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Blizzard of '66

March ’66 blizzard – vivid memories, 50 years later

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One to remember

National guardsman clear snow in blizzard of '66
National Guardsmen use hand shovels to dig out a loader buried in the snow in rural Logan County, in the days after the blizzard.(PHOTO FROM THE ELYWN B. ROBINSON SPECIAL COLLECTION)

The March 1966 blizzard, paralyzing most of the Dakotas and extending into Minnesota and Canada, more than lived up to that designation.

That March, Joe Malheim’s family farmed near Havana, in Sargent County. At that time, Joe was a young schoolboy. To brave the storm, the Malheim family hunkered down in their farmhouse for nearly three days. The house lost electric power early in the March 2-6 blizzard, but they had a coal furnace, which gave them warmth.

For Joe Malheim, the blizzard was “one to remember,” so he submitted to North Dakota Living a description of what his farm family experienced. It is part of the magazine’s 50th anniversary remembrance of the March ’66 blizzard.

As Malheim recalls, it was late at night when, at last, the ferocity of the storm subsided, and he and his brother tried to get out.

“My older brother pushed the house door open, only to find a huge snowbank that stretched from the front door way out past the shelterbelt. The snowbank covered the west side of the barn, from the top to the bottom. The walk to the barn was all uphill. The snow was like concrete. We walked to the top of the bank and stepped down to the roof of the barn. We slid on our butts on the shingles all the way down to ground level…

“The wind had blown so hard, that the snow sifted through every crack in the walls and roof of the barn. Every item in the barn was covered with snow, three-eighths of an inch deep. The cows’ eyelashes, whiskers and every hair on their bodies was outlined with snow. Mother Nature had created a masterpiece of snow in our barn that was unbelievable.”

Relentless

Authors Larry Skroch and Doug Ramsey
Authors Larry Skroch, left, and Doug Ramsey display a Grand Forks-area photo of the aftermath of the March '66 blizzard (PHOTO FROM THE ELYWN B. ROBINSON SPECIAL COLLECTION); the photo appears in their book.

Doug Ramsey and Larry Skroch, North Dakotans who endured the March ’66 blizzard, did more than just remember it. Together, they pooled University of North Dakota history scholarship training and co-authored “One To Remember: The Relentless Blizzard of March 1966.”

This 2004 book was a third installment in a weather calamities series that began with “Looking For Candles In The Window: The Tragic Red River Blizzard of March 15, 1941.” The second work in their series was “The Raging Red: The 1950 Red River Valley Flood.”

The two met while working on master’s degrees in history at UND in 1984. Though Ramsey stuck with farming, and Skroch began a career with railroads, both agreed they wanted to apply their history knowledge to projects of mutual interest. A degree in meteorology drew Ramsey to extreme weather events, and his and Skroch’s love of small rural communities made severe storm research their ongoing avocation.

The appeal of creating a history of the March 1966 blizzard came from their seeing it firsthand. At that time, Ramsey was a youngster on a farm near Hoople and Crystal in the northeast corner of the state. Skroch was a farm boy residing near Cogswell, in southeast North Dakota.

“There was just something about that storm,” Ramsey says. “We’d never seen that much snow before or since, or been in a storm that went on that long.” Skroch says collecting the detailed history of how each of hundreds of small towns coped with the big storm, affirmed their admiration for the communities of their youth.

“We were resourceful people, with a lot of determination, and we just worked harder than anyone else,” Skroch says.

March ’66 blizzard: what happened

In their “One To Remember” book, Ramsey and Skroch cite a comprehensive summary report about the storm, written by Herman G. Strommel, state climatologist, Environmental Science Services Administration, Bismarck. The lengthy report was presented as an article in the October 1966 issue of “Weatherwise.” A summary of Strommel’s observations about the storm includes these points:

• End of February 1966, a massive high winds weather system originating in the mountainous western region moved northeast and collided with an arctic weather system moving down from north.

• Wednesday, March 2, snowfall and high winds migrated from Colorado and Montana to most of South Dakota, and lower half of North Dakota, east to Minnesota. By Thursday, March 3, snow and winds intensified, to cyclonic intensity.

• As Thursday, March 3 unfolded, winds of 70-80 miles an hour were recorded at central North Dakota sites, and nearly 30 hours of virtually zero visibility passed, as the storm raged, enduring into March 6 on its eastern edge. The storm swept across most of North Dakota, with the northwest corner spared.

• In North Dakota, March 2-6, 1966, snowfall volume varied, from a few inches, up to 30 inches. However, because of the sustained high winds, snow drifting was monumental: drifts of 30 to 40 feet high were this storm’s signature, blocking roads, railways, covering farm homes and buildings, and collecting on farm animal building roofs, causing many collapses and trapped animals.

• North Dakota has experienced several massive, memorable winter blizzards: historians point, in particular, to blizzards of 1888 and 1941.

• What set the blizzard of March 1966 apart was the unprecedented intensity and length. This blizzard featured winds staying in the 75 to 100 mph range for four days, in some areas. In all areas affected by the storm, regardless of intensity, it was the first time in history where everything in dozens of town shut down: all schools closed, practically all businesses closed, all roads were impassable, so there was no vehicle traffic, no newspapers circulated.

• By 1966, weather science and forecasting had progressed to the point where the scale and severity of the March storm was pinpointed and public warnings were circulated. Simple modern radio and telephone systems – although party line in rural areas – were operating, and this aided spread of informational warnings about the impending storm.

• Early warnings and plenty of protective measures taken kept loss of human life to a minimum, but five persons in North Dakota perished in blizzard-related episodes. Tragically, a girl in Emmons County and one near Woodworth lost their way among farm buildings during the storm, and both perished. Three older gentlemen died of over-exertion related to braving the elements.

• In North Dakota, the estimate of livestock losses was put at 27,399 animals; this includes: 18,905 head of cattle, 640 hogs and 7,854 head of sheep. By comparison, 95,000 farm animals perished in South Dakota.