100 years ago, North Dakota teen died saving her siblings

Tracy Briggs
Forum News Service

CENTER, N.D. — Darrin Vogel, of Bismarck, N.D., remembers clearly the day in the ‘80s when his grandmother gave him a record album from North Dakota folk singer/songwriter Chuck Suchy.

“An actual record album, so you know it was a long time ago,” he says with a laugh. “She gave it to all of us in the family.”

It wasn’t that Darrin’s grandma was lacking in gift-giving ideas. She just really wanted her grandchildren to hear Suchy’s tune, “The Story of Hazel Miner,” not just because the ballad is haunting and melodic, but because it tells the story of her husband, Emmet, and the day that changed their family forever.

One hundred years ago March 15, Hazel Miner sacrificed her life to save Emmet and a younger sister from a horrific surprise blizzard that struck the North Dakota prairie.

“I think about it all the time,” Vogel says. “If she hadn’t saved my grandpa that day, none of us would be here.”

Deceptive March weather

The story of Hazel Miner begins on a Monday morning in Center. Like she did most weekday mornings, 15-year-old Hazel hitched the family mare, Maude, to a sleigh to head out to school 2 miles from home. She climbed aboard, along with her younger siblings, 11-year-old Emmet and 8-year-old Myrdith.

It had been a beautiful weekend in western North Dakota with temperatures close to 60 degrees. The winter snow was melting and puddling all around them.

“The key here was it was very, very warm, so that morning when people were out and about, yeah, the weather had changed in the morning, but it hadn’t really changed yet. So no one in that era knew what was coming,” said Daryl Ritchison, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network.

What was coming was one of the state’s 10 worst blizzards of the 20th century, and one that would cost Hazel her life.

The weather worsens

After arriving at the small country school, the Miner children joined their classmates in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “America the Beautiful.”

Years later, a grown-up Emmet would recall that the weather was “fairly nice” that morning, but by noon or so, he says the winds began to howl, and rain that had been falling quickly turned to blinding snow. Fathers were called to bring their children home.

William Miner saddled up his horse, Kit, and arrived at the school. Emmet recalled that he, Hazel and Myrdith climbed into the sleigh and covered themselves with blankets, while their father went back to the school’s shelter to get Kit so he could hitch him to the sled along with Maude. But in the time it took William to get Kit, Maude somehow got spooked and took off with the children on board. When William arrived at the school’s gate and saw the sleigh gone, he figured the children left for home without him. But in fact, because of the blinding snow, the horse got turned around, and despite Hazel’s best efforts, the sleigh went off the road, tipping over into a coulee of slush.

Hazel was soaking wet up to her waist. Emmet later recalled his sister telling him, “My shoes are full of water.”

All three children worked to correct the sleigh, but they were outmatched by the frigid temperatures and 70 mph wind gusts.

Calling out a search party

When William came home to wife Blanche and youngest son Howard and saw Hazel, Emmet and Myrdith had not made it, he immediately called neighbors to help him search. It’s estimated about 40 people faced the blizzard head on to find the children. They worked all night until the search had to be called off.

“You have to imagine with so many of these blizzards these days, you get into your car and you might experience a whiteout for a few seconds,” Ritchison says. “But with this storm out there in the open, it was just a continuous whiteout all night long.”

Staying put

So what had become of Hazel, Emmet and Myrdith? Unable to get the sleigh back on its runners, the three children opted to stay put and use the sled for shelter. Hazel found two blankets and a robe and wrapped the children up. However, the high winds kept blowing the robe off Emmet and Myrdith, so Hazel chose to lay her body on top of it.

“She just kind of fell on top of us,” Emmet later said.

Later in the night, as the temperatures dipped even lower, Hazel reportedly unbuttoned her coat. Still wearing it, she opened it up and spread it open over her brother and sister. Emmet and Myrdith insisted she share the robes and blankets, but she told them there wasn’t room and she feared her soaking wet clothing would just make them colder.

She made them promise to stay awake by singing songs, telling stories and saying the Lord’s Prayer.

Emmet recalled later that Hazel’s talking slowed in the early morning hours, then she began groaning and, finally, she was silent. Emmet knew she was dead.

In a 1963 interview with the Bismarck Tribune, he recalled the sounds of the night.

“All night long we could hear a dog barking not far away,” Emmet said, “But nobody came. The old horse stood there all night long, hitched to our tipped-over jumper. His nose and eyes froze shut and he banged his head against the sled once in a while, but he never tried to move away.”

It turns out the Miner children were only about 200 yards from that farmhouse where the dog barked. They were even closer to huge bails of hay, which also would have provided warmth.

But as fate would have it, they didn’t find that warmth. They were discovered by the search party by the afternoon of March 16, about 25 hours after they originally set off for home.

They found Hazel frozen to death, but Emmet and Myrdith, though frostbitten and shaken, would recover.

Hazel’s story lives on

The March 15-16 blizzard claimed the lives of 34 North Dakotans caught off guard by the surprise storm. Another tragic story involved the death of four young brothers in the Minot area. But it was Hazel’s story that captivated the nation. It made national headlines for years to come.

The community of Center placed a monument in her honor that reads, “In memory of Hazel Miner. To the dead a tribute, to the living a memory, to posterity an inspiration.”

Mandan native and retired Bismarck school teacher Kevin Kremer was so taken by Hazel’s story he wrote a book about her entitled “Angel of the Prairie.”

Over the years, he’s visited classrooms around the United States that use the book as part of its curriculum to learn about life on the prairie.

“I’ve had emails and thank you notes from all over the country,” Kremer says. “Oh my gosh! It’s been unbelievable.”

The book is available for sale on Amazon, but Kremer has also made it available as a free download.

“I just wanted to make sure there’s no excuse not to know this story.”

It’s certainly a story Darrin Vogel thought about as he attended a ceremony on March 16 in Center to remember his great aunt. Joining him in a tour of where Hazel lived and died were his sisters and some cousins, one of whom gave birth to a baby girl, named Hazel, in October. (Vogel says, in a twist of fate, baby Hazel came home from the hospital in the middle of a huge blizzard.)

Hazel Miner’s legacy lives on in a family that still holds her close in their heart a century later.

“I’m just proud of the whole thing,” Vogel says. “She’s amazing for what she did.”

Hazel’s mother Blanche says the night her three children spent outside in the cold, she drifted off to sleep and dreamed Hazel (seen in this photo) came to her and said, “Mama, I was cold, but I’m warm now.” Hazel died sometime between March 15 and 16th, 1920, protecting her siblings from the wind and snow.