On Thin Ice

3.5.2023 [archived ~ originally published 3.1.2018]

Through Ice in Sand Lake was the headline in the 12-12-1914 issue of the Itasca News. Sadly, a century ago, a local headline such as this appeared far too often, followed by a story detailing the incident.

“At Bowstring on Friday evening of last week Nick Aebli, a settler, fell into Sand Lake through a rift in the ice while coming home in the dark and perished before help could reach him.  The accident happened only about forty rods from Aebli’s home and his cries for help were heard by his family and a number of them went to his rescue, but he sank before they could reach him and as it was dark, they could not locate him.  The body was found on Wednesday and Undertaker Will Herreid was called to take care of the body.  Interment was made at Bowstring yesterday. Mr. Aebli had been married twice and he leaves a widow and thirteen children.  He was fifty-two years old and a native of Switzerland.  He settled at Bowstring a little over a year ago and had one of the best improved farms of that section.”

As we all know, winter in northern Minnesota varies from year to year regarding the amount of snow, the below zero temperatures and the length of time the season lasts.  We also know the importance of carrying a winter survival kit in vehicles, wearing appropriate clothing for outside activities and being aware of winter storm warnings and alerts.

One of the biggest differences between now and one hundred years ago, is technology.  Weather predictions are only a google or app away.  Lightweight, but exceedingly warm outwear is available from head to toe. And cell phones provide immediate response when help is needed. 

These incidents occurred during a time when warm clothing meant cumbersome layers of wool and animal furs. Thick wool or cotton long underwear was sold for men or women and though harder for women to walk in the snow in long dresses, the extra material did provide added warmth when traveling by sleigh. Boys wore extra socks and girls ‘those ugly brown tights.’

Oscar Pearson’s story was similar to Aebli, but he made it home safely. “Oscar Pearson returned from Duluth last Thursday where he had been employed during the summer and is now with his family (cats and dog) at his residence on the shores of Rice Lake.  While making a trip to town Saturday after provision Oscar ventured to cross the lake on the ice and thus shorten his journey but as the ice was rather weak, he came near taking a longer journey than he cared to. When about halfway across the lake the ice broke and he had a hard struggle to save himself from a watery grave.” Bigfork Settler 11-26-1909

Curious children are drawn to ice for stomping, sliding and skating. Parental warnings mean very little until a tragedy occurs close to home.  How very sad the community of Ball Club must have been in the early winter of 1916.

Three Children Perish Through Ice at Ballclub ~ Itasca News 11-18-1916

“From the schoolhouse at Ballclub it is but a few rods to the shore of Ball Club Lake, and though, it is said, the children had been forbidden to go on the ice, half a dozen of them ventured out sliding during recess Wednesday morning, and suddenly two of the leaders broke through, and the third in trying to rescue them perished with them.  Children on shore seeing the accident at once ran to the school and the village with the alarm, and in a few minutes men with boards and poles reached the break and all three of the bodies were at once recovered.

Within one hour after the accident doctors from Deer River were at the side of the little dead bodied, but no attempt at resuscitation was made has it was claimed by the doctors that the coldness of the water caused the death of the little ones almost instantly.

Then water was ten feet deep where the accident happened and owing to springy nature of the shore there the ice is never safe until late in the season.

The dead are Mark, aged 8 years and William, aged 10, the sons of Mr. and Mrs. George Wilson; and Ben Tibbits, aged 10 years, son of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Tibbits. Funeral for all three was held at Ballclub Thursday and internment was made there.” 

Another November incident occurred in 1929. Algot Johnson, who lived on the south side on Bowstring Lake, broke through the ice near a muskrat house.  By the time he reached home, “both feet were quite badly frozen.  He was brought to the Miller [Hotel], where he has been improving steadily, though it is reported the amputation of one toe may be necessary.” Deer River News 11-28-1929

And then of course, there are stories of the lumberjacks. Some were found in time to thaw out, as described in 1905 – “A lumberjack, reported frozen to death was found at Churchill’s Spur and brought to town.  He was housed, fed and “watered” by officer Bond and came out all right.”  Others, like Edward Walters were not so lucky.

Froze to Death ~ Itasca News 3-22-1902

“Edwards Walters, about forty years of age, clerk in one of D. Dumas’ cedar camps on Leech River, froze to death about three miles south of town last Sunday.  He was returning from town and was grossly intoxicated.  Different men overtook him and offered assistance and advice, but he only answered surly and abused those who were trying to befriend him, so he was left wandering around on the open stretch of Mississippi meadow in a foot or two of cold water with his rack of whisky on his back. 

The next morning, he was found near the road in a wet slough just across the Mississippi about a quarter of a mile from Mickleby & Chandler’s camp.  His stiff lifeless body was frozen into about a foot of water and bottles of whisky and crackers and cheese were scattered on the ice around him.  The Coroner of Cass County was notified, and he arrived Wednesday and had the body chopped out of the ice and buried near the camp where he worked.  The News has been unable to procure information as to the man’s home or relatives.”

1 Comment

  1. youngv2015 says:

    These stories are heart wrenching, especially the story of the three boys who drowned.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s