Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Remembering the June 13, 1968, killer tornado in Tracy, Minnesota June 10, 2013

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, then 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town on June 13, 1968. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Lantz was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. Copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Lantz.

TORNADO WARNING. Those two weather words, more than any other, cause me to panic. For good reason.

I was not quite twelve when an F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, struck the nearby community of Tracy on June 13, 1968. The twister left nine dead, 125 injured and buildings demolished.

I remember, a day or two afterward, our family piling into our Chevy for the 25-mile drive through southwestern Minnesota farm country to view the devastation. Twisted trees. Flattened homes and businesses. Boxcars haphazardly tossed.

This photo by the Tracy Headlight Herald shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado.

This photo by the Tracy Headlight Herald shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado. Photo courtesy of Scott Thoma.

A catastrophic scene like that impresses upon a young mind a deep fear and respect for the power of a tornado.

Added to the visual impact was my father’s spotting of the tornado from our farm those many miles to the north and east as he did the evening milking. He thought the twister was much nearer. Decades later, a less severe tornado would hit the farm place, and the community, where I grew up. Two summers ago, severe winds also ravaged my hometown of Vesta.

This Thursday, the residents of Tracy and others will gather to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Tracy tornado touchdown.

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma's just-published book.

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma’s book.

Tracy native Scott Thoma of Willmar, who wrote Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado, is among those on the Tracy Tornado Memorial Committee and the coordinator for Thursday’s program. The June 13 event will feature an evening of remembrance and fundraising and a coming together of community.

At 7:03 p.m., the moment the killer twister touched down in Tracy, attendees will honor the nine who died with a moment of silence in Central Park. Thoma will read their names and a bell will toll for each: Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harnden, 75; Barbara Holbrook, 50; Ellen Morgan, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; Paul Swanson, 60; Walter Swanson, 47; Nancy Viahos, 2; and Otelia Werner, 75.

Longtime resident, the Rev. Homer Dobson, will “say a few words,” Thoma says.

A photographer for the Tracy Headlight Herald captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School.

A photographer for the Tracy Headlight Herald captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Scott Thoma.

I expect the commemoration will be an emotional event, and rightly so. Even with the passage of nearly five decades, grief lingers. And each time a tornado devastates a community and lives are lost, such as in Moore, Oklahoma (struck, like Tracy, by an F5), memories resurface, fear rises.

Besides remembering the nine, the community will continue raising funds for a new tornado memorial to replace the one falling into disrepair. Over $10,000 have been raised with about $5,000 more needed for the six-foot high black granite monument that will sit along U.S. Highway 14 near the “Tornado Tree” sculpture. That steel tree, built in 1989, replicates the original tornado tree, a gnarled elm that withstood the forces of the twister.

An artist's rendering of the tornado monument. The words on the bench will read "Tracy Tornado Monument" and an engraving of Eric Lantz's tornado photo will be etched below the clock and above the story. Image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

An artist’s rendering of the tornado monument. The words on the bench will read “Tracy Tornado Monument” and an engraving of Eric Lantz’s tornado photo will be etched below the clock and above the story. Image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

The new three-sided marker will feature the story of the tornado and a well-known photo by Eric Lantz etched on the front, according to Thoma. Names and ages of the tornado victims will be listed on another side. And on the back side, visitors will find a stone bench.

On all three sides, a clock will be etched into the stone, stopped at 7:03 p.m., the time the tornado reached the Tracy city limits.

The memorial is expected to be done this summer and unveiled during Boxcar Days, an annual community celebration, on September 2.

In the meantime, there’s still memorial money to be raised and Thoma is doing his part, donating $3 to the monument fund for every book sold. He is selling Out of the Blue from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Thursday at the Tornado Tree Memorial along Highway 14. Root beer floats will also be available with all proceeds directed to the memorial.

Thoma will talk about the tornado and his book at 4 p.m. at the Tracy Library. I read and reviewed Out of the Blue a year ago and you can read that review by clicking here.

As is customary with most small town events, there’s a meal involved in the Tracy tornado anniversary. Folks will gather at the fire hall from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. for a “freewill donation potluck supper,” Thoma says. The Tracy Community Band plays at 7 p.m. across the street in Central Park. And at 8 p.m., somewhere in town, the Tracy Library will show the movie Twister.

If you’re interested in buying a copy of Out of the Blue and/or donating to the Tracy Tornado Memorial fund, email Thoma at scott@thomabooks.com or call (320) 894-6007.

You can also order his book online by clicking here.

If you lived through the Tracy tornado or have any stories to share about the storm, please submit a comment. I’d like to hear from you. Other comments are also welcome.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


60 Responses to “Remembering the June 13, 1968, killer tornado in Tracy, Minnesota”

  1. Beth Ann Says:

    The new memorial is beautiful—what a fitting tribute to the disaster in Tracy. Scott Thoma should be commended for his efforts and for writing what had to be a very difficult book. Thank you for sharing this moment in history.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      If I’m remembering correctly, Scott was only nine at the time of this tragedy. And, yes, he’s worked hard to get funding for this new memorial and, I’m sure, also in the planning of the 45th anniversary event.

  2. hotlyspiced Says:

    I haven’t heard of this disaster before but it looks horrific. So much damage done. I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions riding high at the memorial xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The F5 tornado is among the most powerful, if not the most powerful. Tracy is a small town, so to lose nine people and experience this much devastation had to be overwhelming.

  3. treadlemusic Says:

    Amazing post! Very timely in light of recent happenings in OK, AR, MO, and other Midwest states. It seems each US area has it’s potential disasters: west coast-mud slides, earthquakes,fires/ central-tornadoes,flood/east coast-hurricanes/ flooding. Life is definitely not for the timid/feint of heart!!!

  4. lanae Says:

    I remember.

  5. Even though Tracy is near here, I’ve only ever just driven through on the way to somewhere else! Shame on me.

  6. Steve Ulmen Says:

    I was there. Went down as a Civil Air patrol member to help with communications and whatever needed. Was stationed at the hospital where the injured were brought. It was a bloody and gruesome duty.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Steve, if you have more detailed memories to share, I’d like to write about those. Let me know via email. Have you been back to Tracy since that tornado 45 years ago?

  7. Scott Says:

    KSTP-TV is going to do a feature on the anniversary and the “Out of the Blue” book this week.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      That is fantastic, Scott. Is this a recent development? When will the story air?

  8. Cosmos Says:

    I was 5 years old when the tornado struck Tracy, and for nearly all of my life I have associated Tracy with that disaster. I don’t know why it left such a lasting impression, other than my hometown of Waseca had been hit with a tornado a year earlier and it brought back those memories.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      It was that personal connection, with that tornado in Waseca, which links Tracy forever, in your mind, with the tornado. I, too, always link the words “Tracy” and “tornado.”

  9. Marilyn Says:

    I remember well the twin-funnel tornado of Palm Sunday1965 (and many more of that day). I saw the funnels split and go separate ways – one went about a mile south of our home and one about a mile north. News of tornados always chills me to the bone.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Now that would be super frightening–twin funnels. Where were these specifically and did they touch down?

      • Marilyn Says:

        I just did a Wiki check to verify my memories. It said: “The second Palm Sunday tornado outbreak occurred on April 11–12, 1965, in the Midwest U.S. states of Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, with 47 tornadoes (15 significant, 17 violent, 21 killers). It was the second-biggest outbreak on record at the time. In the Midwest, 271 people were killed and 1,500 injured (1,200 in Indiana). It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Indiana history, with 137 people killed.[1] The outbreak also made that week in April 1965 the second-most-active week in history, with 51 significant and 21 violent tornadoes.” There were a total of 4 double / twin funnel tornadoes and the one that hit in my home county of Elkhart, IN was said to cause the greatest number of fatilities.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Wow. No other word. Wow.

  10. Nancy Graumann Says:

    We were living in Redwood Falls at the time, and I’ll never forget that day. We had debris coming down and we didn’t know why until much later. Some paperwork from Tracy made it’s way to Redwood Falls in the winds associated with that tornado.
    Mom also piled us all into the station wagon and drove to Tracy a few days later to view the damage. It was very scary to see the devastation.
    I was 12 at the time. When I heard about the little girl, Nancy, who died I was so sad. At that time I didn’t realize so many others had died as well.
    I feel that tornado was the reason I was so afraid whenever the weather turned nasty after that. It took until I had my own children and realized I was frightening them with my fear before I was able to get over that fear.
    Now I tend to go outside and watch the weather as it is happening. Maybe I should be a tornado chaser, since I can tell a lot about how the sky looks and what the weather is going to do after years of watching. On second thought, I’ll just stick to watching it on my own for my own use. I don’t think I could handle the excitement of being a tornado chaser!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I can only imagine how that would impact you with one of the victims a “Nancy” and your name Nancy.

      The Tracy tornado is also the reason I was so afraid of storms growing up and still fear them, although the edge has softened with time. Like you, when I became a mother, I had to learn to curb my fears because I was also scaring my kids.

      I am no “run outside and watch the sky” weather observer. I am still very much a “turn on the radio and hit the basement” girl.

  11. Patty (Jenniges) Peterson Says:

    I was 9 yrs. old and well remember when Dad came home from town (Wanda) and said that a tornado had hit Tracy. I never dreamed that 20-some years later I would marry a Tracy farmer and call Tracy “home”. The book is awesome. I highly recommend it.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I agree on your endorsement of Scott Thoma’s book Out of the Blue. Good to hear from a fellow “Rabbit.” Thanks for stopping by with a comment, Patty. I hope enough funds are raised at tomorrow’s event for the new tornado memorial.

  12. C. J. Davis Says:

    I was 7 years old at the time. We lived near the inlet on Lake Shetek, which is where it formed. We watched it go by our house (my mom was 8 months pregnant). We waited a little while and then went into town to find our dad. He was at work that day at the fertilizer plant there and he had outrun it – took him a few minutes and he finally turned the right way and cleared it. My aunt and uncle’s house was hit. I attended the elementary school that was hit the year before that. We heard unbelievable stories and saw unbelievable devastation. I have had a very healthy respect for tornadoes ever since.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      So did you live near the Koch family?

      What a frightening experience for your father, to be right there, in the middle of that tornado. I cannot imagine the terror he must have felt, as well as your mom and the rest of your family.

      Thank you, C.J., for sharing this personal story. Like you, I very much possess a healthy respect for tornadoes because of the Tracy twister.

  13. Mother Nature’s wrath can be very destructive at times – I have been in tornados, a tropical storm, earthquakes, and wildfires – very emotional and lasts a lifetime too!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Those are more storms than I would want to experience. Which was the most frightening and why?

      • Probably the tropical storm because we were stranded for days due to flooding and massive piles of sand where sand should not have been. Had an earthquake here a few weeks ago – registered 5 something in the Sierra Foothills and got the after shocks here.

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Sounds like you would have a few weather stories to share. I would find an earthquake most unsettling. That you can’t really flee.

      • Mr. Craves felt the shaking more than I did because he was standing and the noticed the light fixture swaying. Interesting!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        OK, a swaying light fixture would totally freak me out.

      • It makes you pause, but you get use to it. A few years back went through about 4 months of shaking and quaking here.

  14. Bobbi Johnson Mackedanz Says:

    I was 2 when the storm hit Tracy, we were in my Grandmother’s basement. The house was completely gone when we came up. I don’t remember any of it but my Mom said I had nightmares and cried every time the wind blew.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I’m getting goosebumps just reading this. You were only two, yet your subconscious remembered, every time the wind blew. To even think about being in the basement of your grandmother’s house, to emerge with the house gone…I cannot imagine. Thank you, Bobbi, for stopping by with your story from the Tracy tornado. I am truly appreciative of the personal stories you and other readers are sharing here. This tornado obviously affected many, for a long time. I’ve never forgotten, and I lived 25 miles away.

  15. Pete Says:

    My father was pastor of a church in Lamberton, just down highway 14 from Tracy and Walnut Grove, when the f5 Tornado happened. He was away from home that night, at Army Reserve training in Oklahoma, and my mother was in the hospital at Springfield. That left my sister to get my seven year old brother and myself (at eleven years) down to the basement when the sirens went off. She had no sooner gotten us safely under the stairway when the doorbell began to ring. My sister raced upstairs and found our neighbor urging us to come outside and watch the storm approach with her family. We didn’t – We’d lived in tornado country most of our young lives, and had never seen or heard anything like this one. For that matter, people said afterward that the tornado was within a quarter mile of the western edge of Lamberton, where our house was, when it finally came to an end. But we had no idea just how bad things were only a few miles away. At least in rural America, even in the late ’60’s, communications were nothing like what people enjoy today. We knew by the next morning that Tracy had been hit hard, but the awful details kind of trailed in over the next few days. I remember being in Tracy a little while later and seeing a two story house that had one side ripped completely off but without taking almost anything that was in the house- the dollhouse effect.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Pete, what a frightening experience this had to be for you and your siblings, home alone. And then for that neighbor to come upstairs and suggest you step outside to watch the approaching tornado…

      I am quite familiar with Lamberton as an uncle lived there when I was growing up and today my middle brother and his wife live just north of town. I’ve not heard before that the tornado came that close to Lamberton. I thought it dissipated just outside of Tracy.

      Since your father was a pastor, I am wondering if he was called upon to help in any way in Tracy upon his return from Oklahoma.

      • Pete Says:

        Hi, Audrey:
        Regarding where the Tracy tornado coming to an end near Lamberton- this was something people around there said afterwards, and given what we had seen and heard the night, I never doubted it. However, on the other hand, I don’t remember hearing Chuck Pasek report on the TV news that the National Weather Service had determined this, either. One additional thing on the topic of where the tornado finally ended that I do remember is some discussion among the grown-ups as to whether another, much smaller, tornado that was spotted heading in a west-to-east direction toward Springfield, but that dissipated before it could reach that town was actually the Tracy tornado in it’s later stages. The idea was that it had changed course slightly or “jumped” just before it reached Lamberton. Regarding your question about Dad being called on to help in the aftermath, I really don’t remember. I think the child’s perspective may be at fault here, though, because I don’t recall any particular relief efforts from any neighboring towns, and certainly there had to have been some!

        Odd that in the early morning hours of the day after I posted that first comment, a storm came along that pushed over two sixty-to-seventy foot trees on our property and knocked out our electricity for three days!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Pete, I appreciate the wealth of additional info you are providing us here. I laughed, though, when I read about not remembering Chuck Pasek reporting on the additional path of the tornado. I haven’t thought about him or KEYC-TV in a long time.

        I’ll have to ask some of my aunts and uncles if they recall that Springfield part of the story.

        I’m sorry to hear that you lost two trees and were without electricity. At least it wasn’t a tornado you experienced again.

  16. Robert D Emerson Says:

    I was at Lake Shetek where it started and got to Tracy within minutes of it hitting the town. Total devastation like one of those bombed out towns in Germany during WWII. I worked with the MN highway patrol that evening helping wherever we could lend some assistance. Everyone was so determined and heroic that I met. This memory will forever be etched in my mind. Seems just like yesterday in so many ways!

    Bob Emerson

    • Bob, thank you for sharing your memories of that evening. Something as devastating as the Tracy tornado is certain to impact you for the rest of your life. It did me.

      Thank you for all you did, too, to help those in need after this killer tornado.

      Have you read Scott Thoma’s book about the tornado, Out of the Blue?

      • Robert D Emerson Says:

        No I haven’t, but I will. I believe that I had pretty much tried to forget about it but was reminded recently with the tornados is Oklahoma which brought back these earlier memories.

      • Yes, something as devastating ad the Tracy tornado is likely something you want to erase from your mind. But impossible.

  17. S. Masters Says:

    Life can change in a minute, a moment in time. As I admire all natures beauty, I recognize and fear the forces that are far beyond human control. I look forward to reading this book even though I have no close connections to Tracy, but I am born and raised in Minnesota. Living on the prairie and experiencing summer storms gives me a connection as well. It is so sad to think about the lives lost and families changed forever. I hope they found peace after such loss. I hope this book will help survivors do just that as well.

  18. Mike Roeder Says:

    My parents home was across the street from the grade school, and was destroyed. My girlfriend, Janet Hill, now my wife, survived by making it to the basement. I laid on top of her to shield her. I had foundation bricks bouncing off of me, and experienced wieghtlessness, being lifted somewhat from her. The smells, and scenes as we emerged from the basement are still vivid nearly 50 years later. Posted 11-11-2017

    • Mike, thank you for sharing those personal difficult memories of a tragic day in Tracy’s history. I cannot imagine experiencing what you and your wife did. That’s quite a story, especially since Janet, your then girlfriend, became your wife.

  19. Jeffrey Williams Says:

    I was born in Tracy MN in 1965,I was 3 years old,according to my mother,who is related to the Dillys when the tornadoe hit.But my parents told me we were in Memphis,Tennesee.at the time the tornadoe hit.But do remember seeing the damage.My mother also had a sister who was living in Tracy,when tornadoe hit.I do own the book “Out Of The Blue”by Scott Thoma,and found my mother’s friends and relatives are in the book.

    • Even after all these decades, I still remember (like you) the devastation of that deadly tornado. Thank you for stopping by to share your memories.

      • Jeffrey Williams Says:

        I did a google search on the 1968 tornadoe.and found and saved the WCCO news video called THURSDAY IN TRACY.The destruction is shocking and sad,especially when lives are lost.Even though it’s been decades ago,it will always be in my memories,Tracy,MN,is my birth home town,and even though I was not in the tornadoe,I feel for the victims in Tracy.The stories from the book OUT OF THE BLUE,I assume the two sisters,will pay much more attention to the weather,and weather reports,the Smart Phone,and NOAA weather radio,is a very handy tool.Which I assume they now have.Thanks to enhanced tech.Even though I have been living in FergusFalls,MN,for many years,Tracy MN,will always be in my memories,and birthplace landmark.And I just might consider retiring in Tracy,it would be like returning to home sweet home.

      • Thankfully weather alerts have advanced to the point that deadly tornadoes like this are an exception. Have you returned to Tracy in recent years?

      • Jeffrey Williams Says:

        No,I have not returned to Tracy,but have occasionally,visited,relatives,but been awhile since I’ve done so.Most of my mother’s relatives have past away,but still have an uncle still living in Tracy.and have a cousin who lives in Avoca,MN,which is about south of Tracy.

      • Perhaps time for a trip back, but when the weather warms.

  20. Raymond Says:

    That’s a beautiful memorial. Did they raise enough money for it?

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