Christmas in Northern Minnesota, Early 1900s, a Blizzard and a Child With Pneumonia

Key West, in the SW corner and east of Grand Forks, ND, was less than 100 miles from the Canadian border.

The Goff family from Iowa arrived in northern Minnesota in a blizzard the spring of 1903. When the mother, grandmother, and children got to Grand Forks, North Dakota on the train, they all had caught colds and were met by Grandpap Goff to take them by bobsled and bundled up with quilts the last thirteen miles. There was no school in winter, since the weather was too unpredictable and dangerous. 

One Christmas while in Minnesota,” Leora Goff Wilson wrote in her memoirs, “we were invited to Bertie Burris’. They had been to our place for weekends a few times. It was a nice clear morning and we [Sherd, Laura, and nine children] all got into the bobsled with plenty of straw and comforters. Merl brought his sled (Christmas present for all) and tied it on behind and rode on it some ’til we noticed his nose was frozen white.

Helen and Ruby Burris, daughters of Estella and Burt Burris. Stell was a daughter of Dave Branson. This was taken in or around Polk County, MN, about 1903 (but soon moved back to Guthrie County, Iowa).

“We were over halfway to Burris’, 5 miles (Burns’ lived about 7 miles from us) when one of those sudden blizzards began. We finally got to Burris’ and the youngest of their two girls, Helen, about 2 years old, was sick with pneumonia. The hired man, who was Artie Walters from Iowa, had ridden a horse several miles to get a doctor to come out.

“We couldn’t turn back and go home in the storm – no phones to let us know. The turkey was in the oven roasting and, with what we brought with us, and all put together, we had a delicious Christmas dinner. As many of us as there were, including little ones, all were pretty quiet.

“The storm blew over by 3 or 4 p.m. and we left for home. The hired man was up all night, so he was asleep all day. We were a thankful family to get back home safely and Helen Burris was getting better fast.”

How amazing Leora remembered the details of this Christmas decades later. She was in her early teens when they lived in northern Minnesota. I’m thankful for all the memories she recorded.

Story from Leora’s Early Years: Guthrie County Roots


    • Guthrie County history! When I gave a talk about it last month at the G.C. library, I mentioned that those with Guthrie pioneers would be hearing some things their ancestors went through and worried about. Thank you, Deb!

  1. I live a little east of that particular area. The last couple winters here in northern Minnesota have had those blizzards and cold conditions. some to -40 (f) real temperatures and many with the wind chill factors way below that. It’s possible to feel like one’s bones are cold and there is no feeling left in hands and feet if not prepared. I marvel at how serious the old timers bundled up and didn’t die in those situations. They knew all the tricks to stay warm and survive back then.

    • Leora attended school in the winter in Crookston. She and an older girl wanted to go home so took the train to Grand Forks and got stranded there during the blizzard. They eventually got a ride to Key West, but when Leora’s father took her back to Crookston, she got chilblains and was miserable for quite a while afterwards. (I had to look up chilblains.) My husband and I visited the area in 2002. Good thing we did as the old elevator and about everything else are gone now. I just had to see if it was as flat as Grandma described. Even early 1900s maps show the canals!

  2. Riding in a sleigh during a winter storm definitely would be an adventure. Was the horse’s name Bobtail (Jingle Bells) by any chance? Leora’s recall and recording of everyday events were fabulous.

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