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You Think Winter is Tough now?

Roepke, Dave. "You Think Winter is Tough now?" Forum, 20 January 2008, sec. B1, B3.


Real dangers aside, the big wallop these bitter northern winters pack is the startling ease with which they make the humdrum harrowing. A blizzard roars in and suddenly the evening commute feels like an epic battle of will.

Thats where winter lives in modern society lurking on the edges of life, waiting to pounce when we get a little too cozy. But what if it didnt reside on the fringe? Without heated cars, furnaces and modern coats, hats, boots and gloves all engineered to block out the cold, what then?

Youd be living in the past is what. As much as we mumble and grumble about it, winter is a gentle spring breeze compared to the pioneer days.

Modern kids have the sensibility that everythings supposed to be toasty warm like the summer, says Mark Halvorson, curator of collections for the North Dakota State Historical Society in Bismarck. We now assume certain things. If you go and turn on a light switch, there will always be electricity. People assume a house should be 68 degrees.

So how did they survive those winters past? Lets put it this way: The next time Januarys grind gets you down, be thankful you were born in a comfier century.

The ravages of winter can still be as deadly as they were when this archival photo of a North Dakota farmhouse was taken, after a blizzard on March 20, 1893. But modern-day technology allows us to keep winter at a distance, something the guys standing on top of this house might have appreciated. Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Staying warm at the turn of the 19th century started at the home, and it took a lot more than cranking the thermostat to keep a home livable.

People did freeze, says Pam Burkhardt, collections manager at the Clay County Museum. This was pretty serious.

The main heating sources were the cooking stove in the kitchen and other, smaller parlor heaters, Burkhardt says. Rooms that werent needed for the winter would be closed off to make it easier to heat the essential spaces.

But even then, it wasnt the warmth modern folks expect.

It was sort of localized, Halvorson said. It was just a different type of heat.

Formal insulation was a concept that wouldnt catch on for decades, so homes would have to be banked a makeshift system of plugging up drafts at the foundation with paper, leaves, straw, dirt or manure. Even with a banked foundation, the ravages of winter could slip into hastily constructed homes.

I woke up to hear the wind blowing and when I stepped out of the bed I found the floor covered with snow and snow on the pillow, wrote Ellen McMahon of her familys shanty in Grand Forks County in 1882, as quoted in Challenge of the Prairie. The 1970 book by Hiram M. Drache, which explores the tribulations of early homesteaders, was published by the Institute for Regional Studies in Fargo and contains numerous first-hand accounts from the pioneer era.

Burkhardt said pioneer homes were so cold that children would often be sent to bed with a brick heated on the stove and wrapped in flannel. Blankets would freeze stiff in the night chill and thick quilts and animal-hide robes were necessities.

Having been at it for generations, native people understood the insulating power of dead air. Halvorson said Dakota tribes often would build a tee-pee liner for the winter months essentially a second tent inside the outer covering, with about three feet of space left in between.

They also trapped body heat by keeping animals and extended families under one roof, Halvorson says.

Frozen fashions

The basics of dressing for the weather havent changed much in the last 100-plus years. It was all about layers.

A journal kept by Moorhead druggist B.F. Makall in 1873 outlines a mans typical winter ensemble: large neckerchief, broadbrim black hat, moleskin pants, a pair of overalls, a vest, two coats and overshoes.

Outer gear would include choppers long gloves meant to cover up the ends of a coat sleeve as well as hats with ear flaps and long scarves, Burkhardt says. The Clay County Museum, for instance, has a 16 foot wool scarf dating back to 1885. It would wrap around the head several times, she says.

Bison-hide coats were particularly revered for their warmth, Burkhardt says, and quite common. The U.S. Army, for one, outfitted its soldiers here with buffalo overcoats, Halvorson says.

The main winter fabrics were fur and wool, says Ann Braaten, curator for the Emily Reynolds Costume Collection at North Dakota State University.

Furs were worn by native tribes as coat-like shawls, Halvorson said, and also was added to collars and sleeves to block out wind, Braaten says.

Thats one of the secrets to keeping yourself warm, stopping drafts, Braaten says.

Of course, not everyone could afford the top-of-the-line digs of the time. Theyd make do any way they could. Ive seen pictures of people just wrapping their legs with rags, Braaten says.

Wools warmth was appreciated, especially because it would remain warm when wet, Burkhardt says. Try that with acrylic, she says.

Underneath was important, too. For German immigrants who arrived from Russia in the late 19th century, long underwear was one of the first train-delivered goods they would buy, Braaten says.

Given the frigid nature of home life, those long johns could stay on until the thaw. R.D. Crawford recalled in Challenge of the Prairie: It took a lot of courage to completely undress and put on a night shirt.

Crawford, who was a boy in the 1880s, added that he and his brothers would only change underwear once a week and were not required to take a formal bath from December to April or May. Others, he said, reportedly went to even further extremes.

Mrs. Woodward says she hears that there are people who do not undress all winter, Crawford wrote. I will not try to dispute it.

These chopper gloves are also artifacts at the Clay County Museum. Made of horse hide, choppers were designed to be long enough to cover the opening of the sleeve for added warmth.
This buffalo-hide coat was made around 1900 and was bought secondhand by George Pappas of Moorhead in 1929. Now its an artifact at the Clay County Museum in Moorhead. Photos by Jay Pickthorn / The Forum
U.S. soldiers struggle during a blizzard in Dakota Territory on March 31, 1866, in an image in the State Historical Society archives. Photos Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota
An unidentified man and his dog are pictured in 1882 in winter gear on the streets of Pembina, N.D.
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