Summer of 1936 brought heat and grief

Published 10:15 am Monday, July 11, 2016

By Mark Steil

MPR News/90.1 FM

Eighty years ago last week, the weather was killing hundreds of Minnesotans and thousands across the Midwest. Desert-hot air scorched crops and forests. Adding to the suffering that summer, Minnesota lost a popular and effective governor to cancer.

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All this brought yet more economic and political stress to a state desperate to escape the worst of the Great Depression.

In the drought-stricken ’30s, dust storms would block out the sun, cities struggled to find enough water for their residents and pastors led their congregations in prayers for rain. But when the calendar flipped to July of 1936, Clifford Ogdahl of Glenwood said it was as if all that hardship was just the opening act for the main event.

“I never forget that year,” said Ogdahl. “It was hot. The hottest year I remember. And I’m 92 years old.”

Ogdahl said it was brutal in the sun, and pure misery at night in stuffy houses with no air conditioning. Day after day, temperatures climbed to 100 degrees or more.

Moorhead set an all-time state record with 114, the Twin Cities topped 100 degrees eight times in nine days, and even Duluth saw highs of 100, 102 and 106.

John Handeen, 91, of Montevideo was an 11-year-old farm boy that July. He said farm hands basically had to abandon field work during the hottest midday hours, but keeping the farm’s main source of power going created a demanding new chore.

“We used to have to take barrels of water out to the field,” said Handeen. “And every horse got a pail of water throwed on them, to cool them off.”

Even now, 80 years later, Handeen can point to changes in the land from the dust storms the strong dry winds created. He walked toward a fence line where blowing dirt accumulated like snow drifts in winter and pointed.

“This is all drifted in sand here,” said Handeen. “I’d say at least 3 feet higher than the surrounding ground.

Farmers were accustomed to working in Minnesota’s often soggy summer heat, but 1936 was far worse. The 100-degree temperatures were a deadly threat. Handeen remembers the fate of a hired hand on a nearby farm.

“The water didn’t come around in time I guess and he just got too hot,” said Handeen. “And they found him dead, laying in the field.”

Estimates put the death toll at more than 700 people in Minnesota during the July 1936 heat wave, and 5,000 across the U.S.

The weather put pressure on politicians to provide some kind of drought relief, but a hero to both urban and rural working Minnesotans was sidelined.

Farmer-Labor party Gov. Floyd B. Olson, whose rousing rhetoric could inspire hope in frightening times, was finishing his third two-year term. But as the heat wave devastated crops and broiled city residents, the 44-year-old governor was mortally ill.