Great Halloween Blizzard of '91? Don't tell us again. OK, tell us

Trick-or-treating during the Halloween blizzard
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous Halloween Blizzard. "These photos were taken in north Minneapolis on the 5200 block of Irving, actually next door to the house I lived in, since we didn't go much further trick or treating," writes Taylor Dahlin of Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Taylor Dahlin

Say, have I ever told you about the time it snowed here in Minnesota on Halloween?

It. Was. Epic!   

Oh, you’ve heard the story before? At least a hundred times? Well, I’m sure you won’t mind if I pull up a chair and tell you about it again anyway, right?

Yes, Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous Halloween Blizzard, a storm so powerful it spawned towering where-were-you tales that have only snowballed in the three decades since.

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“Oh no, we have to brag that, in Duluth, we skied to the grocery store and shoveled for hours to get our vehicles free only to have the plow bury them again,” one person replied to our story callout on MPR News’ Instagram account.

“Minnesotans are proud to be Minnesotan and that storm is a truly Minnesota moment in history,” said another.

However, for those who either weren’t here back then — or who were dragged outside for pictures in tiny snowsuits simply to document the size of snowdrifts — the perpetually retold stories of the ‘91 blizzard can feel glazed over.

"What's happening to the quality of our small talk that not only are we talking about the weather, we're talking about the weather 30 years ago?" MPR News associate producer Aron Woldeslassie said on TPT’s "Almanac."

“I moved here the year AFTER the notorious blizzard and every time I hear the same stories retold, it reminds me of a High School football player who peaked and has to rehash stories of his glory days returning a fumble or backing up the back-up quarterback to feel good about themselves,” one Instagram commenter said.  

“I moved here in 1992. I have heard these stories for 29 long years. It snowed a lot. On Halloween. I get it,” another said, adding the hashtag #getoverit. 

‘Perfect storm’ for memory

People tend to remember distinctive experiences in their lives that are sensory, emotionally positive and bring people together. 

That’s why people who lived through the Halloween Blizzard continue to talk about it 30 years later, said University of St. Thomas psychology professor Greg Robinson-Riegler.

“I liken it to … a ‘perfect storm’ for memory,” said Robinson-Riegler, who researches memory and emotion.  “Everything that would make something memorable was happening at that time.” 

The storm certainly checked those boxes, reinforcing Minnesotans’ self-identity as a hardy people — trick-or-treating through the snow, helping dig out neighbors, swapping stories of wind and drifts.

And it definitely smashed weather records. In the Twin Cities, snow started falling on Halloween morning. By midnight, the storm had dumped 8.2 inches of snow at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, breaking the record for the most snow on that date, fourth-tenths of an inch. 

By the time it was all done three days later, the storm had dumped more than 2 feet of snow in the Twin Cities and 3 feet in Duluth. The North Shore city’s 36.9-inch snowfall set a record at the time as the largest single snowstorm total for Minnesota.

October snow is not an entirely new thing in Minnesota — a snowstorm last year shattered some early season records, but “we don’t get big snows in October very often,” said Ted Krause, a National Weather Service meteorologist in the Twin Cities.

“There just hasn’t been that many blizzards in October in Minnesota,” Krause said. 

The Department of Natural Resources’ State Climatology Office says that “heavy accumulating snow is harder to come by” during the month because the air typically isn’t cold enough yet nor is the ground. And measurable snow on Halloween is itself rare. 

In the Twin Cities, “Since 1872 there's been enough snow to measure only six times: 0.6 in 1884; 0.2 in 1885; 1.4 in 1932; 0.4 in 1954; 0.5 in 1995; and of course 8.2 inches, with the opening round of the Halloween Blizzard in 1991,” according to the climatology office.

So if you trick-or-treated through the snow, shoveled for days or skied through thigh-high snow banks to check on your neighbors, you’re going to remember that, and keep talking about it.

“[That] repetition and rehearsal, the more you tell the story, the stronger it gets, the more likely you are to think of it again,” Robinson-Riegler said. 

‘Part of our childhood story’

A family of three pose for a photo.
Meagan, Magnus and Sean Nelson of south Minneapolis. Meagan and Sean Nelson were both a year old during the 1991 Halloween Blizzard. They recently opened Hoydado Design Co., and made a T-shirt to commemorate the storm's anniversary. Their son is 1 and they're hoping for another blizzard so that "it could be part of his story," Meagan Nelson said.
Courtesy of Meagan and Sean Nelson

Meagan and Sean Nelson of south Minneapolis were both just a year old when the storm hit in ‘91. 

“It’s part of our childhood story, even though we were so young,” Meagan Nelson said. “It’s always a reference point for Halloween growing up.” 

The couple recently launched a design company, Hoydado, and the timing was so that they decided to make and sell a T-shirt in honor of the storm’s 30th anniversary.  

It’s a conversation-starter, whether you love it or hate it, Sean Nelson said. “There’s people on both sides of the fence.” 

Their son, Magnus, is 1 this year, the same age they were when the storm hit three decades ago. They’re almost hoping for another major storm so that Magnus can have his own Halloween Blizzard story to share.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like he’ll get the chance. The Halloween forecast isn’t looking too scary at the moment.

In the meantime, we’ll just say sorry now to all the folks who are going to have to listen to our never-ending stories this week — and for the rest of all time.

“Minnesota, we don’t have a lot of big moments that we like to brag about,” Meagan Nelson said. “But I feel like the Halloween blizzard is sometimes that big historical moment that we get to brag about in the fall.”

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