Fargo Forum, Fargo, North Dakota, February 9,1986
Drake, N.D. -- On the last Friday in January, Marie Blumhagen repeats a weather forecast ritual that her agrarian ancestors brought over from southern Russia.
“They called it an onion calendar,” she says, cutting a large juicy onion in two halves from top to bottom.
Within minutes she dissects the bulb; separates out 12 layered “cups” from each side and arranged them in order across her kitchen window ledge.
Methodically, she places a teaspoon of salt in each of the onion cups and says:
“Each one represents a month -- January, February … (and so on) … and then in the morning, those that had water in ‘em were the wet months and those that didn’t were the dry months.”
Blumhagen, 74, says her relatives came to the United States in 1911. The Ehrmans were German-Russians and moved first to South Dakota as day laborers and then to Anamoose, N.D., to farm.
“Of course they didn’t have reliable weather forecasts back then, so they relied on the old-time methods,” Blumhagen says. “We tried it all the time on New Year’s Eve, right at midnight,” Blumhagen says. “It would give us something to do when you stayed up on New Years. Those days they didn’t have radio or TV and all that stuff.”
“I did it when I was on the farm,” she says. “I’ve only done it once since I moved into town. My husband, Ben, died in 1969 and I moved to town.”
Several months back, Blumhagen responded to a letter-to-the-editor of one of the region’s farm magazines. Someone was asking for information about the onion calendar and Blumhagen responded with instructions on how to make it.
The letter writers were interested in the technique in order to establish some sort of family tradition, she says. A custom for the children.
This year the onion calendar predicts a wet February, a dry March, a wet April, a dry May, a wet June, a dry July, a wet August, a wet September, a dry October, a wet November, and a dry December.
Blumhagen is going to check the actual weather against the calendar, although she says she might have gotten some of the cups mixed up. And the process is supposed to take place the beginning of January and not the end.
“It’s as reliable as any other method. You’re bound to get it (the weather right) sometime,” she says.
Another method is to record the weather on the last Friday of every month, and determine next month’s weather based on that.
“Today’s weather is cloudy and snowy,” she said, earnestly. “Now you just see if February works out to be cloudy and wet. Sometimes it works out perfect. Sometimes it don’t. I’ve gone by that that a lot.”
And then there’s the method of recording the 12 days before Christmas and the 12 days after Christmas. Each day represents a month, in order, and the deviation from normal is noted and used to predict weather for the month it represents.
“I tried them both this year, marked them down, and I’m going to see how it turns out.”
Blumhagen is glad for the new scientific forecasts.
“We have forecasts every day, so we don’t have to rely on the onion calendar,” she says. “Besides, working with those onions … it gets to me. I can’t take it anymore.”
But Blumhagen says she has just about as much confidence in these old methods as she does in television weathermen, with their fancy computer graphics, radar doodads and percentages.
“It’s like a lot of things,” she says. “I s’pose it’s progress, but I’m not so sure.”
“Do we need it, or don’t we?”