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Lessons of cruel spring storms through history stick with you

Late-winter blizzards are most cruel, Mychal Wilmes says.

Agweek April blizzard
Cattle in Rhame, North Dakota, during a mid-April 2022 blizzard.
Contributed / Trevor Steeke
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The national news media, which has been accused from time to time of ignoring issues important to rural America, has been drawn to two agricultural calamities.

The first is bird flu , which has killed millions of turkeys and chickens across the Midwest. The reporting warns that egg and meat prices will increase sharply because of the outbreak.

The April blizzard that dumped near-record snow and brought punishing winds to North Dakota may not impact beef prices much but has taken an emotional toll on ranchers.

Late-winter blizzards are most cruel.

Many remember the March 22, 1966, storm that lasted three days, dumping 30 inches of snow along with 70 mph wins. The North Dakota Extension Service estimated that more than 130,000 head of livestock died from exposure and from collapsed barn roofs.


mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

The Armistice Day storm of Nov. 11, 1940, was also horrible. Temperatures reached 50 degrees F and skies were blue when the day began. Harvest was in full swing, and non-farmers in Minnesota began the day duck hunting. When the storm was over, 154 people died across Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, and thousands of cattle and more than 1 million turkeys perished.

It's been said that hard times reveal a person’s true character. That was the case with North Dakota rancher and New York-based tenderfoot Teddy Roosevelt. Born to wealthy New York parents, Roosevelt was a sickly child. Convinced that fresh air would make him stronger, he left for the Dakotas in the 1880s.

The buffalo herds that roamed the Northern Plains were gone by then and replaced by cattle. The booming industry had helped fuel an economic boon across the country.

Roosevelt purchased Maltese Cross Ranch in the Badlands and then added Elkhorn Ranch. He also led the local cattlemen’s association and helped track down rustlers, among other duties.

His ranches prospered until the winter of 1886-87, when weather-caused problems ruined the cattle industry and helped plunge the nation into a financial depression.

The summer of 1886 was hot and dry, and the grasslands were ruinously overgrazed. Ranchers had little feed on hand, and disaster befell the herds when the winter was much colder than normal.

Temperatures reached 41 degrees below zero and many cattle froze where they stood, while other starving livestock roamed Dakota towns where they ate tar paper off houses and anything else they could swallow.

More than 80% of Northern Plains cattle died before winter was over. Financial losses convinced Roosevelt he wasn’t meant to be a rancher — though his love for the Badlands never wavered and lessons learned there were not forgotten.


Roosevelt remained a maverick. The New York Republican establishment didn’t quite know what to do with the rabble-rousing upstart who challenged them. They decided they’d get him out of the way by picking him as running mate of presidential candidate William McKinley. The strategy backfired when McKinley was assassinated.

Roosevelt said the lessons learned from his ranching days helped him to break up the powerful trusts that controlled many industries. His reforms inspired political opponents to reject him. He later ran and lost a presidential run on the Bull Moose ticket.

Roosevelt is credited with establishing the national park system. If you get the opportunity, visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora.

Oh, his name is linked to another American icon.

Roosevelt had no luck on a guided 1902 hunting trip. The guide was appalled that he hadn’t had any success, so he tied a young bear to a tree so Roosevelt could shoot it. Teddy was disgusted at the unfair play and refused to kill it.

A nationally known cartoonist depicted the scene in a newspaper. The owners of a New York City business soon thereafter created a few stuffed bears that quickly sold out. The popularity of Teddy bears continues to this day.

Roosevelt appreciated the beauty of watching cattle graze on lush grass, and he learned the steely determination of ranchers who dealt with weather most cruel.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

Opinion by Mychal Wilmes
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