I heard someone on the radio refer to our current cold stretch as “an old-fashioned Minnesota winter”. I know this is not the case. Anyone who has parents or grandparents who grew up in the upper Midwest between 1920 and 1970 knows this is a comparatively mild winter. Those brave souls walked to and from school, eleventeen miles uphill for both trips, in hurricane force blizzards, with wind chills approaching absolute zero, guided only by the northern lights and birds frozen in mid-air. Their house keys welded to door locks from static electricity discharge and snow drifts would approach the size of mountains. Cars and people functioned with a 50/50 mixture of alcohol and water; well, many people skipped the water part. People trying to converse outside would gather their clouds of breath and thaw them by the fire so the sound would melt out. Ah, the good old days. This current cold spell ain’t nuthin’, we can get through it. It always seems like someone has lived through much tougher times and is eager to let everyone know how good it is now in comparison.
All kidding aside, there were some legendary blizzards and cold snaps during those decades. Wild temperature swings like the one the Twin Cities metro area experienced last Friday into Saturday occasionally happened. We set a record high of 47°F Friday afternoon and less than twelve hours later we were at -3°F. The Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 was one deadly example. Some of the southern Minnesota blizzards in the 1960s buried cars in driveways and left snowdrifts up to the bottoms of barn roofs. Houses were snowbound up to the second story windows. County and township roads were impassable for days. Power lines and poles snapped in the ice and wind resulting in power outages lasting over a week. Living in an area where the weather goes from delightful to dangerous in under four hours taught us to pay attention to the twice-per-day weather forecasts and learn to read clouds and wind direction for hints. All the fall canning efforts paid off when snowbound several months later. Flannel bedding, stockpiles of wood or fuel for the stove, and board games helped with getting through the coldest days.
Bitterly cold temperatures created unique problems when living on a farm with livestock. Outdoor water tanks would have a foot thick ice covering in the morning, so the livestock would stay in the barn until the temperature would rise to positive digits during the day. We knew it was cold outside when we walked into a cattle barn and saw hoarfrost on the cobwebs. The cattle stayed warm and enjoyed their catered meals and running water. Silage does not have much moisture in it, but there would be times the silo unloader could not grind through the concrete-like crust. This necessitated a climb into the silo with a sledgehammer and silage fork to break the crust up and toss it aside. The world looked so different when peering though an opening while thirty or more feet above the ground. The cattle were much happier when the weather warmed and they could go back outside. So were the humans. The outdoor tanks would still freeze over and needed some tender loving care with a splitting maul. I was so happy when we installed electric tank heaters, even if Dad was the one who mostly took on that task. I never recalled a cow getting its tongue stuck to a metal surface during a cold snap, yet people seemed to accomplish this occasionally in real life. So why do we use “stupid cow” as a derisive term?
Is this an “old-fashioned Minnesota winter”? It is too early to tell. Areas in northern Minnesota have experienced a double-whammy of bitter cold and heavy snowfalls already. In the metro area, there have been some disconcerting power outages in areas other than mine, but those seemed to be quickly resolved. Most furnaces are wired directly into a breaker box and have electronic igniters and electric blower fans. No electricity means no heat, and there is no way to hook up a portable generator to a furnace unless a generator panel is installed. Houses with gas ranges have an advantage, albeit a dangerous one with carbon monoxide build up. Frozen pipes are a likelihood if the power is out for more than a couple of days, so a faucet has to be turned slightly on to keep the water moving. Snow removal in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Edina is dismal as usual, with narrowed washboard streets abounding. The Vikings will not win the Super Bowl this year keeping a 54 season streak intact. Perhaps this is more of a typical Minnesota winter rather than an old-fashioned Minnesota winter.
Many of you are enjoying record warmth, especially in Australia where this summer appears to be another scorcher. Others are experiencing a mild winter. Whether you are basking in sunshine or freezing under several layers of winter outerwear, take the time to give your loved ones a meaningful hug and let them know you care. Just don’t regale them with stories of winters gone by. Eye rolls and head shakes don’t generate that much warmth, though they may appreciate the hot air.