The cancellations were getting a lot of attention because the storm came just a few days before Christmas. But Daniel Baker, CEO of flight tracking service FlightAware.com, called it "a relatively minor event in the overall scheme of things."
By comparison, airlines canceled more than 13,000 flights over a two-day period during a February 2011 snowstorm that hit the Midwest. And more than 20,000 flights were canceled during Superstorm Sandy.
Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
In Madison, Wis., where more than 19 inches of snow fell, college student Elle Knutson stayed in her apartment most of the day Thursday. The University of Wisconsin at Madison canceled final exams in anticipation of the storm.
Knutson, 21, a senior, went outside for about 10 minutes, walking to a friend's apartment to drop something off.
"It was awful," she said.
In the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, Kristin Isenhart, 38, said her three kids, ages 9, 5 and 3, were asking about going outside to play after school was canceled for the day.
"They are thrilled that it snowed," she said. "They've asked several times to go outside, and I might bundle them up and let them go."
As far as the region's drought, meteorologists said the storm wouldn't make much of a dent. It takes a foot or more of snow to equal an inch of water, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people lost power in Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska as heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines. Smaller outages were reported in Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.
"The roads have been so bad our crews have not been able to respond to them," said Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, which had 13,000 customers without power in central Iowa. "We have giant four-wheel-drive trucks with chains on them, so when we can't get there it's pretty rough."
Blake Landau, a cook serving eggs, roast beef sandwiches and chili to hungry snowplow drivers at Newton's Paradise Cafe in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, said he has always liked it when it snows on his birthday. He turned 27 on Thursday.
"It's kind of one of those things where it's leading up to Christmas time," Landau said. "We don't know when we get our first snowfall, and I hope we get it by my birthday. It's nice to have a nice snowy Christmas."
Beck reported from Omaha, Neb. Associated Press writers Scott Mayerowitz in New York; Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee; Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo.; Jason Keyser and Sara Burnett in Chicago; Barbara Rodriguez in Des Moines; and Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Iowa contributed to this report.