Flashback Friday: Dangerous Cold Slammed State in 1963

Highway 10 in Coon Rapids near the Coon Rapids Shopping Center in January, 1963 Photo: Photo by Norton & Peel; Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Highway 10 in Coon Rapids near the Coon Rapids Shopping Center in January, 1963

January 19, 2018 10:26 AM

It's been 55 years, but Larry Stoesz still vividly remembers the cold snap that hit Minnesota and the rest of the Upper Midwest in January 1963.

After all, it nearly cost him his life.

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"That was a cold January," Stoesz remembered, who as a 17-year-old was stranded more than 10 hours in a frigid car outside Mountain Lake after the front end of his vehicle nosed off a county road and became stuck in the ditch.

"It was below zero a lot. And the wind chills were way down there."

Indeed.

In the Twin Cities, the temperature plunged to zero or below on Jan. 19 and remained there through Jan. 23 - a stretch of five days.

That ties five other such stretches (1994, 1970, 1936, 1897 and 1895) for the fourth-longest prolonged cold snap in the metro area. The record is seven days, set from Jan. 1-7 in 1912.

Temperatures dropped as low as -26 in the Twin Cities on Jan. 21, and even lower elsewhere. International Falls recorded a low of -38. Hibbing checked in at -33, Bemidji at -31, Duluth at -30 and St. Cloud at -27.

And the next day wasn't much warmer. The low in the Twin Cities hit -24. International Falls saw a low of -36, Bemidji a low of -34 and Duluth a low of -28.

It was still that cold the following morning, as the Rochester Post-Bulletin reported.

"Many Rochester area residents again today left their balky cars parked in their driveways and rode to work with luckier neighbors whose automobile engines turned over," read an article in the newspaper's Jan. 23 edition. "It was a frigid -28 just before dawn."

"That's pretty uncommon," KSTP Chief Meteorologist Dave Dahl said. "We get cold stretches around this time. The middle of January is the coldest time of the year on average. But those kinds of temperatures are pretty extreme."

Which brings us back to Stoesz, who was 17 at the time. One late evening during the cold snap, he left Mountain Lake to stay with his sister's children at the family farm about eight or nine miles away.

He was less than a mile from the farm when his car got stuck.

"I couldn't see where I was going," he recalls. "The snow was blowing so hard. It wasn't snowing that much, but it was so windy that I couldn't see the road. I tried to stop, but my front end nosed in just enough that I couldn't get out."

He was familiar with his location and said he thought about trying to walk to a nearby farmhouse. But after going only about 10 to 20 feet, he was already having difficulty seeing the headlights from his car behind him.

So he decided to stay put.

"I figured if I walked someplace and got lost they wouldn't ever find me," he said. "I'd be done. So I stayed in the car. It was a (1952) Plymouth with a six-cylinder engine, and even with the car running, it wouldn't stay warm enough to throw much heat out of the heater. I bundled up in a blanket. But my feet had gotten full of snow when I got out of the car. So I had damp feet through all this too."

He was finally found around 10 a.m. the next morning thanks to a search party that had been formed when his nephews called around to try and locate him after he failed to arrive the night before.

"When they came to get me, I couldn't stand," Stoesz said. "My legs were frozen from about the knees down. When I got to the hospital, my body temperature was still only around 95 degrees, even after the warm car ride in. I lost some skin off my feet. But I didn't lose any feet or anything. The doctor said the only reason I didn't was that I was in sports. I was playing basketball at the time and I was in pretty good shape."

He was fortunate, leaving the hospital a couple days later with no lasting damage. Others were not. According to a story in the Minneapolis Tribune, 67-year-old Pauline Kain of St. Paul froze to death in the snow hear her house. 

Also according to the Tribune, a search party found the frozen body of Richard Neubeck, a 47-year-old farmer, near Tolley, N.D., after he apparently collapsed while walking to a farmhouse after his car had gone off a county road.

But some were lucky. That included Vikings head coach Norm Van Brocklin, whom the Tribune reported was rescued with an ice fishing buddy on Lake Mille Lacs in a snowstorm and temperatures of 25 below.

The cold snap that month was actually global in scope, as a report from the U.S. Weather Bureau attested.

"In Europe, it was one of the coldest months ever recorded, resulting in shortages of coal and food due to paralysis of land and water transport as snowdrifts blocked roads and ports, and waterways were blocked by ice or were completely frozen over," the report read.

"Shortages of water and gas also occurred as a result of damage by frost to exposed pipelines in normally milder climates. Many died or were hospitalized from exposure to the cold."

In the Twin Cities, it was part of a winter that still ranks as the 14th coldest on record. From December of 1962 through February of 1963, the average temperature was just 11.2 degrees.

The coldest winter was that of 1874-75 when the average temperature was just 4 degrees.

The only two colder winters since 1962-63 were the winters of 1978-79 (average temperature, 9.4) and 2013-14 (average temperature, 9.7).

"That's still pretty cold when you consider how far those records go back," Alexandra Keclik, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Twin Cities, said. "To rank 14th all-time means it was a really cold winter."

One those who were there still remember.

"My feet, to this day, all these years later, still get cold pretty quickly," Stoesz, who now lives in Hanska and runs his own trucking company, said.

"I've moved past it for the most part. But once in awhile it still comes back to me. Especially when it's really cold or it gets stormy, and I hear about other people getting stranded in cars. Then I'll think about it again."

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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