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1940 Armistice Day Storm: Folklore


Harold Hettrick using a duck call in his blind near Ferryville, WI November 1997.

Photo by Ruth Olson

Communities are made up of groups formed around shared characteristics such as age, gender, family, ethnicity, occupation, recreational interest, religion, belief, neighborhood, or any other of a number of traits. People are part of a group either through choice or assignation. Groups vary in the formality of their self-organization, and each group has a set of traditions that are known and practiced by its members, though the exact knowledge and practice varies between individuals. People are typically part of multiple groups, and so the larger community consists of numerous social groups that intersect informally through members who belong to several, and more formally when the community pulls together for special occasions.

Focus Question

Why were duck hunters one of the cultural groups hardest hit by the storm?

Learning Objectives

  • To understand how a specific cultural group, Upper Mississippi duck hunters, was affected by the Armistice Day storm of 1940.
  • To identify cultural groups within students’ home community that are affected by severe weather

Preparing to Teach this Lesson

This lesson, and the story on which it is based, focuses on duck hunters, a recreational group with informal membership and a shared base of knowledge and practice. The ability of duck hunters along the Upper Mississippi to apply that knowledge was critical during the severe circumstances of the Armistice Day Storm. The personal experience narrative told by Harold Hettrick refers to some of that shared knowledge, some of the values core to this group, and how they intersected in life-threatening ways on November 11, 1940.

This lesson, and the story on which it is based, focuses on duck hunters, a recreational group with informal membership and a shared base of knowledge and practice. The ability of duck hunters along the Upper Mississippi to apply that knowledge was critical during the severe circumstances of the Armistice Day Storm. The personal experience narrative told by Harold Hettrick refers to some of that shared knowledge, some of the values core to this group, and how they intersected in life-threatening ways on November 11, 1940.

Suggested Activities

Introducing Severe Weather Stories

List with your students the different types of severe weather they may have experienced or heard about (fog, thunder storm, ice, blizzard, tornado, flood, etc). Invite several students to tell of an experience with severe weather. Which elements are especially notable? The wind? How the sky looked? The way they felt, physically or mentally? Have students write a personal experience narrative about a severe weather event that they experienced. (Extended version – Have students share their written story with a peer editor who will give suggestions for improvements. Have students revise their stories and send them to Wisconsin Weather Stories for publishing on the website.)

Introducing the Armistice Day Story

A. Use any of these resources to introduce the storm and its social effects to the class:

  • Coping with Cold features video clips from Wisconsin Public Television's Wisconsin Stories series. Listen to Jean Lachner's on the 1940 Armistice Day Blizzard clip. .
  • “Heroic Men Saved Many Lives in Middle West ’s Worst Storm" is a1960 article from the Milwaukee Journal Green Sheet that discusses effects of the 1940 storm throughout Wisconsin.
  • Armistice Day Storm Came as a Surprise from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram details the storm's effects on the Eau Claire area
  • The Armistice Day Storm looks at the storm's effects on shipping and ferry services on Lake Michigan, from the Lake Michigan Car Ferries Service. Includes both historical and narrative accounts.
  • “Winds of Hell” is a Minnesota Public Radio story on the Armistice Day storm’s effects on Minnesota. Includes a slide show of the storm using images from the Minnesota Historical Society.

B. Have the class listen to Harold Hettrick’s personal experience narrative “Armistice Day Storm, November 11, 1940.” (WAV) (MP3)

Use the following information to discuss the storm with your students:

Hettrick’s account, as well as many of the others included above, focuses specifically on duck hunters. There are several reasons why duck hunters, as a group, were so affected by the storm. Armistice Day (now known as Veteran’s Day) is November 11 and commemorates the end of World War I. A national holiday, many people had the day off from work, freeing them up to do some hunting. The day dawned mild, with no warning of the coming storm.

Some hunters were happy, and perhaps even anxious for the distraction that hunting offered. War loomed on the horizon. Two months prior, Congress had passed the nation’s first peacetime draft. FDR was elected six days before the storm on a platform of no involvement in “foreign wars, except in case of attack,” but draft-age men and their WWI-era fathers were likely apprehensive nonetheless. A day of hunting seemed a chance to forget their worries.

"Hunters were going for their limits, which were big limits in those days. They didn’t pay much attention to the ferocity of the wind until all of a sudden it was 4 o’clock (when hunting closed for the day).”
As important as escape from worldly concerns was, most hunters were probably hunting primarily because they loved the sport and secondarily as a way to enhance their larders. For many, hunting was and continues to be an important source of table fare. In 1940, the Great Depression was fresh in the collective memory and the uncertainty of another world war combined with the certainty of a Wisconsin winter prompted hunters to shoot while the shooting was good.

The approaching storm only made the hunting better. Increased cloud cover leads to ducks moving more freely. Hunters remain better hidden without sun glaring on their gun barrels or throwing their shadows. High winds, rain and sleet lead ducks to seek protection in backwaters, coves, or the lee side of islands, which means more ducks are concentrated in fewer areas. Experienced hunters will be in those places too. As the weather remains unsettled, ducks fly closer to the ground in the less turbulent lower air. Skilled hunters adapt and relocate according to the changing weather, just as do the ducks. Such opportunities as impending storms provide treasured opportunities for hunters to practice their craft. It is a thrill and a testament to a hunter’s skill to fill out a limit, prompting them to stay out until closing time, ironically despite and because of the threatening weather.

"But that’s one of the causes of concern with water and the cold time of year when the weather is really building up a blow, which every duck hunter wants. He waits years to get the right blow so he can have good hunting. But there’s the hazard factor….But the hazard doesn’t stop people, it should just make them more careful.”
The waterfowl hunters want a storm while at the same time they fear it. Like anglers who have experienced the phenomenal fishing that can occur as air pressure drops rapidly before a summer thunderstorm, the very conditions the hunters hope for can turn horrifying if there is no safe haven, or if they lack the equipment to survive such conditions.

As Hettrick points out, hunters in 1940 didn’t have the benefits of certain technologies that today’s hunters do. The broadcloth or canvas clothes they wore offered little protection from the storm, soaking up the rain, sleet and crashing waves before freezing solid in the icy winds. There were no cell phones, and hunters didn’t have radios with which they could listen to weather updates. Most critically, they did not have the benefit of precision forecasts that would have warned them before they had ventured forth.

" We got home from school at 4 o’clock and the storm was really kicking up and everybody said, 'Well, we got hunters out.' And we had a lot of duck hunters in those days. So everybody responded to the riverbank, seeing if they could help hunters get in. Or seeing if they could get a larger boat out to go rescue ‘em.”
Several points in Hettrick’s story illustrate the sense of community he experienced during his childhood on the Mississippi. The terse phrase, “We got hunters out,” says it all—if a hunter was in danger, there was no need to explain further. The community’s close bonds dictated that all able bodies, from young children to old ladies, help in the rescue efforts until all the missing were in. Social boundaries between recreational hunters and commercial fishers dissolved in the crisis.

"Those who were a little better prepared mentally tried to get to higher ground, an island with a tree on it or something, and gather marsh grass and stick it down their hip boots, their waders, in the sleeves of their jackets, and build a nest in their boats by tipping their boats on the side and huddling in and trying to maintain their warmth. Those who were less fortunate that didn’t get in, they just froze.”
The best hunters emphasize safety above all else. But when safeguards fail or their luck turns rotten, they draw on their extensive knowledge of their craft to compensate. Experienced hunters who were able protected themselves in creative ways based on their knowledge of what it takes to be “a good river rat.” Marv turned his boat upside down; others used marsh grass as insulation. All drew on the set of skills available to duck hunters.

In your discussion with the class, highlight the following points:

  • How the technological differences between 1940 and today in weather forecasting, communications, flotation equipment and clothing for hunters, and rescue services and equipment played a part in the storm affecting the region the way it did
  • How the historical and social factors of the Armistice Day holiday, uncertainty of another world war, and large percentage of hunters in the region, contributed to the number of hunters out that day
  • How the cultural reasons factors of good hunting in pre-storm conditions, hunters able to fill out their limits, and Midwestern hunters taking pride in enduring bad weather, contributed to hunters remaining out as the weather deteriorated

Studying Local Culture

Work with your class to identify recreational groups in your community by brainstorming as a class to create a list, surveying family members as a homework assignment, or researching local media for listings of groups and announcements of their events.Discuss with the class ways in which those groups may interact with and be affected by weather. In what ways might the activity be dependant on weather and climate? What types of severe weather might be especially harmful or of concern to the groups?

Dividing your class into work groups, assign each a recreational group. Have students identify ways in which they can learn more about the activity & the people who practice it: phone calls, written materials, attending a sponsored event, etc. Help students strategize how they might actually pursue these research methods.

Based on prior contacts you have made to identify a “good talker,” invite a community member who pursues a locally significant recreational activity. Tape record or video tape the interview. Model good interviewing techniques for your students with this guest. Maintain these dual goals: 1) to find out about the person’s cultural knowledge and practices related to this activity, and 2) to collect weather stories related to the activity. Be sure to cover basic WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY & HOW information in the questions asked. Some additional questions you might ask, if, for example, the interviewee is a snowmobiler, are:

  • When someone is good at snowmobiling, what can we observe that tells us they’re good at it? (1)
  • Tell me a favorite snowmobiling story that speaks to what you love most about the sport. (1)
  • Describe the progression of skills someone acquires when they’re learning how to ride. (1)
  • Tell me about a memorable weather event you’ve experienced. (2)
  • What signs do you look for that tell you about the weather? How did you learn those signs? (2)
  • What is your favorite/worst type of weather for snowmobiling? Why? (2)
  • Are there weather-related dangers with snowmobiling? How do you prepare for those? (2)

Discuss the interview to cull key points about skills, knowledge, and practice related to the activity. Identify a good weather story that the person told. Ask for volunteers to transcribe it.


1) Think about what you’ve learned about the hunters affected by the Armistice Day storm of 1940. List and explain four reasons why the storm affected duck hunters especially.

2) Name a recreational group in your community. Explain at least one way in which that group’s activities are affected by weather.

Standards and Benchmarks

  Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 12
Language Arts: A.4.1; A.4.2; A.4.3, A.4.4 B.4.1
C.4.2 D.4.2
E.4.1 F.4.1
A.8.1; A.8.3; A.8.4;
B.8.1; E.8.1 F.8.1
A.12.1; A.12.4
B.12.1 C.12.2
E.12.1 F.12.1
Social Studies: A.4.1; A.4.2; A.4.5 B.4.1; B.4.3; B.4.8
A.8.1; A.8.3; A.8.8
B.8.1; B.8.4 E.8.3
A.12.1; A.12.2
B.12.1; B.12.2
Science: A.4.1, A.4.2, A.4.3, A.4.5 B.4.2, B.4.2, B.4.3 C.4.1, C.4.2, C.4.3, C.4.4, C.4.5, C.4.6, C.4.7, C.4.8
D.4.1, D.4.3, D.4.4, D.4.5, D.4.7 E.4.5, E.4.6 G.4.1 H.4.3
A.8.2, A.8.4, A.8.5, A.8.6, A.8.7
B.8.1, B.8.2, B.8.3, B.8.5, B.8.6
C.8.1, C.8.2, C.8.3, C.8.4, C.8.5, C.8.6, C.8.7, C.8.8, C.8.9, C.8.11 D.8.5, D.8.6 E.8.1, E.8.3 G.8.3 H.8.3
A.12.3, A.12.4, A.12.7
B.12.2, B.12.5
C.12.1, C.12.3, C.12.4, C.12.5, C.12.7 D.12.11
E.12.2, H.12.6
Mathematics: A.4.1, A.4.2, A.4.3, A.4.4, A.4.5
B.4.2, B.4.5
E.4.1, E.4.2, E.4.3
A.8.1, A.8.2, A.8.3, A.8.4, A.8.6
B.8.5, B.8.7
E.8.1, E.8.2, E.8.3, E.8.4
A.12.1, A.12.2, A.12.4, A.12.5
E.12.2, E.12.3


Sponsored by:
Wisconsin Arts Board CIMSS UW Folklore Program