Cruel and Unusual

You think winter in Minnesota sucks? Friend, you don't know anything about winter in Minnesota.

Admit it: Like most Minnesotans, you think our long, cold winters have made you a tougher and more virtuous person. This is a leading article of faith here. It lies at the core of Minnesota's identity. Exposure to an Alberta clipper, the magical thinking goes, works as some sort of anesthetic on the id. It protects you from the slide into turpitude and indolence that is characteristic of the warmer climes. It strengthens your resolve and purpose. And, most importantly, it promotes stoicism and common sense--those greatest of Midwestern virtues. After all, without those qualities, how can you possibly get the car unstuck from the snowdrift?

Perhaps you don't really believe this. Even so, you probably still do all you can to cultivate the notion. Say it's mid-January. You are on the telephone with a friend in California who says, "Things are great here"--at the moment, the lucky bastard is in the backyard in Malibu, playing horseshoes in stocking feet, sipping a fruity cocktail--and then asks, "So, how's it going in Minnesota?"

What are you going to say? Will you reply truthfully that you are awfully happy that you signed up for digital cable, because it is horrid outdoors and you haven't left the house of your own volition for six weeks and now you have Cinemax, so you didn't really see the need? Or will you say that you really enjoy a nose full of frozen snot? That you consider grime-blackened mountains of plowed snow things of beauty?

Photo by Elmer and Tenney of a snow blockade in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881
Photo by Elmer and Tenney of a snow blockade in southern Minnesota, March 29, 1881

Of course not. Instead, like generations of Minnesotans before you, you will claim ruggedness. Perhaps you will do this subtly. Maybe you observe in passing that we Minnesotans actually drive our cars on frozen lakes--even though you know it is much less daring and impressive than it sounds. Truth be told, driving on lake ice in the middle of winter is not much different from driving in the snow-covered parking lot of a bankrupt mall. Or maybe you will find some graceful way to make mention of some of the frighteningly low temperatures recorded here. (Helpful reminder: The 60 below mark was set in Tower in the winter of 1996. And, no, you weren't there). And if you are feeling especially bold, you might even invoke the most cherished component of the Myth of Minnesota Exceptionalism: Sure, it's cold here, but that keeps the riffraff out.

Of course, there is lots of riffraff in Minnesota. You can confirm this with a visit to any of our many prisons, sports venues, government offices, or churches. Climatologically speaking, it is true that Minnesota winters are nasty, brutish, and long. But if you care to be honest, you have to admit something else: The hardships of the Minnesota winter have been so softened by technology, by the designs of our cities and suburbs and cars and homes, by our colossal commitment to making the Great Indoors ever more cushy, as to be rendered all but unrecognizable.

What is true is this: In the bad old days, winters here used to be very, very hard. The season did more than merely bollix up the daily commute (the true epicenter of most Minnesotans' grudge against winter). Once upon a time, winter meant more than an extra 15 minutes stuck in traffic in a car with heated seats, a CD player, and a good excuse for getting to work late.

Consider the Minnesota of the early 19th century, a Minnesota that was not yet a state but rather a forlorn outpost inhabited by only the Dakota, the Ojibwe, fur traders, soldiers at Fort Snelling, and, later, the first waves of settlers. Little House on the Prairie notwithstanding, the Minnesota winters of the 19th century were defined mainly by epic suffering and existential horror. It's all there in the historical record--the incidents of starvation, cannibalism, and madness.

In a February 1818 letter, Duncan Graham, a trader with the Hudson Bay Company who was stationed at Big Stone Lake, stated the horrors of the frontier winter as plainly as anyone before or since. "I have experienced more trouble, anxiety, and danger since the 18th of October last than in the whole course of my life before and I would not undergo as much again for all the beaver that went out of Hudson Bay in 10 years," Graham wrote. "I am in hopes to go straight to heaven as I have every reason to think that I have already been to purgatory.... I have given the place where I am the name of Hell on Earth as I can find no other name more becoming it."

So read on. Say a prayer for the dead. And stop your bitching once and for all, because this used to be a really, really hard place to spend a winter. It isn't anymore.



Naturally, the risk of freezing to death was a major concern for early Minnesotans. Reports of frostbite and self-amputation are common in the historic record. Mind-bending suffering seems to be the defining feature of the winter experience. The contemporary historian Bruce White relates a story of a fur trader named Charles Oakes who, suffering from frozen feet, arrived at a particularly horrific frontier-style remedy for his problem: "He asked for an awl, punctured his feet full of holes, and had the men pour them full of brandy. This, while it was excruciatingly painful, both at the time and afterwards, saved him his feet."

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