National News

Overlooked No More: Minnie Mae Freeman Penney, Nebraska’s ‘Fearless Maid’

It was unseasonably warm on Jan. 12, 1888, as Minnie Freeman made her way to a school in rural Nebraska, where she was a teacher.

Posted Updated

Alexandra S. Levine
, New York Times

It was unseasonably warm on Jan. 12, 1888, as Minnie Freeman made her way to a school in rural Nebraska, where she was a teacher.

Temperatures had been climbing well into the 40s that month, a respite from the bitter cold that usually gripped the prairie in the dead of winter.

Shortly after she arrived, the students, whose ages were about 5 to 15 — shuffled into the tiny Midvale School and the lesson began. By noon, a light morning frost had melted, and the sky seemed to be clearing.

Then, over lunch, a deadly snowstorm struck.

Hail pelted the windows. The wind grew violent. The mercury plummeted to 20 degrees below zero.

In classrooms all around the state, teachers pondered how to keep their students safe.

Some sent the children home early. Others hunkered down indoors as the storm intensified, burning coal to keep the rooms warm.

Whatever Freeman decided to do, she would have to do it fast; the little schoolhouse could not withstand the wind. The door flew from its hinges, the tarpaper roof tore away, and the elements found their way inside.

As Freeman tried to calm her frantic schoolchildren, the unexpected weather was quickly becoming a life-threatening emergency.

She searched the classroom for supplies and came across some twine. She looped it around each pupil, then wrapped the end around her own body. Scooping the smallest child in her arms and shouting commands to the rest in tow, Freeman led her students into the storm for a dangerous trek to safety.

“I’ve never felt such a wind,” she told a reporter from the Ord Quiz, a local newspaper, shortly after the disaster. “It blew the snow so hard that the flakes stung your face like arrows. All you could see ahead of you was a blinding, blowing sheet of snow.”

But after a mile of treacherous terrain, Freeman and her human chain of more than a dozen children found refuge in a farmhouse. Not a single one had been lost.

She would later learn that the fatal blizzard had devastated the greater Midwest region. Today it remains one of the deadliest blizzards in American history. (Most official sources point to hundreds of deaths, but the exact number is unknown.) It is often called the Children’s Blizzard, for the large number of young who perished.

Freeman’s story of heroism captured the country’s attention, and she earned the nickname “Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.”

She was said to have received almost 200 marriage proposals, on top of endless gifts and letters of praise from across the country.

“People she didn’t even know thought this was some great quality that you could haul through a blizzard and save everybody,” said Freeman’s great-granddaughter Debbie Penney Witmer, who is a second-grade teacher in Las Vegas.

In April of 1891, Freeman, then in her early 20s, married Edgar B. Penney, 25, in Omaha. They lived in Fullerton, Nebraska, where they raised two sons, Freeman and Frederick. Minnie Mae Freeman Penney’s descendants, some of whom call her “Mee-Maw,” live in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada, Washington and Spain. Two became teachers.

Many details of Minnie Mae Freeman Penney’s early life have been lost to history, but she was born in 1867 or 1868 in Pennsylvania or New York, one of four children to William and Sarah Freeman. The family moved to Nebraska in 1871, settling in Howard County at a time when the adjacent Nance County was a Pawnee Indian reservation.

Gayle Biddle Swicker, another great-granddaughter, shared anecdotes about Freeman’s childhood that have been passed down three or more generations.

“They were among the first settlers in Nebraska,” said Swicker, 62, “and if I’ve got the story right, she’d hide under her mother’s skirt when the Indians came by asking for food because they were in a forced migration to a new reservation and they were starving.”

Beyond Freeman’s career as a schoolteacher, she was a political and social activist in Nebraska and Chicago at a time when female public figures were few and far between.

According to several newspapers, she was the first Republican national committeewoman to represent Nebraska; the first president of the Nebraska American Legion Auxiliary; state president of the Federation of Women’s clubs; part of the team that established a new Nebraska state seal; and a delegate, appointed by two of Nebraska’s governors, to local and national conferences. One of Freeman’s great-granddaughters, Laurie Penney Wright, who until recently was a teacher and principal at an elementary school in Brighton, Wisconsin, said she talked about Freeman as a role model for her students.

“We don’t give women enough respect for what they’ve accomplished in this world,” she said. “The girls were always concerned about that, and I told them, ‘Here’s an example of what we can do.’ ”

Freeman died Nov. 1, 1943, in Chicago. She was believed to be 75.

Her resourceful and dramatic rescue is immortalized in a Victorian parlor song by the composer William Vincent, “Thirteen Were Saved; Or Nebraska’s Fearless Maid.”

The original sheet music is at History Nebraska, the state’s historical society. The song goes, in part:

The brave girl gathered them about and prayed to God for aid,
Then quick as thought from simple cord, a band of union made ...
Then forth into the blinding storm, she lead them bravely out,
One carried in her gentle arms, all cheered by word and shout ...

There is also a mosaic mural of Freeman amid a snowy scene at the Nebraska State Capitol. An episode of the television series, “The Folklorist,” recounts her rescue.

But throughout her life, the schoolteacher said in a letter to the Omaha Daily Bee, she never desired fame: “Too much has already been said of an act of simple duty.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.