheric pressure in Fargo, as recorded by the state climatologist, dropped to 28.58 inches, producing a weather pattern resembling a hurricane.

“We came very close to the record,” said Adnan Akyuz, the North Dakota state climatologist.

Had this week’s storm arrived a couple of weeks later, with lower temperatures, it likely would have produced a major blizzard, said Geoff Grochochinski, a meteorologist from the National Weather Service.

“This has a lot of similarity to that event,” said Akyuz, comparing the severe low-pressure storms that happened on the North Dakota prairies 90 years apart.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522