Fremont County, Iowa

Armistice Day Blizzard
by Lona Lewis

View From the Attic - A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society,
Week of February 1, 2010

We generally think of blizzards as a winter event but the Armistice Day Blizzard came in 1940 in November during a very mild fall. It is credited with having a lasting impact on the weather bureau at the national level, and the wine industry and orchards, at the state level. .

The Armistice Day storm cut a 1,000-mile-wide path through the middle of the country. As with other storms, it was a warm pleasant day just before the storm arrived. The morning of the storm, duck hunters were thrilled to see thousands of ducks flying low in the sky and landing in the marshes. After the storm, the theory was the ducks knew what was coming. But the hunters just thought they were having great luck--water areas being covered by ducks. One story from Iowa describes a school boy on a bus watching the ducks and deciding to skip school. His bus driver decided to go with him. The two of them eventually ended their day by rescuing farm animals and other hunters.

Hunters were caught unaware when the temperature went from 60 degrees to 10 degrees and 50-80 mile an hour winds began. Minnesota lost 149 hunters; the largest loss in their history and the largest of any state in the storm.

In 1940, Chicago was the weather bureau with regular business hours. The weather had been so mild that forecasters took time off that week. In 1940, people had radios and telephones but with no forecast of the storm, no one was aware it was coming and it became the deadliest storm in the 20th century. The aftermath was the weather bureau went to 24/7 forecasting and opened weather stations throughout the country. The storm is credited with bringing us our modern weather forecasting system.

Folks in Fremont County who lived through its fury remember it killed grape arbors and fruit trees. In fact, when you research the wine industry in Iowa, the Armistice Day Blizzard is always mentioned. The industry was coming back from prohibition in 1940 when this fall storm killed it out again. The roots of the grapes were too shallow to survive the freeze because they had not gone into winter dormancy. It was not until the late 1980's that the industry started again with hardier grapes to withstand our cold winters.

The other plant casualties were the orchards. In the state of Iowa very few orchards survived--mostly apple orchards because that was the main fruit grown here. Before 1940 there were orchards on both sides of 275 just north of Hamburg. The Mincer orchard was one of them. The storm killed 95% of the trees in these orchards. The trees initially survived but in 1941 they had only stunted leaves and by 1942 were dead.

Marty Mincer has many stories to share about his family and its long history in the orchard business. It is a success story because of all the orchards; theirs is one of the few remaining.

The Armistice Day blizzard has gone down in history as one that forever changed the direction of many businesses. Additionally, the aftermath ended deadly blizzards surprising an unsuspecting population because of no forecast.

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Page updated on February 12, 2019 by Karyn Techau