Old memories become blurry with the passage of time, but a particularly cold Sunday 45 years ago stands out for me as memorable; it was a shock across western and northern Wisconsin.
I’ve written before about a bitterly-cold Sunday morning when our family miraculously made it to church. It may have been with some divine intervention, because doing chores on the farm takes at least twice as long when the weather is so cold.
At the end of the service during announcements, the pastor remarked to the small group of shivering pilgrims about it being something like 35 below that morning.
My grandmother Cecil Hardie promptly stood up – all of her barely 5 feet – and proudly offered in her Norwegian lilt, “It was 44 below in Franklin this morning.”
If any other worshipers had a colder temperature to report, they held their tongue. Grandma had spoken. Grandma watched the thermometer outside her kitchen window with great vigilance. She took pride in being the amateur meteorologist of the town.
Well it turns out there were some colder spots than Franklin that day. It was Jan. 9, 1977, that Barron County undersheriff Jerry Johnson could scarcely believe his eyes. According to an article in the Jan. 12, 1977, Rice Lake Chronotype, the thermometer outside the window had dipped to minus-60 degrees.
Johnson reported the reading to the dispatcher and spent the rest of the day – which happened to be Super Bowl Sunday and yes hell had not frozen over because the Oakland Raiders crushed the Minnesota Vikings, 32-14 that day – answering phone calls from reporters from around the country.
Warren Leary, the Rice Lake Chronotype publisher at the time, wrote, “But minus 60? You’ve got to be kidding!
“Johnson was becoming a little vexed with the inquiries. He wanted the callers to buzz off so he could watch the Super Bowl. And he wanted it to be warmer. So did all the rest of us.
“Here in Rice Lake, and in Cameron, in Canton, in Brill, in Barron, in Haugen and heaven knows where else, tiny ice crystals spread out in a frigid frost haze over the snowy landscape. Cars refused to start. Cats and dogs refused to poke their noses out of doors. Husbands refused to go ice fishing or snowmobiling. Some folks refused to even get out of bed.
“Church services were sparsely attended. You could have shot a cannon up Rice Lake’s Main Street and not hit a soul. Hardly anybody came by the drug store for the Sunday paper. Water declined to flow from some faucets. Here and there a power line snapped.
“It was cold, cold, cold and the furnace kept running, guzzling that high-priced stuff.”
Some furnaces kept working. Others with outdoor fuel-oil tanks stopped when the fuel gelled because of the cold.
Johnson went on to serve as the Barron County sheriff from 1989 to 1999; he died in 2000. But his weather observation that day gave him some nationwide press, with even the National Enquirer writing about the cold.
“At first I thought my damn thermometer was broken,” Johnson told the Enquirer. “I’ve lived in the north country all my life and I’ve never even heard of anything this cold before.”
Was it really that cold? Like Grandma’s thermometer, Johnson’s thermometer didn’t meet National Weather Service guidelines. Officially the coldest temperature ever recorded in Wisconsin was minus-55 on Feb. 4, 1996, in the Sawyer County village of Courderay.
In a 2017 follow-up story 40 years after the cold, the Chronotype said the official temperature in Rice Lake that day matched Franklin at minus-44. That’s what it was when the thermometer at the Rice Lake airport burst. Mercury freezes at minus-38.
Don Carney, a local historian, told the Chronotype a high-pressure system was hanging over Barron County that morning. He has mapped the temperatures and said he had farmer friends in the area who also registered minus-60.
Had it been made official, the minus-60 temperature would be tied for the sixth-coldest temperature ever recorded in the continental United States. The Courderay mark of minus-55 is the 11th-coldest on record. The coldest ever is minus-80 recorded Jan. 23, 1971, at Prospect Creek, Alaska, near the Arctic Circle.
Yes it was cold in Franklin 45 years ago.
But not as cold as Cameron.
Even Grandma would have needed to concede that.
Chris Hardie and his wife, Sherry, raise animals and crops on his great-grandparents’ Jackson County farm. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, he’s a former member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and past-president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with comments.