40th anniversary of the "Blizzard of the century"

Tuesday, January 13, 2015
(Photo submitted) Above is a picture of snow drifts taken during the aftermath of the blizzard of 1975.

Forty years ago Mother Nature shut down Dickinson County for an entire January weekend.

The "blizzard of the century" swept through the area in the early morning hours of Jan. 10, 1975. Many remember it well.

The massive snowstorm dumped 15 inches on the county. Wind gusts reached 75 mph and tore through power lines, causing snow to drift as high as 20 feet. Power was lost, the snow drifts blocked roadways and residents were trapped inside their homes for several days.

The conditions were life-threatening and livestock were lost by the thousands.

Dickinson County Emergency Management coordinator Mike Ehret was fascinated by stories that came from the blizzard four decades ago.

"It really was a huge storm for the area -- some people refer it to the biggest blizzard of that century and others put it a close second behind the Armistice Day blizzard (Nov. 11, 1940)," Ehret said. "Weather has always been a huge interest of mine and I wanted to take a second look back, being that it was the 40th anniversary. I wanted to see what happened around here with the storm and how people coped."

Ehret scoured local libraries and online archives looking for accounts of frigid three-day period. What he found were tales of destruction, isolation ... and death.

The storm swept into the county by 8 a.m. Friday, Jan. 10, as a few large snowflakes started drifting toward the ground. By 10 a.m., the wind picked up significantly. Spirit Lake schools were dismissed at 10:45 that day in anticipation of the storm. The wind gusts increased as the noon hour approached and the area was crippled with white out conditions.

Many motorists became stranded during the course of the afternoon. Mammoth snow drifts blocked county roads, causing many residents to abandon their cars and walk to safety. Plows were pulled off the streets because of the zero visibility caused by the intense winds.

Wind gusts also knocked out power lines and even some phone lines. Spirit Lake, Arnolds Park and Wahpeton phone lines operated on battery power for the remainder of the weekend.

Power was lost in the three cities at 11:10 p.m. Friday as the storm was building to its peak. Many of the area's back up generators were also lost as the blizzard raged on. The city of Milford was fortunate to only lose power for 45 minutes before back up generators were activated.

Heat was lost in several homes during the power outage and motorists who weren't able to make it home before the storm were stranded on the highway. Snowmobile riders went out on rescue missions in an effort to find stranded residents as quickly as possible.

White-out conditions and large snow drifts made vehicle traffic impossible. One of the brave rescue missions came to a tragic end. Raymond James Mayou of Spencer, who was 32, left on his snowmobile to attend to stranded motorists. He became separated from his two colleagues just north of Spencer. He was reported missing later Friday night. A search party surveyed the area along Highway 71 and found his body the next morning at 10 a.m. -- he was roughly a quarter mile west of Highway 71 north of Spencer.

The area power outage also caused temporary shut down of the two water treatment centers. Government officials encouraged residents to boil their water before consumption.

Finding warmth in any way possible was the No. 1 priority during the catastrophic blizzard of 1975.

Tom Kuhlman, the long-time executive director of the Iowa Great Lakes Chamber of Commerce owned a service station at the time.

"I think we towed around 125 cars that were either stranded on the road or stuck in the ditch," he said. "We were pretty exhausted by the end of it. That storm was pretty bad, it's certainly the most memorable in my lifetime."

He remembers making a house call by snowmobile in Orleans.

"Drifts were about 10 feet high in some areas, and there was a man -- I can't remember his name -- that was having health problems," Kuhlman said. "We rode our snowmobiles to pick him up and took him to the Dickinson County Hospital."

Many of the area hotels took in storm refugees as well.

The Oaks Motel, which was located in Spirit Lake at the time, housed 17 guests during the storm. Breakfast that Saturday morning was served by candlelight -- Donna Short of the Spirit Lake Bakery used a snowmobile to bring in the baked goods. Bill and Jim Ahari were working a funeral at the Lakeview Cemetery when the storm hit. They were left to seek shelter at the Oaks Hotel for the weekend -- the devastating storm made it impossible for them to reach their home five miles northeast of Spirit Lake.

The Motel Shamrock was also host to an array of 40 guests, including locals, truckers, employees from Berkley and McQuay and even a day-old baby. On Saturday, many of the guests braved the blizzard conditions and walked across the highway to Berkely Fishing Company -- now Pure Fishing -- in search off vending machines.

Stan Johnson, a resident of Lake Park at the time, took 19 people into his home. He even rescued the Bob Gunderson family, in six trips. Because of the citywide power outage, many residents were without heat, so Johnson used the portable generator he had in his truck to keep his makeshift shelter warm.

The Lake Park Care Center went without power for the entire storm -- beds were moved the dinning room and the kitchen stove was used for heat.

A few others sought shelter and warmth, voluntarily, at the Dickinson County Jail.

Kuhlman remembers cattle climbing the drifts and walking right over the fence line. Some livestock were found wandering the ice on West Lake.

"The storm did calm down pretty quickly after awhile," he said. "After that, people were just trying to find places to put the snow. It was quite cold, I remember."


The "storm of the century" came at the worst possible time for the Randy Kepler family of Superior. His wife was due to give birth at any moment. The storm came through early Friday morning but the family was unable to make it to the hospital. A home birth was their best option.

The Spirit Lake Beacon detailed the birth in an excerpt from a story written Jan. 16, 1975:

"The stork began hovering over the Randy Kepler home in Superior during the height of the storm on Saturday night and by 1 a.m. Sunday morning, it became apparent to Kepler that she would need professional help to deliver her baby. A neighbor, Mrs. Vernon Beultel was first on the scene and called Mrs. Loren Wahlman, an obstetrics nurse at the Dickinson County Memorial Hospital, who fortunately lives about two blocks from the Kepler home in Superior.

Dr. K.L. Clayton was called at Spirit Lake and began preparing for the trip to Superior, some seven miles east of Spirit Lake on Highway 9. He received assistance from the Dickinson County Sheriff's office and walked out over the drifts at the hospital to a waiting 4-wheel drive jeep driven by Sheriff's Deputy Von Kilts.

In the meantime, Mrs. Wahlman assisted in the delivery of a son to the Keplers at about 4 in the morning. Dr. Clayton arrived at 4:30 and adjudged the baby boy to weigh nearly seven pounds. Edna Snow, Kepler's mother and also a resident of Superior, were not able to make it to the Kepler home during the night and were brought by snowmobile in the morning to see her new grandson.

The couple's 3-year-old daughter, Gretchen, slept soundly through the night, and Mr. Kepler ... he was stranded at the John Morrell plant in Estherville and didn't arrive home until about 10:30 Sunday morning."

Though Kuhlman spent most of the storm helping his neighbors, he was also able to find a bit of joy in the storm as well. The blizzard was that winter's first significant snowfall and the former Chamber director and his buddies were ready to explore the new powder -- by snowmobile of course.

"We rode snowmobiles for three straight days, my wife wasn't too crazy about it at the time," Kuhlman said. "Of course, the storm had its perils, but we were having a great time with it. We dressed for the weather and were hitting the trails."

The National Weather Service out of Sioux Falls reported snow accumulation amounts of eight to 10 inches throughout the county, with a top recorded wind gust of 75 mph. Snow drifts were documented as high as 20 feet. The low temperature from the weekend was recorded on Sunday, Jan. 12, the last day of the blizzard. The temp dipped to -13 degrees that day.

Snow plows cleared a few of the county roads Saturday night, as a break in the storm system allowed for increased visibility. Sunday brought hope to the area.

Power was restored to a majority of the county's residents by 10 a.m. after electricians were able navigate the snowy roads and reach a handful of the area's back up generators.

By Monday evening, roads were clear, power was back on and grocery stores were back in business.

In all, the Sioux Falls National Weather Service reported 15 weather-related deaths and approximately 15,000 cattle,15,000 hogs, 1,500 sheep and 70,000 chickens were lost during the blizzard.

The National Weather Service also reported total losses nearing $20 million throughout the county. Dickinson County was one of 40 counties that winter designated a disaster area by then Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray.

"The thing I got most out of my research was the way everybody worked together," Ehret said. "It's really neat to hear and see all the stories that people remember from then. I've had a great reaction on Facebook from this. That is what this area is all about, helping each other. You look back even just a month ago, to the apartment fire in Spirit Lake, and residents brought people into their homes, people were just so willing to help out."

If a massive, multi-day blizzard were to strike in 2015, Ehret knows his home county would come together, just like the residents were able to 40 years ago.

"The one thing I think would be different than in 1975 is the expectation," the emergency management coordinator said. "People have the expectation today for things to be done much quicker, they expect roads to be back open a lot sooner. That would be the tough part, but I think the people would still pull together."

Sources: Dickinson County Emergency Management, Dickinson County Newspaper Archives, Sioux Falls and Des Moines National Weather Service, Spirit Lake Beacon, Milford Mail, Terril Record and the Lake Park News.

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