|You Think Winter is Tough
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
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.
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
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
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.
The basics of dressing for the weather havent changed
much in the last 100-plus years. It was all about
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
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.
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.
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
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
unidentified man and his dog are pictured in
1882 in winter gear on the streets of Pembina,