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Plains Folk

The Unequal Battle Against the Elements

There is the granite memorial, there is the song by Chuck Suchy, and there are countless commemorations of the sacrificial death of Hazel Miner, the Oliver County farm girl who died saving her brother and sister from the killer blizzard of 15-16 March 1920. There were others who died in that storm, however.

Among them, according to the Fargo Forum the day after the storm, was a Mrs. Andrew Whitehead—sorry, I haven’t located a first name for her. Another press report says she was a “college trained Indian woman.” The Forum just called her “an Indian, whose body was found on a road between Devils Lake and Fort Totten. Her three-year-old son, whom she had wrapped in part of her own clothing, was still living, his feet and hands being frozen, but he will recover. Mrs. Whitehead was driving a team that became exhausted in the unequal battle against the elements.”

The most tragic episode associated with the spring blizzard of 1920 was that of the Wohlk brothers, four farm boys from Ryder who perished attempting to make their way home from school. Their father, Gust Wohlk, was a German immigrant from Schleswig-Holstein. He was said to have been a former bodyguard to future field marshal von Hindenburg.

Wohlk immigrated first to Minnesota and then on to North Dakota, settling near Ryder in 1902 among the earliest homesteaders in the locality. He was married to Mae Frederickson, with whom he had five sons—Walter, Adolph, Ernest, Soren, and Herman. Then in 1912 Mae died giving birth to another boy, Lawrence, who also died at birth. There is an albumen studio photograph of the widower, Gust, with all five of his sons, the two youngest boys on his lap. Gust subsequently remarried.

The centennial history of Ryder simply says, “On March 16, 1920, Adolph, Ernest, Sorn and Herman perished in a snow storm on their way home from school.” Older brother Walter was sick that day, and the four brothers were the only pupils who came to school. They turned around started for home with a team and sled, but the horses played out about three-quarters of a mile from the house. Adolph bundled up his younger brothers and left them on the sled while he tried to make it home for help; he fell and froze to death about a quarter-mile short of safety.

Father Gust went out looking for his boys and found poor Adolph first. Hours later he found the sled, covered with snow. The Forum reported of the three younger boys, “They had been buried by the snow, and their bodies were shoveled out by the father into whose home the storm carried such a crushing blow.”

-Tom Isern

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