Armistice Day Blizzard nearly claimed a teenager named Bud Grant among its duck hunting victims
Early on November 11, 1940—82 years ago on Friday—the dryland hurricane that would come to be known as the Armistice Day Blizzard gathered near Kansas City and targeted the Mississippi River Valley.
Hundreds of waterfowl from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa had set out early on the holiday — now dubbed Veterans Day — in hopes that long strands of mallards and canvasbacks would fly south on the back of the looming squall.
When the skies finally cleared two days later, about 25 duck hunters were among the 154 people killed by the storm. Thousands of cattle also died in snowdrifts 20 feet high, and more than a million farm-bred turkeys died.
Bud Grant, now 95, the retired Vikings coach, was barely a teenager in 1940 and is one of the few duck hunters alive today to have survived the storm.
Grant attended high school in Superior, Wisconsin and had friends who played football, basketball, and baseball with him. But he only had one friend, Bill Blank, who hunted, and on weekends the pair would hike logging trails around Superior with their .22s and .410s, whistling for grouse, squirrels and rabbits.
Grant and Blank had taken a break in northwest Wisconsin the day before the blizzard hit. An older friend, Phil Cross, had invited them to go duck hunting at Yellow Lake, about 60 miles south of the boys’ home in Superior. In the off-season, scaup or bluebills often visited Yellow Lake and the three hunters were eager to get a shot of them.
“It was a different time and our equipment was bad,” Grant recently recalled. “We had a couple of burlap sacks, each with six unsurpassed lures in them, and we wore buckled overshoes on our feet, and all the sweaters and jackets we had . That was our hunting gear.”
Cross had rented a cabin with a wood stove on Yellow Lake. But Grant was too excited to sleep that evening, and by the time Cross was lighting kerosene lamps in the cottage to make breakfast long before daybreak, he and the two younger hunters were soon out the door, rowing a hired boat across the lake .
The increasing morning light revealed a mottled sky. The wind was light and rowing was easy. Adding to the excitement of the hunters was the flapping of wings from unseen ducks, punctuating an otherwise calm morning.
Unknown to the Hunters as they rowed, a low-pressure system had deepened over Iowa, ultimately yielding the lowest readings ever recorded at Charles City, Iowa, at 28.92 inches, and at Duluth, at 28.66 inches.
“We set our baits and shot some ducks,” Grant said. “Then after a while Phil said he wanted to go back to the cabin to take a nap. So Bill and I rowed him back. Then we rowed back across the lake to our lures and hunted on.”
By this time, waterfowl on the Mississippi River near La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Winona, Minnesota, and north and south of those cities, may have sensed that the November winds they hoped would bring ducks over their bait were not only a good shooting, but also a sign were respect. The temperatures had been between 40 and 50 degrees that morning and some hunters had climbed into their boats in their shirtsleeves. Then came the rain and the sleet. And soon after that snow and wind.
‘Bill and I were shooting some ducks,’ said Grant, ‘when suddenly the wind picked up from the north-west and we were covered in ducks! The wind blew stronger and stronger. We shot more and more ducks. We couldn’t recover some of them because the waves were so big. Eventually we thought we had better get out there.”
As Grant struggled with the boat’s oars, the wooden boat pitched and yawd, eventually being blown against the windward shore. The two hunters got out of the boat and stepped into knee-deep water, and just as quickly the water poured over the toes of their buckled shoe covers.
They would circle the lake to reach the cabin, they decided, and they set off.
“We were about halfway through but it was swampy and Bill fell waist deep in the water,” said Grant. “That and the wind and the snow got too much and finally he said he couldn’t walk anymore. There was a train track nearby and I stowed it next to it and left it behind.”
When Grant reached the cabin, he stumbled through the door and, half frozen, told Cross where he had left Blank. Distraught, Cross stormed into the whiteout while Grant, his clothes soaked, stripped naked and donned a pair of Cross waders while he stoked the fire in the wood stove.
Half an hour later, Cross returned to the dressing room with Blank. When they had warmed up, the three hunters set off.
“We had no way of knowing if the storm was going to get worse or better, but we couldn’t stay in the cabin,” Grant said. “We didn’t have enough food or firewood.”
In Cross’s car, he, Blank, and Grant slid up the resort’s narrow road to the Hwy. 35, the north-south route that would take them back to Superior.
Crawling at low speed while peering into the maelstrom for the two-lane asphalt pavement, the three hunters hadn’t gone far when they rounded a bend and spotted two cars blocking the road and stuck in snowdrifts.
“We had no way of turning back and we didn’t know where we were,” Grant said. “There were two people in each of the cars. To save gas and keep warm, we all crowded into a car, some of us sitting on others’ laps. We left the car running intermittently to warm up, which we did for the rest of the day and night.”
Morning came, and with it even deeper snow that drifted around the cars. Grant can’t remember how the decision was made. But maybe he was chosen to get help because he was young and fit and also because he was still wearing crosswaders and could keep his feet dry.
“Otherwise we would die there,” he said.
Grant tightened his canvas coat, hat, and gloves, got out of the car into the deep snow, and headed north along what he thought was the road. Spruce, pine, and balsam trees flanked him, and he walked for an indeterminate time, but probably at least an hour, before seeking shelter among the trees but finding none.
Face caked with ice and snow, he trudged ahead and got to an intersection in time, and at the northeast corner of the intersection was a gas station with two pumps. There were no lights on and no cars at the pumps. Nonetheless, Grant knocked on the door and a woman and her young daughter answered. The woman’s husband was at the shipyards in Superior where he worked, she said. But Grant might come in.
“There was heat and food and I was safe,” Grant said. “But there was no communication. I’m sure my parents feared I had died. I stayed with the woman and her daughter for two and a half days. By now Bill and Phil and the others were frozen to death, I was sure of that.”
What Grant didn’t know was that not far from where the cars got stuck, a farmer shot a deer and hung it in his shed.
Concerned that his family would need food during the storm, the farmer hiked through the snow to butcher the deer the same day Grant sought help. He saw the stuck cars.
“The farmer took Bill and Phil and the others over to his house and they stayed there for two and a half days,” Grant said. “During that time they ate the whole deer.”
Grant’s father, Harry Peter Grant Sr., was a superior firefighter and when a plow finally headed south to clear the Hwy. 35, he ordered a fire truck to follow him. The plow, fire truck, Cross and Blank, and the others showed up at the two-pump gas station at about the same time after the storm.
“When my dad saw me he hugged me so tight,” Grant said. “I had never seen my father cry. But he cried and cried. He tried to pay the woman to feed and protect me, but she wouldn’t take the money.
“Later, when we got home, my dad sent her two $20 bills. My dad made $100 a month, so that was a lot of money for him. But he wanted to pay her. The woman wrote back that with the $40 her family bought a turkey for Thanksgiving instead of venison, which they probably ate year-round.”
After graduating from high school, Grant enlisted in the Navy and Blank in the Army. They remained friends, and when they got fired, they pooled their $200 payout funds, took out a bank loan, and together bought hunting land in northwestern Wisconsin.
“It wasn’t long before Bill wanted to get married and needed money, so he asked me to buy him out,” Grant said. “So I took out another loan and paid it off.
“At the time I was playing U Ball and paying off the loans by scalping tickets to Gophers games.”
Grant still owns the land.