Minnesota: A theater of seasons

Why do we live here? Marshall and southwest Minnesota have been in the national news over the past several weeks as an outpost of desolation due to cold temperatures, blizzards and closed roads. Most would say that we live here because this is where our jobs are. But who decided this area would be a good place to settle and create businesses and jobs? Can we blame our ancestors who came here in the first place?

In efforts to influence prospective settlers, promoters of the state usually extolled the state’s climate zone, its variety of seasons, its advantageous winters, its superiority to other states, and its uniquely-invigorating climate. Minnesota’s boosters accepted and promoted the idea that the world’s great civilizations had developed in temperate zones. One zealot linked Minnesota to the course of Western civilization by asserting: “There seems to be a certain zone of climate within which humanity reaches the highest degree of physical and mental power…and it is the good fortune of this area to lie not only within that zone, but within its very apex.” (“DeBow’s Review,” July 1856.) Winter encouraged industry, thrift, seriousness and morality. It also offered rest and relaxation from summer’s hard work. It was a time for contemplation and sharing of ideas, which would contribute to an intelligent and innovative populace. Winter was an essential element in shaping the character of Minnesota and Minnesotans.

The tendency to take the best winter days and make them appear characteristic of the entire season was also evident in promoters’ claims that there was little wind, temperatures were stable and not likely to fluctuate rapidly, and there was actually little snow, which did not drift because of the alleged calmness. Winter’s greatest advantages were said to be its unique beauty exemplified by sparkling ice crystals and an occasional aurora borealis. And what could be said about the really cold winter days? They were not cold; they were bracing, invigorating, or restorative.

Promoters always kept in mind that they were not writing for people who lived in Minnesota, but rather for people they hoped to lure here. Some residents would have undoubtedly agreed with this type of promotional verbiage, while others must have viewed it as ludicrous.

The word “blizzard,” synonymous with the terrible winter storm of the prairies, was coined during the early settlement of the Northwest. In the early 1800s the newspapers of the country filled columns giving the “original” derivation of the word, which then came into general use and in time found its way into the dictionaries. There is evidence that the word was coined in Marshall during the memorable storm of 1873. Concerning this the Lyon County News said, “The word blizzard was the first used in Marshall, Minn., by an American settler, now residing in Iowa. It was in the storm of 1873, at Charles H. Whitney’s hotel, and the man was Deacon Seth Knowles, who was a settler of Lyon County near this village. The deacon was a fine German scholar, and while discussing the terrible storm raging without said no word could express its severity, whereupon the deacon said: ‘It’s a Blitzard!’ So the great storm of 1873 was locally known, and with recurring storms the term spread through the state. During later years it has been generally adopted for squalls in the eastern states, which as compared with a genuine blizzard are no more than zephyrs. The deacon knew what he was talking about and adapted the term to the terrors of the storm. A German witnessing one of these overpowering storms would say, ‘Der Sturm commit blitzartig,’ which translated would be, ‘The storm comes lightning-like.’ The transition from blizartig to blizzard is natural and easy, while no word could better describe the oncoming snow and windstorm, and certainly there is no English word to fill the bill. The newness of the term and its pronunciation led the deacon to step to the counter of the hotel and write the word for the benefit of his friends.”

“Like our forefathers, present-day Minnesotans, offer various defenses. We praise the state’s ‘theater of seasons.’ We talk knowingly, but erroneously, about how it is not as cold as it used to be. We lapse into reiterations of the traditional claims that hearing about a Minnesota winter is far worse than experiencing it. And we boast, ‘Winter is a great blessing to us. We don’t get the weak-kneed beach boys here. You have to be strong and productive to survive here.'” (“Minnesota, An American Siberia?” William E. Lass.)

The story is told of a farmer who lived near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. All his life he had supposed he lived in Minnesota. But one day he was visited by a crew who asked permission to survey his land, because they had received information that the state line in his vicinity might be misplaced. He said, ” Sure, go ahead,” and anxiously awaited the results. Soon the surveyors were back to inform him that the boundary line was indeed wrong and that he actually lived in Wisconsin. That night, the farmer wrote in his diary, “Thank God! No more winters.”

Sources: “DeBow’s Review,” July 1856; “Minnesota An American Siberia?” William E. Lass, Minnesota History, Winter 1984; Lyon County News, March 2, 1883.