It was called “The Children’s Blizzard.” A powerful, quick-moving snowstorm that blasted the American Midwest on January 12, 1888. It was one of the deadliest blizzards in the nation’s history; actual numbers are unknown, but it’s estimated at least 200 people were killed, with as many as 100 in Nebraska alone. Sadly, the storm earned its awful name because it struck without warning during a school day, trapping many children in deep snowdrifts as they fled home from rural schoolhouses.
There would have been 13 more deaths if not for Minnie Mae Freeman.
Freeman was a 19-year-old schoolteacher in Mira Valley,, Nebraska. She roomed in a farmhouse about a mile away from Midvale School, where she taught. Freeman grew up in Nebraska, part of one of the earliest families to settle there. Help was often non-existent, or at the very best, a day or more away for settlers living in rural outposts without much infrastructure. Freeman was taught to be self-reliant and she greatly respected the power of winter storms as they blew south from Canada’s frigid central plains. Skills that saved lives that January day.
The storm’s death toll was probably as high as it was because it was preceded by unseasonably pleasant weather. Though there’d been snow in recent days, the morning of January 12 was a balmy 40 degrees with clear skies. Freeman was outside with the school kids when she spotted a sharp blue line above the horizon with a steel gray band beneath it—a storm pattern called a “blue norther,” greatly feared because they struck quickly and ferociously. Freeman ushered the children into the sod schoolhouse and hoped the storm would pass quickly.
Within minutes, fierce winds were pummeling the schoolhouse and horizontally driven snow was smashing against the windows. Freeman took stock of their supplies: there was a small coal-burning stove with plenty of coal, but because of the pleasant weather that morning, the kids weren’t dressed for waiting out a blizzard in a drafty room. When a powerful gust ripped the door off, Freeman grabbed a roll of twine and tied herself and the children together in a line. She knew they couldn’t stay in the school much longer and when the roof was blown off exposing them all to temperatures that had dropped to twenty below, Freeman decided they had to make for the farmhouse a mile away.
She couldn’t see the farmhouse, but she walked there every day when leaving school so she knew the direction to take. Freeman gathered her strength, told the children to bundle together for warmth, and pressed them all on into whiteout conditions.
As across the state people were trapped and succumbed to the cold, Freeman led her terrified band through knee-deep snow, toward an uncertain fate, praying to see the roofline of the farmhouse swing into view. After a time it did, and Freeman pushed the kids inside where they waited out the worst of the weather.
The next day, worried parents began arriving to collect their children. Every single one had survived because of Freeman.
In the coming weeks and months, she became a regional hero. A wax likeness was made and toured around the Midwest, with swings through the urban centers to the east. She apparently received dozens of marriage proposals through the mail. Songs were written, most famously, “Thirteen Were Saved; Or Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.” Her legend grew, and the nickname “The Fearless Maid” stuck.
Freeman did marry, though none of her suitors by mail, and spent the rest of her life as a woman’s rights activist, eventually settling with her family in Chicago. She died in 1943. There is a mural of Freeman painted on the Nebraska State Capitol. An episode of Little House on the Prairie was based on her rescue of the children. Though, she never sought out fame or felt comfortable being lauded. “Too much has already been said of an act of simple duty,” she told the Omaha Press.
Words by Justin Housman