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The Legend of Minnie Freeman

A few years ago a popular author came out with a popular book titled, The Children’s Blizzard. Credit where due: he effectively captures the catastrophe and trauma that overwhelmed the people of the plains on 12 January 1888. They called it “the children’s blizzard” for the same reason that it seared a deep scar into historical memory — because of the many schoolchildren, from North Dakota down into Oklahoma, who were caught out in the storm, scores perishing, along with their teachers.

The unfortunate thing about the book is that the author assumes a patronizing tone in the conclusion, essentially saying that the Great Plains are not a fit place to live; people never should have come there and thus endangered their children. Well, I read the news, and I am uncertain where this safe place for children, or anyone, is.

The people of the plains had a different response to the children’s blizzard. They grieved, of course, and then they created a legend — the legend of Minnie Freeman, Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.

I believe I have pinpointed the origin of the legend of Minnie Freeman, the public school teacher who led her thirteen pupils from her schoolhouse to safety in a farmhouse. Five days after the blizzard, with catastrophic reports still coming in over the wire, the Omaha Bee published a narrative provided by Mr. J. H. Ager, of Ord, Nebraska — which was near Ms. Freeman’s school at Mira Valley. Ager was a man of some standing, an official of the state board of transportation.

The report was quite factual, although dressed up in a little purple prose by the reporter for the Bee. The setting was a one-room school, to and from which pupils were transported by horse-drawn bus. Thursday the twelfth was a beautiful, clear, uncommonly warm day — in the morning. Oldtimers of the prairies would say, that’s a day to take warning, but it was a new country. The blizzard struck, the storm blew the door off the schoolhouse, and then the roof; there was no bus, and Ms. Miner decided she must lead the children afoot to a farmhouse a little over a half-mile away.

First, she found a coil of twine and connected the kids by threes, with tethers connecting the four trios, and one child, the youngest, left for her to carry in her arms. She shouted encouragement to her charges as she led them through the blinding storm. And they made it, to a farmhouse that was the home of one of the children, and eventually all were welcomed into the arms of their parents.

“Miss Minnie Freeman is a young lady only nineteen years of age,” we read, “and is teaching her first term of school in Mira Valley district.” That statement is a little misleading. In fact, I find from earlier newspaper reports, Ms. Freeman, the well-liked daughter of a businessman in the town of St. Paul, had taught previous terms in another district.

By mid-February newspapers were advertising sheet music for a ballad penned by a popular composer named William Vincent: “Song of the Great Blizzard: Thirteen Were Saved, or, Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.”

Bravely into the storm she led the brave thirteen
God bless the fearless maid — Nebraska’s heroine

People all over the country sang praises to Minne Freeman, and people in Nebraska formed a Blizzard Club to share their commiserations. What became of Ms. Freeman? She got herself a college degree, married a wealthy widower businessman from Fullerton in 1891, became president of the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs, was elected president of the state American Legion auxiliary — and became the first woman member of the Republican National Committee. A fearless maid, indeed.

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