Flashback Friday: Farm family spent weeks at a time snowbound 50 years ago

March 01, 2019 06:52 PM

The harsh conditions this winter have certainly brought back a lot of memories for Marvin Heidebrink.

Specifically, memories of 1969 when the now 90-year-old and his family were living on a southwestern Minnesota dairy farm.

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That winter, heavy snowfall - and the drifting snow that inevitably followed - kept the Heidebrinks stuck on the farm for more than 30 days throughout the course of January and February, sometimes for stretches of a week or longer.

And, by the time a Minneapolis Tribune reporter profiled the family and its plight in early March, they had all grown a little stir-crazy.

"We were pretty cooped up out there a lot of the time," Marvin recalls. "You didn't have the type of (snow removal) equipment they have today. And the snow got so high in the ditches that you couldn't even turn the tractor to dump it anywhere. The milk truck couldn't get out to us very often. They'd try and pull in through a field if they could find a place where there wasn't as much snow. But we were pretty isolated."

"It was quite an experience. We still talk about it a lot."

A 1/4-mile long driveway separated the farm from a township road that wasn't able to be cleared of snow very often itself. From there, it was another 3/4-of-a-mile to the nearest main road, meaning family members often had to contend with a full mile of heavy snowdrifts blocking them from the outside world.

The snowdrifts got so high that, at times, they reached the roof of their home.

"It was great for me," remembers Doug Heidebrink, the youngest of the family's three children still residing at home that winter. "But I was only 5 years old at the time. The afternoons would be nice. And, I can remember the snow getting so high that I was able to climb out on the roof and slide right down onto the snowbanks."

For the family's other two children still at home - 13-year-old Monte and 16-year-old Chris - the isolation proved more irritating. They were missing school and other activities. Monte was a junior high basketball player and Chris was a cheerleader and part of a one-act play at Ruthton High School.

"I was a junior in high school then, and there were things like cheerleading practice, class plays and basketball games that I was missing out on," the now Chris Turok recalls. "Missing week after week after week of stuff like that, which a teenager sees as pretty important, took a toll on me."

The family's oldest son, Rollie, was then in his first year out of the house, separated from his parents and siblings by walls of snow, though he tried to help where he could.

"I remember he brought groceries out to us when he was able to get through, and other things like that," Monte said. "But it was tough on him, too."

It was Marvin who had to keep the farm running, sometimes traversing snowdrifts of eight-to-10 feet just to reach the barn and tend to the cows. His children recall times he strung rope between the house and barn to find his way back-and-forth because visibility was so poor in the blowing snow.

"We had heat and we had plenty of food," Doug said. "But my dad had to keep milking the cows to keep things running normal. And the milkman couldn't get out to us very often, so we had dairy milk that got wasted."

Marvin recalls a water tank being slid a half-mile across a field to give the family additional storage space. But the cows weren't able to get outside. 

And there was a lot of ... ummm ... waste that had to be disposed of.

"We'd scoop it up and throw it on a pile outside the door," he said. "You just had to do the best you could under those conditions."

His wife Caroline's sister had a baby in early January. But, despite the fact she lived mere miles away, the family wasn't able to meet the new arrival for months.

"I was designated as the godmother," Chris said, "and I don't think there was a baptism until well into March. We just couldn't get to church on Sundays."

But Chris said the ordeal ultimately brought the family even closer together.

"You work together to do what you need to do to help get everybody through it," she said. "There's definitely a sense of responsibility you feel toward one another in a situation like that."

Marvin and his wife left the farm in 1984 and now reside in Holland (the town in Minnesota, not the country). Their children also now live in locations where delays getting out after a heavy snowfall last only hours, if they occur at all.

Certainly not for days and weeks at a time.

"We were just talking about that," Marvin said. "It's been a pretty bad winter. But, we thank God we're living here now. It's not like it was back then."

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Frank Rajkowski

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