Duck hunting had been good in the fall of 1940. That year, Nov. 11, Armistice Day -- renamed Veterans Day in 1954 -- fell on a Monday, so hunters were out taking advantage of a three-day weekend.
The weather looked mild that morning, so hunters from Prairie Island to Winona headed out onto islands in the Mississippi River and occupied their favorite blinds. Wooden decoys floated in the waters in front of them, waiting for the ducks to fly in.
Owen Redman and Arnold Vogel of Red Wing decided they would work until noon, then go duck hunting after lunch. They showed up at Colvill Park at 1 p.m., and found the weather was quickly changing.
“It was starting to spit snow,” Redman said in a 1990 article in the Republican Eagle. “We got down to the river and we could see the whitecaps. We looked at each other. Not a word was spoken. We turned around and went back to work.”
They were lucky. By that time, scores of other hunters were already on islands as the winds suddenly increased to 50 miles per hour and the temperature dropped from the 40s to 10 degrees. Many hunters left quickly and made their way back to their homes, but others, thinking the storm would pass, remained in their blinds.
Dan Kukowski from Winona had left home that morning, ridden his bicycle across the bridge to a spot on the Wisconsin side where he and some other hunters had locked their boats along the shore. He paddled his canoe to an island where he found other hunters.
As the winds changed, the hunters were excited because the ducks were flocking in. The shooting was good, but when the temperature dropped so quickly, hunters were forced to burn their wooden decoys to keep warm. The scene was rapidly turning tragic.
“I saw one friend sitting against a tree,” Kukowski recalled in a 1985 issue of “The Minnesota Volunteer.” “He was frozen to death. I had seen him that morning. He told me he was going hunting and fishing both, because the weather was so nice.”
Like many others, Kukowski was dressed in light clothing. With the storm worsening, he felt he would freeze if he stayed on the island, so at 4:30 p.m., he got in his canoe and headed for shore. Another friend on the shore recognized Kukowski’s boat bouncing around in the waves and watched him struggle. Kukowski finally reached shore far down from where he had originally crossed, and his friend took him home.
Near Prairie Island, the scene was similar. Abe Kuhns, who lived in a farmhouse on Sturgeon Lake, had been hunting that day with a man named Brestkamp from St. Paul. The pair had stayed out well into the storm, but as night approached, they headed for home. As Kuhns rowed along the island, he saw five men with a gasoline-powered boat. They said they intended to stay, but Kuhns persuaded them to leave. They later reported that it took them five hours to travel one mile to safety.
Kuhns continued rowing along the island and came across three more stranded hunters. One hunter got into Kuhns’ boat, and he rowed across the narrow strip of water to shore. There Brestkamp and the hunter got out of the boat, and Kuhns rowed back to the island to get the other hunters and bring them back to shore.
“The real hero of the area was Abe Kuhns,” said Redman. “He rowed across Sturgeon Lake in a flat-bottomed boat. He made six trips across. How he made one is beyond me.”
Farther down the river, Hjalmer Hjermstad, who owned a cruiser, and Game Warden Phil Nordeen, Police Chief Eric Carlson, and Dick Bird took the cruiser out to an island near the head of Lake Pepin and hauled two stranded hunters back to safety.
On the morning of Nov. 12, the Goodhue County Sheriff’s Office noted that 40 to 50 people were still missing. Some of those were eventually accounted for, but at least a dozen hunters’ bodies were found over the ensuing days, and in the end, with car wrecks, stranded travelers, and other situations, the Armistice Day Blizzard left a total of 59 Minnesotans dead.
Although Redman had been in other storms, “I don’t recall one that broke that fast,” he said.