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Last week’s cold may have been rough, but the winter of 1936 in Cottonwood County sounds a lot worse

Temperatures dropped to 30 degrees below zero in late January and did not rise above zero for thirty-six days.

historical photo of a train caught in snow
Cottonwood County residents pose in front of a train blocked by snow near Windom, February 1936.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Early twentieth-century winters in Minnesota were a hardship for the state’s residents―including those of Cottonwood County. Newcomers, hearing stories about the weather, soon learned that the accounts weren’t exaggerated. A few storms stand out, but the blizzard of 1936 topped them all.

The first settler-colonists of Westbrook Township had intimate experience with Minnesota’s harsh winter weather. A severe blizzard that hit the area on January 7, 1873, continued for three days. The “Winter of the Big Snow” (1880–1881) left snow on the ground from October to April. The blizzard of January 1909 left huge drifts that blocked doors, forcing some people to leave their homes through upstairs windows.

The winter of 1936 was a memorable occasion that surpassed even these earlier storms. Temperatures dropped to 30 degrees below zero in late January and did not rise above zero for thirty-six days. This 1936 North American cold wave ranks among the most intense in the recorded history of North America. The winter (December through February) of 1935/36 was the coldest on record for Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, with February being the coldest month.

Although the wind, snow, and temperatures were similar to previous memorable winters, they impacted residents in different ways. Farmers were not lost in their ox carts or frozen on their property a few yards from their homes, but stranded by automobiles and trains and interruptions of electric power.

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Several feet of snow accompanied the cold. Farmers strung ropes between their farmhouses and barns to prevent themselves from getting lost even on short walks outside. Even brief exposure was dangerous, since frost bite and hypothermia could occur in a few minutes. Many animals died. On some days, winds and snow were so intense that farmers could not see their fingers stretched out in front of them.

Blocked food and fuel deliveries created critical shortages by the end of the first week of February. By the middle of the month, all schools were closed by deep snowdrifts, and medical aid was delayed by a shortage of serum. In a February 14, 1936, account of the blizzard in the Windom Reporter, a reporter stated that the snow halted train and truck service from early Saturday to Monday night. The storm hit the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Omaha railroad especially hard, and the line between Mountain Lake and Butterfield short-circuited most of the day. 209 passengers on this train waited for nearly twelve hours for the snow to be cleared.

With roads closed by large drifts, churches canceled their services on Sunday and schools were closed to students on Monday. Rural schools in Cottonwood County lost approximately a month of class time that winter. Frozen water pipes overwhelmed plumbing establishments, automobiles refused to start, and the wire service was impeded, though not totally paralyzed.

The blizzard caused medical emergencies and made it difficult for doctors to attend their patients. Doctors at the Windom Hospital treated two cases of frozen feet. People with severe injuries and illnesses managed with the ingenuity and help of others to get to hospitals and receive the help they needed. One doctor from Westbrook reportedly reached a pneumonia patient in Storden on skis. A farmer with a badly cut hand stopped the bleeding and the following day hitched a ride with a snow plow to the hospital.

The early February blizzard wasn’t the end of Cottonwood County’s winter woes in 1936. A storm on February 17 stopped trains and mail service for two days. After a promising thaw, another storm a week later dropped ten inches of snow, again bringing transportation in the county to a standstill.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.