Weather and Natural Disasters

Physical conditions on the frontier presented many challenges. Wind, blizzards, and plagues of insects threatened crops. With few trees for building homes available, many settlers built home out of sod. With limit access, supplies for cooking and heating were limited. The land, often not sufficient enough to sustain agriculture and scarce of natural vegetation made raising livestock on the prairie difficult. As a result of this, many did not stay on the land long enough to fulfil their homestead claim.

Winter Storms

According to Andrew Berdahl “the years 1879 and 80 were good years with abundant crops, with much rain…The heaviest snowfall of 1881 began in February, and from then on until about the middle of April there were snowstorms almost every week…The wind blowing sometimes from the northwest and again other days from the east or south did completely fill some of the smaller ravines…Some time after the 15th of April, mild weather set in and all of this snow suddenly turned to water and the great flood was upon us. It took a long time for the water to pass down ravines and the river bottom because of the big drifts hindering and stopping the water.” (Berdahl family autobiography, page 25)

In Giants in the Earth, Rolvaag writes “They say it rained forty days and forty nights once in the old days, and that was terrible; but during the winter of 1880-81 it snowed twice forty days; that was more terrible…Day and night the snow fell. From the 15th of October, when it began, until after the middle of April, it seldom ceased. From the four corners of the earth it flew; but of all the winds that brought it, the south wind was the worst; for that whisked and matted the flakes into huge grey discs, which fell to the ground in clinging, woolly folds…

“…The suffering was great that winter. Famine came; supplies of all kinds gave out; for no one had thought, when the first snowfall began, that winter had come. Who had ever heard of its setting in in the middle of the autumn?…February the very demon himself arrived. Some had to leave their potatoes in the ground; others could not thresh the grain; fuel, if not provided beforehand, was scarcely to be had at all; and it was impossible for anyone to get through to town to fetch what might be needed.” (Giants in the Earth, pages 486-487)

Locust

According to Andrew Berdahl, “the years 1874 to 1877 were the memorable grasshopper years, when great swarms of hoppers would swoop down upon us, and destroy all the growing crop wherever they alighted. But some fields escaped their ravages, and the meadows yielded their usual crow of hay, so feed for the cattle was plentiful for the most of us. So in spite of the hoppers, the settlers made a good living and were creating national wealth. If the grain crop failed, we still had our cows from which we raised calves and thus increased our herd every year. The most of us raised colds, lambs and pugs which every year were growing into money.” ( Berdahl family autobiography, page 12 )

In Giant’s in the Earth, Rolvaag includes stories about these locusts, saying “..and now from out the sky gushed down with cruel force a living, pulsating stream, striking the backs of the helpless folk like pebbles thrown by an unseen hand…There were signs of the scourge in the summer of ’73, but not before the following year did it assume the proportions of a plague.” (Giants in the Earth, pages 391-399)