Last Sunday on this page, the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 was remembered. Fifty-nine people would be killed in Minnesota because of the storm. Some were hunters who found themselves stuck in river marshes, unable to get to solid ground. Some were farmers who got lost in their pastures trying to move their livestock to safety. Some were motorists snowbound in cars.
The horrors of the recent fires in California, and the many deaths there, along with these thoughts about the 1940 blizzard, remind me of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Fire and Ice.” In the brief nine lines of this poem, he surmises that the world could end from fire (which he equates to desire/greed) or from ice (which he equates to hate). And sometimes nature is the cause of the fire or ice that does indeed bring the end to a person’s world.
I come from a family of letter writers. Besides my parents, who rarely went a week without writing marvelous letters to family and friends, several of my Mother’s brothers also wrote great letters. Her oldest sibling, my uncle, Jerry Verrant, was one of those letter writers.
After graduating from Robert L. Downing High School in Keewatin in 1931, he graduated from Hibbing Junior College where he studied accounting. He then went to work in the office at the Albany Mine near Kitzville before leaving the Range for four years to serve in the Air Force during World War II.
He was working at the Albany on Nov. 11, 1940.
Over 40 years later, Oct.14, 1981, he wrote a letter to my brother, William, telling about his experience during that infamous blizzard. We had heard him tell this story before, but I believe that William asked our uncle to write it down. Thankfully, my Mother asked my brother to send her the letter after William made a copy. Uncle Jerry died a couple of years after he wrote this letter.
~ Mary Palcich Keyes
Jerry Verrant’s letter
Here is a brief report on one of my most interesting experiences during my lifetime.
On the morning of Nov. 11, 1940, it was raining not too heavily but consistently, and shortly after lunch it began to get colder with some snow beginning to fall being mostly wet and not remaining on the ground. The temperature continued to fall until around the end of the first shift (3 p.m.), at which time most of my office went home also, but I remained as I worked until 4:30 p.m. When 4:30 p.m. rolled around, it had turned colder and the snow was remaining on the ground and it appeared that a full storm was setting in
I drove my Ford toward Kitzville which was about a half mile away and then about 100 yards to the main highway. I made it to Kitzville. I was working at the Albany Mine in Kitzville at the time, but saw that the storm was too heavy to continue and so drove off the road and locked the car. Hitched a ride back to the mine as I could at least remain warm there.
Lo and behold, I found others including the superintendent in the group, so we decided that we could remain at Mobile’s Boarding House at the Albany Location overnight and then work from there.
The snow continued and being a heavy snow initially. It weighed heavy on power lines, which it broke and that eliminated power and the water pumps in the mine pits and the stoker furnace in the offices. We walked single file to Mobile’s through the deep snow already on the ground and got to the boarding house to eat spaghetti that evening.
That night we ate by kerosene light and then figured out what we would do to pass the time away. The telephone lines were still working so some communication took place.
Then John Tomich, a production truck driver, and a part-time tavern operator at Kelly Lake, spoke up and said that he would tell us about coming over to this country on the Titanic. We were all seated on the floor, which would be our place to sleep that night and the next night. John was a clean-cut fellow who ran a tavern known as the Last Chance Tavern. He dressed up real well and had a pencil-line mustache neatly trimmed at all times. He could deal cards with one hand and could deal from any part of the deck with him always getting the best hand.
Well, he began his story in Yugoslavia as a boy of 14 who had heard many stories of America and his interest to come over here grew. He had earned some money for the trip by boat from France.
But then he heard about the Titanic — a boat that was unsinkable. So he went for that boat and he described the lads and ladies that came along with him on the trip and also the fancy accommodations on the boat which, of course, were not enjoyed by him.
He moved on with the details to the nights and then the night when the boat hit the iceberg. He described vividly the commotion after the first jar and the fight to get up to the lifeboats. He got there with a lady putting her dress over him in the lifeboat and he remained hidden for some time.
Remember that we are snowbound and John talks a good part of the night. Now I wish that we could have taken down the story on a group of cassettes, which of course were not available at that time.
He continued his story to the pick up by another ship and eventually getting to New York. Even though we were all sleepy, we remained awake to listen to this fellow now in his 40s tell of his experience that surely is incredible. He spoke in a rather high voice and broken Slav so you can consider that as part of the background. He would laugh at some of the story as now when looking back he thought it a little funny but quite serious at the time.
John Tomich died some 10 years ago when he was in his 80s. I will always remember him as a man that could listen to you and read your speech and know full-well that you knew he knew you were B.S.ing. He was a Union grievance man and a good one.
We were snowbound for three days, and I am certain that Minnesota has not experienced such a snowstorm in its history.
Neither my Uncle Jerry nor I could confirm the truth of John Tomich’s Titanic story, but I know that my uncle was as honest as the day is long. So when he describes the experiences of that night at the Albany, I know it is truly what happened.
~ Mary Palcich Keyes
The following items are taken from the Hibbing Daily Tribune or the Mesabi Ore, which are on microfilm at the Hibbing Public Library and/or Iron Range Resource Center at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.
July 20, 1909
More than 100 Finnish books have just been received at the library. These will probably be ready be ready to circulate by Saturday. The library also has pamphlets in the Italian, German, Danish-Norwegian and Swedish languages for free distribution.
Nov. 13, 1918
With four deaths reported over Sunday, the total number of influenza victims who have died from the disease in Hibbing reached 17.
Sept. 10, 1923
Chisholm Painter Opens Bakery on East Lake Street: Herman Junsola, well-known local painter, has launched out in another business enterprise, having opened this week a bakery shop. The new bakery is located in the building just east from the Grand Theater, where bread with the “Golden Crust” and other goodies will be baked. Almost directly across the street from this new bakery the Misses Jennie and Mabel Rapp have opened “Betty’s Home Lunch” where meals will be served.
June 7, 1958
Memories of one of Hibbing’s old time favorite baseball pitchers were revived when John B. Gilligan, former city star performer wrote a note to the Hibbing Elk Lodge from Mojesta, Calif.