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An incredible survival story

By Staff | Mar 10, 2013

It is an incredible story of survival in a Minnesota blizzard.

So incredible as to be almost unbelievable. But, why would an 87-year-old man about to die, lie?

That man is Hollace A. “Sandy” Sandholm, and he did die just a couple of weeks ago on Feb. 17 while in hospice care at his daughter’s home in Maple Lake.

His son, Jon Sandholm, of Minnetrista, spent the last few weeks of his father’s life recording some of the many stories Sandy Sandholm had told over the years.

The older Sandholm was born in International Falls, but was raised in Blue Earth and graduated from high school here.

After a stint in the Navy in World War II, he attended college in St. Cloud, graduating in 1949.

From then on, he taught high school biology for 35 years, mostly in St. Louis Park High School.

But, it was during his own high school years in Blue Earth that he almost cashed it in during a severe blizzard.

Sandholm recalls it being the big Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. Reports of this famous Armistice Blizzard have been oft told, and have been the subjects of several books.

It was a November weekend in 1940 that started out with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, but had a dramatic drop on the thermometer, sudden howling winds and a ton of snow.

Forty-nine people in Minnesota (and 154 total across the Midwest) lost their lives that day many of them duck hunters who froze to death.

Sandy Sandholm and his pal, Harry Gresser, Jr., were two lucky duck hunters who survived. Gresser went on to be a barber in Blue Earth for many years.

They were 15 year-old sophomores at Blue Earth High School in 1940.

They got up early on that fateful day, Monday, Nov. 11, and went duck hunting at 5:30 a.m. on Rice Lake, a little northwest of Delavan.

They had driven an old car north on County Road 11, then taken some gravel roads after that.

The weather was decent at first, but then started to mist and then rain, with the wind picking up.

Then, Sandholm recalls, it all turned to snow by about 8:30 a.m. and the wind started to howl at 40 m.p.h.

The pair collected their decoys, threw them in the boat and headed to their car.

The car wouldn’t start, which was OK, because Sandholm says they wouldn’t have been able to see to drive anyway.

Here comes the amazing part of the story.

While they couldn’t see to drive, they could see to walk if they walked backwards.

So they took off on foot.

Luckily, Sandholm recalls, they were dressed pretty warmly and kept their hip waders on.

Those hip waders saved their lives, he says more than once.

They hoofed it for 3 1/2 miles to State Highway 109. There they couldn’t decide to go west to Winnebago or east to Delavan, so incredibly they decided to continue heading south.

Walking backwards 90 percent of the time, they went another 3 1/2 miles until they hit the big curve in the road.

Sandholm says he knew who lived in a nearby house and they felt their way to the farmstead since they could hardly see their hands in front of their faces.

When they got to the door, the couple was home and were amazed to see these two young men arrive at their doorstep in such a howling blizzard.

But, they didn’t invite them in. The man of the house showed them the quarantine sign on the door there had been diphtheria in the house and the man advised them not to come in, but invited them to stay in the barn.

They didn’t. They couldn’t see where the barn was so they went back to road, and started walking backwards again.

Would you believe they eventually made their way all the way back to Blue Earth? That is about an 11 mile hike, in a snowstorm, walking backwards, in hip boots.

It took them eight hours to get home. They made it by 4 p.m.

Incredible. I know I probably couldn’t do it walking forwards on a nice sunny summer day.

Sandy Sandholm’s son Jon has posted the video of this interview on, where else, YouTube. You can watch it for yourself by going to this link:


And, after you watch it, you can decide for yourself just how lucky or crazy these two young men were to survive such an ordeal.

For Sandy Sandholm, it meant being able to live a full life to the age of 87.