FARGO — Howling winds blowing “great guns” raged and piled snow so deep that travel became impossible as the worst blizzard in years brought life to a standstill.
It’s remembered as the Thanksgiving blizzard of 1896 because it struck Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, but the winds howled for three days and the temperatures plunged below zero after the storm passed.
By the time the storm ended, several people were dead, including one near Fargo and another in Moorhead, and hundreds of cattle perished in the western Dakotas. Trains were stranded in Jamestown and near Valley City by the drifts, and telegraph poles between Fargo and Mapleton snapped in the wind.
The storm landed in Fargo in the early afternoon on Thanksgiving, and conditions deteriorated markedly by nightfall. Horse-drawn carriages outside the opera house and dance hall had difficulty returning home, in some cases getting stuck along the way.
“In all parts of town the drifts are so deep as to practically preclude the possibility of sending out any kind of teams,” the Fargo Forum reported the evening of Friday, Nov. 27.
“Walking — well it isn’t good,” the news report continued. “The ease with which a heavy man can sink up to his waist in a snowbank is astonishing. Six footers who are in the lightweight class fare pretty well.”
Northwest of Fargo in Benson County, a homesteader who was out gathering firewood in the Turtle Mountains was caught in the storm, traveling with a team that consisted of a pony and an old horse.
John Fulkerson was within a mile and a half of returning home near Leeds when he was overtaken by the storm and died. The old horse survived.
At home, in a one-room “box” Fulkerson built for his family, his wife and four young sons were snowed in for three days as the storm howled. The family was poor and lacked proper food and clothing.
Mother and sons, together with two dogs, huddled under bed covers as the blizzard raged, filling the small cabin with snow, leaving only the bed discernible. The stranded family was sustained by a cake the mother managed to bake the first day of the storm, according to an account given years later by the oldest son, Grover Fulkerson, then 6 years old.
The driven snow was so thick it was blinding. A farmer near Cando, Judson Beckwith, who had moved to the area as part of a religious colony of 350 from Indiana, was able to walk between his house and barn using binding twine as a guide.
In Moorhead, word spread that a boy was missing in the storm. Thomas Anderson lived with his parents “on the point” near today’s Hjemkomst Center and worked across the Red River in a candy factory in Fargo.
The 16-year-old did not return home Thanksgiving night and was reported missing the following morning. His family, who hoped he found refuge from the storm in a safe place, grew increasingly anxious as the hours passed, according to the Moorhead Daily News.
Finally, several men went out to search for the boy. By then they’d learned that Anderson left Everhart’s candy factory with a co-worker who also lived in Moorhead. They reached her home safely and the woman’s family pleaded for Anderson to stay with them.
But Anderson declined, saying his parents would be anxious to see him. The Moorhead Daily News described the lad as an “industrious, moral young man, well liked by his employers.”
A group of about 50 men continued with the search, which turned into a recovery effort as time passed, and volunteers were asked to bring shovels. His body was found after the storm ended.
An employee of the Great Northern Railroad, identified in news reports as “mail agent Burroughs,” was buried in a snowdrift near Devils Lake. He was aboard a west-bound train that stalled in the snow.
Burroughs was able to trudge through the snow back to Devils Lake, where he stopped in a restaurant and “obtained as big a supply of provisions as he could carry and started back for the train,” reported the Red River Valley News, published in Glyndon, Minn. “He never reached it. A searching party has been digging in the snow for his body.”
Six people died in Grand Forks, where the railroad didn’t go back into service for five days. A woman in Grand Forks recalled years later that her father tied her to the porch so she could play during the prolonged storm, according to a Grand Forks history.
Meanwhile, two teenage boys who were walking across a snow-covered flax field outside Fargo discovered the body of a man who was lying with his bare hands outstretched. He wasn’t wearing an overcoat and his clothes were unbuttoned, according to the Fargo Forum.
The body was taken taken to a morgue in Fargo, where a large crowd gathered to identify the body.
A farmer named Charlie Smith recognized the man, who appeared to be in his late 20s.
“That’s Frank Vack all right,” Smith said. Vack, originally from Chicago, had worked for Smith since April.
In the midst of the storm, despite the urging of others to stay, he set out on foot to Fargo to shop for a few items. In his pockets were two pairs of socks, suspenders, two pouches of tobacco and a bottle of whiskey.
After the Thanksgiving blizzard finally passed, temperatures plunged as a severe cold front swept in behind the departing storm.
The temperature at Pokegama Dam in Itasca County, Minn., dropped to 45 degrees below zero.
It took months to thoroughly tally the losses; there were widespread worries about those suffered by stock growers.
“The stock in the ranges have probably suffered considerably as the storm at Bismarck and Dickinson is said to be worse than here,” the Fargo Forum reported.
Many ranchers in the western Dakotas allowed their cattle to roam across vast fenceless ranges, counting on favorable weather. But some were unlucky.
“Such was the case in the memorable Thanksgiving blizzard of 1896 which raged three days, when thousands of head of livestock blindly drifted into draws and washouts, were covered with snow, and perished,” according to an account in the “Guide to South Dakota: The Prairie State,” written by the Federal Writers Project. “Spring round-ups revealed that most of the cattle outfits had suffered more than a 50 percent loss.”
The snowfall in Moorhead was recorded as almost 10 inches, containing 0.92 inches of moisture, the Moorhead Daily News reported. In Fargo, the snowdrifts reached the top of the first story of buildings.
The heavy snow during the fall of 1896, in fact, contributed to the Red River flood in the spring of 1897, which crested in Fargo at 39.1 feet, the third highest on record, behind the 2009 and 1997 floods.