Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

March 1965, a harsh Minnesota prairie winter documented March 13, 2023

This huge snowdrift blocked my childhood farm driveway in this March 19, 1965, photo. I’m standing next to Mom. (Photo credit: Elvern Kletscher)

SHE WAS NOT QUITE 33 years old, this young mother of five living on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm in March 1965. It was an especially harsh winter, documented in a spiral bound notebook she kept.

She filled page after page with several-line daily entries about everyday life. She wrote about crops and household chores and kids and food and the most ordinary daily happenings. And, always, she recorded the weather—the wind, the precipitation, sometimes the temperature.

Arlene Kletscher’s journals stacked in a tote. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

This keeper of prairie history in rural Redwood County was my mother, who died in January 2022 at the age of 89. I am the keeper of her journals, which she kept from 1947-2014, from ages 15 to 82. Sixty-seven years of journaling. Several years, when she met and fell in love with my dad, are noticeably missing.

Recently, I pulled the tote holding her collection of writing from the closet. This snowy winter of 2022-2023 in Minnesota prompted me to filter through Mom’s notebooks from 1964 and 1965. That winter season of nearly 60 years ago holds the state record for the longest consecutive number of days—136—with an inch or more of snow on the ground. We are closing in on that, moving into the top ten.

Mom’s journal entries confirm that particularly snowy and harsh winter on the Minnesota prairie. From February into March, especially, many days brought snow and accompanying strong wind. Two photos from March 1965 back up Mom’s words. Her first March entry is one of many that notes the seemingly never-ending snow falling on our family farm a mile south of Vesta. She writes of the weather:

March 1—What a surprise! Snowing & blowing when we got up & kept on all day. No school.

March 2—Still blowing & started to snow again. Really a big drift across the driveway. Mike came & opened up driveway. No school again. Milk truck didn’t come so Vern has to dump tonight’s milk.

Entries from my mom’s March 1965 journal document a harsh Minnesota winter. My Uncle Mike had to drive from his farm a mile-plus away to open our driveway. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo March 2023)

Let me pause here and emphasize the hardship referenced in Mom’s March 2 entry. My dad had to dump the milk from his herd of Holsteins. That was like pouring money down the drain. I can only imagine how emotionally and financially difficult that was to lose a day’s income. But if the milk truck can’t get through on snow-clogged country roads to empty the bulk tank, there’s no choice but to pour away milk.

My dad planted DeKalb seed corn (among other brands). (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2015)

On March 3-5, Mom writes the same—of snow and blowing snow and efforts to keep the driveway open and no school. Then comes a respite from the snow. Dad was even planning ahead to spring, receiving a delivery of DeKalb seed corn on March 15. But then snowfall resumes on St. Patrick’s Day in this land of wide open spaces, where the wind whips fierce across the prairie.

March 17—Snowing & blowing. Got worse all day. Good thing the milk truck came. No school.

March 18—Quit snowing, but is really blowing. Huge drift across driveway & in grove. Almost all roads in Minn are blocked. No school. Cold, about 10 degrees.

Our southwestern Minnesota farmyard is buried in snowdrifts in this March 19, 1965, image. My mom is holding my youngest sister as she stands by the car parked next to the house. My other sister and two brothers and I race down the snowdrifts. (Photo credit: Elvern Kletscher)

March 19—We all went outside & took pictures of the big drifts & all the snow. Mike came over through field by gravel pit & started to clear off yard. Clear & cold.

Mom’s March 19 entry is notable for multiple reasons. First, my parents documented the snowdrifts with their camera. They didn’t take pictures often because it cost money to buy and develop the film. Money they didn’t have. That is why I have few photos from my childhood. That they documented the huge drifts filling our driveway and farmyard reveals how much this snow impacted their daily lives. In the recesses of my memory, I remember those rock-hard drifts that seemed like mountains to a flat-lander farm girl. That my Uncle Mike, who farmed just to the east, had to drive through the field (rather than on the township and county roads) to reach our farm also reveals much about conditions.

In the two days following, Mom writes of a neighbor coming over with his rotary (tractor-mounted snowblower) to finally open the driveway. But when the milk truck arrived at 4:30 am, the driveway was not opened wide enough for the truck to squeeze through the rock hard snow canyon. The driver returned in the afternoon, after Dad somehow carved a wider opening.

The weather got better in the days following, if sunny and zero in the mornings and highs of 12 degrees are better. At least the snow subsided. On March 23, Mom even notes that they watched the space shot on TV. I expect this first crewed mission in NASA’s Gemini Project proved a welcome diversion from the harsh winter.

In her March 27 journal entry, hope rises that winter will end. Mom writes: Sunny & warmer than it has been for days. Got to 45 degrees. Minnetonka beat Fairbault (sic) in basketball tournament. I almost laughed when I read that because Minnesotans often associate blizzards with state basketball tournament time. I also laughed because Faribault would eventually become my home, the place I’ve lived for 41 years now.

So much for optimism. On March 28, snow fell again. All day.

But the next day, Mom writes, the weather was sunny and warm enough to thaw the snow and ice and create a muddy mess. I stopped reading on March 31. I’d had enough snow. I expect Mom had, too.

© Copyright 2023 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


26 Responses to “March 1965, a harsh Minnesota prairie winter documented”

  1. beth Says:

    You are the lucky keeper of this incredibly precious words, so rich with experience and emotion

  2. What a treasure to have these journals, Audrey! I see where you got your love of the written word. A lovely account of those entries. ❤

  3. Ruth Klossner Says:

    Hi Audrey,

    A lot of memories of 1965 came back as I read today’s column. I tell people that March 1965 was one of the worst in southern Minnesota with two three-day March blizzards…March 1 and St. Patty’s Day.

    I remember those storms well. While I didn’t get to school, New Ulm schools were in session…there was no busing, but New Ulm did not close no matter how bad the weather. (That changed in the 1970s…I think they got stuck with students that couldn’t get home and finally changed policy.)

    Meanwhile, out on the farm, things for us were much like for your folks…trying to take care of the animals and get the milking done. We had enough room in the bulk tank to get through the first storm but the second was a different story.

    We still had milk cans around from our days of “can milk” before the bulk tank, so we filled those, too. When the storm finally broke, dad plowed our driveway with his rotary plow, then plowed the township road, and finally the county road out to the junction of highways 14 & 15 just north of New Ulm…probably a distance of two miles or more to get the milk truck in. We didn’t milk that morning, waiting for the milk truck. I think it was noon until we finally milked those poor cows.

    While we didn’t have to dump any milk that way, Dad told me, years later, that we didn’t get paid for the milk that was picked up that day because the creamery didn’t feel it was fair to pay those of us who DIDN’T dump milk while others had dumped milk. He was bitter about that even many years later.

    Now contrast March 1965 to March 1966.

    My mom got sick in February and passed away March 1, 1966. February that year was unseasonably warm and we had mud so bad that we couldn’t even drive a car in our driveway the last week of February. We had a good driveway (a quarter mile long) that never got muddy…except that year. For at least a few days, we left the car at the end of it and drove a tractor back and forth to get in and out.

    I remember the mud still being bad on March 1 as my brother did manage to drive his car in and get me to the house the day mom passed away.

    But, by March 29…the day we had dairy auction and sold our beloved herd of cows, everything was dry and we were able to park cars on the lawn and everywhere else in our yard. It was a beautiful “sweatshirt only” kind of day when the auction was held and we had to say good-bye to our cows. (I was able to keep my good 4-H cow and moved her to my mom’s cousin’s farm so I could still show her in 4-H…and she ended up being champion of the 4-H show at the state fair that year!)

    Just for fun, you might want to look at your mom’s journals from late February and early March 1966 to see what she had to say about the weather that year.

    Always love to read your columns!!!



    • Ruth, thank you for sharing your memories from March 1965. They really do sound a lot like what my mom documented. Your recollection was so interesting to read. I cannot go without saying that I am sorry you lost your mom at, apparently, a young age. And I do understand why your dad would feel bitter about not being paid for that milk.

  4. D.D. Olson Says:

    I remember later that spring the Cannon River in Cannon Falls flooded so high that it was running over the road just north of the downtown area. We watched as the farm implement dealer (where the canoe and bike rental place is now) was desperately trying to tie down the farm equipment on their lot so it wouldn’t float away in the rising river. I was 10 years old – it’s still a vivid memory.

    • That’s quite a memory, of trying to tie down the farm equipment. I’m sure it made quite an impression on your young mind. I need to fast forward and see if Mom wrote about flooding as we lived only about a half-mile from the Redwood River.

  5. Mark J Says:

    I enjoyed reading this so much and especially the March 17th-18th blizzard. I was 14 years old and living on a farm near Kenyon. The storm started with rain and ice the evening of the 16th. We always referred to it as the St. Patrick’s day storm. I remember school was closed for the rest of the week.

  6. Sheila Ehrich Says:

    I loved your news for today. It is always interesting to go back and read about the past! Thanks.

  7. Ken Wedding Says:

    This reminds me of the basketball tournament blizzards when I lived in Redwood Falls. The 1965 March was probably the time many of us students in Northfield were stranded at the end of exam week for a couple extra days because no traffic, no trains, no plows got to town.

  8. These journals seem like something worthy of being donated (when the time is right) to the Minnesota Historical Society (if they accept donations like that). To me it seems like an important piece of state history that ought to be both preserved and available to researchers.

    • I’ve wondered the same, if a historical society might be interested in Mom’s journals. That said, I’m not anywhere near wanting to give them up and my eldest daughter has been reading her grandma’s journals, too. They are a treasure personally and historically.

  9. Valerie Says:

    Interesting post Audrey. I love that you have your mom’s journals, and I love the stories you’ll share with us, from them! This blizzard was a doozy. And it was nice to see the photos from those days also.

    • About those photos…I’ve previously published them here, but did not know the story behind when and why they were taken. So when I read my mom’s March 19, 1965, journal entry referencing these images, I was thrilled. I still don’t know how they ever managed to get that driveway open multiple times or the farmyard cleared.

  10. Beth Ann Says:

    What treasures you are finding in those journals. I have my mom’s as well but haven’t delved into them. I will one day but not yet.

  11. What a wonderful insight into rural MN life in 1965! You are lucky you have those treasures of your mother’s journals. Hopefully your family will continue to treasure that documentation of daily life. They would be of great value to researchers if they were available through the Minnesota Historical Society in St Paul. I have days be research there and reading the letters and journals of people offers a wonderful period insight of how life was at a certain moment. Thanks for sharing these through your blog.

    • I absolutely cherish these journals and I know my eldest daughter does also as she’s read the early ones. Maybe some day these can be gifted to a historical center, but now, no. I agree that Mom’s writing would be of value to researchers.

      • The reason why I mentioned is that we had valued documents from my great grandfather and the burnt up in my parents house fire, now lost forever… the value of perserving them in the Minnesota Historical Society is that they will be there for you and your families future generations and cared for without the fear of damage or loss. They have so few items from farming women and the fact your mother document everyday is really incredible! Enjoy these wonderful gifts your mother gave you and thank you so much for sharing even a small part of them with all of your readers.😊

      • I never considered that, the possibility of a fire. But, yes, I understand where you’re coming from on this. Perhaps I need to make some inquiries at some point. I expect you’re right on the lack of documentation from Minnesota farm women. I’m still amazed that my mom found time to make these daily journal entries while raising six kids and keeping the household running.

      • Maybe, it was therapy for her. If you need a POC at the MN Historical Society shoot me an email. I donated all my military historical documents and journals last year and it as a wonderful feeling.

      • Paula, I expect you’re right in that journaling was partially therapy for Mom, a way to escape all her responsibilities and us kids. Watch for an email from me. I’d love that contact info, maybe not to use immediately, but in the future. Also, thank you for donating your military docs and journals to the MN Historical Society. What happened to them after you donated them? Are they accessible to the public, stored somewhere?

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