Minnie Freeman and the Schoolhouse Blizzard of 1888

Can anyone in America today imagine not knowing that a big snowstorm was heading his/her way? With instant weather alerts, 24-hour cable and television stations, internet radar, smart phones, etc. the weather is hardly ever a surprise. 

Minnie Freeman (Penney) was an 1885 initiate of the Pi Beta Phi chapter at Methodist Episcopal College of York, Nebraska. I recently ran across this account of her heroic actions in an 1888 Arrow, and it reminded me that I’ve never told her story.

She was a 19 year-old Nebraska teaching in a sod schoolhouse about six miles south of Ord, Nebraska, in an area known as Mira Valley. During a sudden, fierce Nebraska blizzard on January 12, 1888, she saved the lives of 13 of her students by leading them from her schoolhouse to the nearest farm, a mile away. The temperatures, which had been  unseasonable warm when the students walked to school, had dropped substantially, the wind was ranging, and the snow was blinding.

More than 200 people on the Great Plains were killed by that storm called the “Schoolhouse Blizzard,” most of them children who couldn’t get home from school. In 1888, the Song of the Great Blizzard: Thirteen Were Saved or Nebraska’s Fearless Maid, was written in her honor by William Vincent.

Freeman was given a gold medal by the State Education Board, a wax bust of her was exhibited across the country, and she received more than 80 marriage proposals.

The account as it appears in the March 1888 Arrow:

A HEROINE,

The Omaha Herald calls for a medal of honor from the state of Nebraska for Minnie Freeman and THE ARROW seconds the motion. She teaches a school in the vicinity of Ord. When big blizzard of Friday last came along, it blew the door of the school- house off its hinges, and then lifted the roof from the walls. The brave school mistress tied her thirteen young charges together, took the smallest in her arms,

They were blinded and buffeted by the merciless north wind; they were tripped up by the drifts and blown down between times; but they struggled along together, and finally reached a sheltering roof, where the nearest patron of the school lived, to be welcomed from the very jaws of death. It was the pluck and level head of Minnie Freeman that saved those thirteen lives.

Minnie Freeman, Pi Beta Phi

Minnie Freeman, Pi Beta Phi

A poem about Minnie Freeman was written by Flora Lamson, an 1884 initiate of the same chapter. It also appeared it the March 1888 Arrow:

TO MINNIE FREEMAN,

“When e’er a noble deed is wrought,
When e’er is spoken a noble thought,
Our hearts in glad surprise
To higher levels rise.” Longfellow
 
‘the night and the storm fell together,
On prairie and woodland and lea;
And trembling, the mighty snow-tempest
Held out its cold hand toward the sea.
Like the quick, sharp flash of the lightning
The wind swept the streets and the shore;
It wrenched off the roofs and the chimneys;
It burst ‘gainst windows and doors.
Like a savage excited and frenzied,
It surged up the prairies and down;
It screamed the harsh cry of “Destruction!”
O’er cottage and hilltop and town. ‘
‘Twas a night when we all love our shelter
And dare not to venture abroad;
 
When the rider clings close to his charger.
And trusts in the mercy of God.
Oh, cruel and merciless blizzard!
We sons of the pioneer know,
Whenever unfriended we meet you,
That you are our bitterest foe!
You snatch off the forms of our darlings;
You bury them under the snow;
And only the days of the future
Your cruelty ever shall know.
 
But see! Far off in the whirlwind,
A school-house without roof we behold,
The children crouched closely together,
Mute with terror and anguish and cold,
While the fair, girlish form of the teacher
Looks out on the snow-clouds around her
And glances with fear at her fold.
Her sweet face with courage is lighted;
And, taking a wee child in her arms,
A chain of humanity is fastened.
And hastens to brave the alarms.
But look! look! the procession is stumbling.
While trembles the brave, fragile girl;
They struggle ‘mid snow fierce and blinding,
While the merciless winds rise and whirl.
On, on through the storm the chain plunges.
With strength unaccustomed and might.
Till bright through the gloom and fierce storm-clouds
Gleams the home or the children at night.
 
Thank God that whatever the sadness
That seems to cover this world’s feeble sight.
He always provides a deliverer, and
sends us a sweet ray of light.
Let us praise His omnipotent mercy,
Coming down with the clouds from above,
And rescued our Minnie from ruin,
And made her an angel of love.
To Minnie. brave sister Minnie,
Our message of love we unfold;
And our hearts with gladness are throbbing,
As we point to the arrow of gold.
 

Blanche M. Burns, (English), another chapter sister of Minnie Freeman’s, wrote this letter to the Arrow:

We would be glad to add some tribute to the flood of praise that comes from all to our now distinguished sister, Minnie Freeman. Truly, the “tiny cord” has been transform’ed, and is drawing to her and firmly binding many friends. We are proud to claim her as “Our Minnie,” and wish for her that these ties may be strong enough to hold through all the” storms of life” she has to face.

 egp.pe.013

© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2015. All Rights Reserved. If  you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/

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