If you lived in northeastern Minnesota in 1996, you know where you were on the white-cold morning of Feb. 2. That was the day that cold air actually broke a mercury thermometer in Embarrass, Minnesota, and in which the nearby town of Tower ran away with the all-time state record of 60 below zero.
In a state where winter endurance stories are passed from generation to generation, the real tales of what happened on the coldest day on state record are perhaps just now taking on full dimension these decades later.
Those who endured the record-breaking cold snap recall the strange and remarkable events of that day, such as tires that froze into blocks, door hinges that froze in place, and the very real fear that basement furnaces would freeze up from the effort of sustaining a 125-degree temperature difference between indoors and outdoors.
“It was so cold,” one woman wrote in a recent Ely social media thread, “that my brake lines froze and broke as I was driving.” Travel warnings were issued, another person recalled, simply because mechanical breakdowns were beginning to litter the roadways and require rescues. It was eerily quiet, with a bit of a fog that left ice crystals for those who ventured outdoors.
Ely-area musher and White Wilderness Sledding Adventures owner Pete McClelland went about work as usual. McClelland believes he was leading a sleddog trip on Basswood Lake in the Boundary Waters that week. “I didn’t know until I got back how cold it had been,” he said. “It was just another day of work for me.”
Of course, there were those who relished the opportunity to earn bragging rights. A group of friends doubled up sleeping bags and dug into hardened snow drifts for a long night of myth-making at Timber Hall in Embarrass. Radio personality and town historian Mike Hillman memorably entertained all of Ely by narrating a live feed to local radio station WELY from his tent in Tower. His claim to fame was successfully pounding a nail with a frozen banana on air.
“It gets weird when it gets cold,” said Valerie Carlson, who at the time was an Iron Range middle school science teacher. She remembers her husband insisting he would go to work, only to return when beat back by the elements. “I mean, yeah, people get weird. But everything gets weird. Tolerance levels for houses and cars aren’t generally engineered for that kind of cold. My house made some fearsome thuds and pops.”
It is those very laws of nature to which Carlson alludes that attracted a certain kind of scientific inquiry. With temperatures predicted to approach the -50s that week, cold weather product testers raced to the area to test their batteries and tires and electrical circuitry. Quite suddenly, the local hotels filled up and a few little towns enjoyed a mid-winter boom.
The hotels in Ely were also filling up as people from all over the country arrived to participate in the Winter Festival snow carving contest. That night, as the temps dropped, the dinner honoring the artists went on as planned in the basement of St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. Outside, the parking lot was a steamy wall of exhaust, where all the cars were left running.
In cold air, sound travels faster and farther. Trees froze and exploded, sending unfamiliar booms across lakes. And the lakes themselves trilled with expansion as new ice, sounding like waves of electrified rubber band snaps, dominated the night.
One logger described getting up early that day to plow, then having to walk out a few miles with his buddy after getting stuck. “Found a couple grouse frozen to the ground, and we ate them for lunch,” he posted.
It is perhaps Roland Fowler of Embarrass who has the best story. Now 90 years old, he was “the a guy who liked to record the weather and share readings with neighbors.” He was already a bit of a celebrity, and he had every reason to think he would make the national news by morning.
“Well, here’s what happened,” he explained factually. “The mercury in the thermometer broke on me. It separated because of the cold at -52.”
He took photos of four other thermometers registering -62 and -64, sending them to the Weather Service. He packaged the broken thermometer and sent it to the manufacturer. To no avail. Shortly thereafter, the National Weather Service office provided Fowler with training, equipment, and an official reporting station.
And so it stands that Tower, Minnesota, became the state’s cold record holder. There, the official Weather Service station registered -60.
And yet, photos exist of the Tower State Bank’s digital sign flashing a temperature of -62 that morning. In fact, the bank used that image for its coffee cup promotion that year.
Jana Studelska is a freelance writer based in northeastern Minnesota.