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Dan Kraker, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published January 06 2014

37 below relatively balmy in Embarrass, Minn., where long underwear is a wardrobe necessity

EMBARRASS, Minn. – Every morning for the past quarter century, Roland Fowler, a trained weather spotter for the National Weather Service, has walked outside of his cozy wood-heated home to check a box full of thermometers.

“I get my lowest temperature at about 8 o’clock,” said Fowler, as he opened the box.

Monday’s recorded low of 37 below turned out to be relatively balmy. Still, the day’s biting temperatures were as cold as advertised in Embarrass and across Minnesota. Brimson and Babbitt recorded the low for the day at minus 40 degrees.

Last Friday, Fowler’s thermometer hit minus 46 – the coldest reading in the state so far. But even that’s nothing compared Jan. 20, 1996, when Embarrass recorded its lowest temperature ever: 57 below. Fowler said the mark would have been lower, but his thermometer broke. That’s the only reason Tower – 10 miles away – holds the state record of 60 below. But he said Embarrass, unofficially, was 4 degrees colder.

“So if my thermometer wouldn’t have broke, there was no question we would have had it,” Fowler said.

Unofficial or not, the town takes the record seriously. There’s even a giant thermometer erected next to the main drag celebrating that negative 64-degree temperature.

So when Monday’s cold spell struck the Upper Midwest, Embarrass residents not only took it in stride, they reveled in it. Living in a place that is often the coldest spot in the state, they’re used to the notoriety and take a certain amount of pride its harsh conditions.

After all, there are bragging rights at stake, Town Clerk Diane Nelmark said.

“There does seem to be some competition between Embarrass and Tower and International Falls,” she said. “When you see things on Facebook, people are always saying … well, it was this much here [or] I was 10 miles away we had 5 degrees colder.”

Embarrass is often so cold because it sits in a low-lying basin where frigid air settles as it drains along the Embarrass River toward Lake Vermillion. While people in most of the state hunkered inside on Monday, Nelmark said residents of Embarrass are used to it. School was even open last week, when it was 10 degrees colder.

“The kids laughed [when] the governor closed it for everybody else,” she said. “But we had to go last week when it was cold. Hearty northern Minnesotans.”

Nevertheless, Nelmark admits the winter has been bitterly cold, even by Embarrass standards. They’re accustomed to it in January and February, but for 17 days in December, the temperature here never climbed above zero.

Locals like Paul Knuti say people just have to know how to dress for it.

“The long underwear shirt and pants,” he said, are key parts of his wardrobe. I have jeans, Carhartt quilted pants, and some muck boots.”

He adds four layers on the top.

Knuti and his wife, Carol, raise Angus cattle on a farm he bought 15 years ago after he retired from First National Bank in Chicago. As he calls for his frost-coated cattle to come in for some hay, the pasture stretches out in a flat, pure white expanse.

“When you look out here, it’s really pretty,” he said. “But it just looks cold, doesn’t it?”

The temperature doesn’t seem to faze him.

Like many of the area’s residents, Knuti, who grew up on the Iron Range, descended from Finnish ancestors who settled the area.

At 72, he tromps through thigh-deep snow during the coldest part of the morning, proud that he can easily handle working outside.

“Your ability to handle this, and make all the adjustments, learn how to survive, when you have to go and thaw out your water, it’s important,” he said.

That sentiment is probably true for everyone who calls Embarrass home – among them loggers, dog sled mushers and people like Marie Rosati, who boards and trains horses at her Morningthorpe Farm nearby.

On Monday, Rosati’s eyelashes and eyebrows – every tiny hair on her face – were coated with ice. After running the farm for four decades now, she knows and respects the cold.

“I just try to maintain and lay low when it’s like this because we know it’s going to pass,” Rosati said with a laugh. “You can do anything if you know there’s an end to it. We’re going to Hawaii in April.”