North Dakotans value the distinct seasons on the Northern Plains. And, contrary to some opinions, they are not two that consist of eight months of winter and four months of road construction.
No, the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall are all prized for their distinct characteristics that cultivate a variety of activities and interests. But perhaps the other three do not come close to the challenges and intrigue of North Dakota winters.
As they compiled their book, “Sundogs and Sunflowers,” folklorists Dr. Timothy Kloberdanz and Troyd Geist have captured many of the stories that make North Dakota’s winter lore legendary.
The book was published a year ago by the North Dakota Council on the Arts, where Geist is the state folklorist. Kloberdanz is a cultural anthropologist and folklorist who was on the faculty of North Dakota State University from 1976 until his retirement in 2010. In his classes over the years Kloberdanz collected and documented folklore from the Northern Great Plains in general and North Dakota in particular. The 10,000 samples that were collected are cataloged and stored at the NDSU Institute of Regional Studies.
About 10 years ago Geist approached Kloberdanz, his former professor, about compiling a book. “We need to do something with this material,” he recalls telling him. “It would be a way to give back to the people.”
As projects that start with the intention of being small often do, this hardcover book grew in size to 350 pages to include some 1,000 folklore samples, although they are still only 10 percent of those collected. Its 10 chapters break the folklore down to categories such as ghost stories, legends, weather, proverbs, expressions and speech, folk beliefs and medicine, holiday celebrations and hunting, fishing and trapping.
Often the familiar can be taken for granted, and Kloberdanz believes this is true with the stories and traditions of a culture. “After hearing some of our stories, a visiting folklorist was so impressed he encouraged us to collect and preserve them.”
As they were gathering these stories, Kloberdanz says the winter lore especially shows the character of North Dakotans. The sledding, horse-drawn sleigh rides, ice skating and other winter recreational pursuits are one aspect of this character.
“They choose to live in this state that can have brutal winters, and with this comes an amazing ability to make the best of any situation. But, you can see this attitude especially in the case of blizzards. The way they react to them shows adaptability, optimism and even a sense of humor, even though a blizzard can create hardship, danger and tragedy.”
Geist says every region of the country has a particular genre of folklore that especially defines its identity. “In the Northern Great Plains, it’s the blizzard stories. Nobody has them like we do.”
These legendary stories run the gamut from 15-year-old Hazel Miner from Center, whose heroism has been celebrated through song and poetry for dying while saving the lives of her younger brother and sister during a March 1920 blizzard, to world champion boxer Muhammad Ali, who was stranded in the state during a 1969 blizzard. “If you look at them as a whole, there are a lot of messages in them – what to do and what not to do. They bring out the best of people with stories of Good Samaritans and snow angels,” says Geist.
“And through it all is an underlying theme that you never give up.”
‘The Storm Hit Suddenly’
The third chapter of “Sundogs and Sunflowers” includes some 50 blizzard stories on the Northern Plains that cover storms as far back as 1873 and through the heavy snow in 2009 that brought spring flooding across the state.
Many of them relate the fate of people who became disoriented in a raging storm and were found frozen to death, sometimes just a close distance from a home or building or vehicle.
Here are some others:
During a four-day blizzard in 1951, the snow was deep enough to fill 60-feet ravines. The people of the Ashley area heard on the radio that an airplane was flying over the area. People were told to stamp out large letters in the snow with the initials of what they needed, like “F” for food. The airplane took note of what was needed, and later a tracked vehicle called a “weasel” came by with a sled loaded with supplies.
The Blizzard of 1966
Several of the stories in the chapter were from the “Blizzard of 1966,” also called the “Blizzard of the Century.” This multi-day storm in the early part of March killed livestock, some of them from icicles “as big as footballs” that hung from the noses of cattle, which blocked their airways and suffocated them. The snow from that storm reached the tops of houses in Dickinson, so one young man and his friend dug out their houses and then went around town chipping the ice off the chimneys of other homes so they would not become blocked and suffocate the residents. And, in some town, including Mayville, as they dug out of the deep snow the banks were so high that people put orange ribbons on car antennas so others could see them over the snowdrifts at stop signs.
An Act of Kindness
A trucker stopped to pick up a family from the East Coast who was stranded during the February 1984 blizzard. He delivered the man and woman and their twin babies to safety. The couple took his name and address and later sent him a check for $10,000. The trucker figured that being from the East, they didn’t understand that people here didn’t charge for these acts of kindness. He made a photocopy of the check and sent it back.
Stuck in the Ditch
A Kindred farm family pulled a car out of the ditch that was stuck during a 1980s blizzard. The woman, who was African-American, and her car were taken to their farm where she spent the night, leaving the next day when the storm stopped and the family had fixed her car. About a month later, the family received a large television. Their guest had been the wife of boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
From Blizzards to Floods
The winters of two notable recent years, 1997 and 2009, brought so much snow from several blizzards, that the snowmelt brought record flooding. While impacting the cities of Grand Forks in 1997 and Fargo in 2009, the wrath of these floods had widespread impact on the Northern Plains, evacuating thousands from their homes. A late March blizzard in 2009 caused an ice jam along the Missouri River, forcing the evacuation of 1,700 people around Bismarck and Mandan, and requiring dynamite to blast a channel in the river.
Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Art of the Northern Great Plains sells for $34.95 and is available through the North Dakota Council on the Arts, 701-328-7590, at regional bookstores, and online at www.dakotabooknet.com.