Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Part I: Minnesota disasters up close April 14, 2016

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

DISASTER. How do you define that word? In a Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit currently displayed at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, disaster covers everything from tornadoes to the 35W bridge collapse to the grasshopper plague, drought, blizzards and more.

I personally remember many Minnesota disasters—such as the bridge collapse; the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the 1998 St. Peter-Comfrey tornadoes; the 1968 Tracy tornado which killed nine; the drought of 1976; and the devastating floods of September 2010.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota's deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota’s deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

This week, Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week, seems an appropriate time to focus on the topic of disasters and to show you the MHS exhibit, Minnesota Disasters: Stories of Strength and Survival.

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, 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. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retainted by Lantz.

I expect many of you have been, at some point, personally impacted by a disaster. The deadly Tracy tornado forever put the fear of tornadoes in my heart. That southwestern Minnesota community lies only 25 miles from my hometown; I saw the devastation in Tracy. Decades later, a tornado damaged the farm where I grew up and high winds partially ripped the roof from my home church of St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta. I respect the powerful forces of nature, specifically of wind.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

A debris pile on the edge of the St. John’s Lutheran Church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof (covered with a tarp here) and brick from the bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2011.

Elsewhere in Minnesota—in Belview, St. Peter and individual farm sites across Minnesota—I’ve seen the damage a tornado can cause.  I reported on and photographed tornado damage while working as a newspaper reporter. When a tornado warning siren blows, you won’t see me standing in the driveway looking for the twister. I’ll be sheltering in the basement.

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything.

I cannot imagine grasshoppers so thick that they obliterated everything.

As I perused the MHS disaster exhibit and the accompanying stories of disasters in Steele County, I realized the depth of loss Minnesotans have endured. The Grasshopper Plague of 1873-1877 recounts how locusts devoured even the laundry hanging on clotheslines.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

On February 5, 1924, forty-one miners drowned in the Milford Mine near Crosby in northern Minnesota. “For God’s sake, run!” one miner shouted to his co-workers. A warning like that floods the mind with fear. I’d never heard of the mine disaster until touring the MHS exhibit in Owatonna. Now I’ll never forget it.

Because I have extended family in the Hinckley area, I was fully aware of The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 which claimed 418 lives. To read of feet baking inside shoes and stockings from the fire is horrifying.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

As bad as those and many other natural disasters, Minnesotans voted the drought of the 1920s and 30s (the Dust Bowl era) as the “number-one state weather event of the 20th century,” according to information posted in the exhibit. I was born decades after that disaster. But, as a teen, I recall a Good Friday dust storm that blew into Redwood County. We were shopping in nearby Marshall and arrived home to find the house layered in dirt; we’d left the windows open. For hours we worked to wash away the grime.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our rural Vesta driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. I’m standing here with my mom, older brother and three younger siblings.

Blizzards, especially, imprinted upon my memory. There is nothing like a prairie blizzard that drives snow across open farm fields, sculpting the snow into rock-hard drifts around buildings and trees. Those winter storms of the 1960s and mid-1970s created all kinds of problems with roads closed, the power out and cows to be milked. Snowstorms of today don’t compare. And, no, I didn’t walk two miles to school uphill in a blizzard. Rather, in one particularly snowy winter, I rode to town on my dad’s cab-less John Deere tractor so I could catch the bus at Don’s Cafe to ride the 20 miles to junior high school in Redwood Falls. The bus drove sometimes on a single lane cut through snowbanks higher than the bus.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

Tell me, what’s your story of dealing with a natural disaster? If you don’t have one, be thankful.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a look at disasters in Steele County, Minnesota. The disasters exhibit will be on display through March 2017 at the history center in Owatonna. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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14 Responses to “Part I: Minnesota disasters up close”

  1. And that is why Minnesotan’s are such a strong and hardy stock.. “That which does not kill us, only serves to make us stronger” certainly applies!

  2. A tornado touched down last week right near where I work. It was a wild, crazy morning! I remember the Comfrey, St. Peter and Le Center Tornado (used to live near Lonsdale) – had family and friends in those areas. WOW – that snowdrift! I was trying to drive home in the Halloween Blizzard – sucked. I have experienced tornadoes, blizzards, earthquakes, tropical storms, wildfires and hope to never ever experience a hurricane – no thank you! Great Post today. Happy Day – Enjoy 🙂

    • Well, then, you’ve been through a lot of disasters, Renee. And survived them all with your sense of adventure and fearlessness still intact.

      Yeah, when I look at that snowdrift photo from my childhood, I think “WOW” also. We had such fun as kids running across those “mountains,” as we called them. I’ve seen snow drifted to the roof lines of ramblers in southwestern Minnesota. The bank in this photo was higher than the milk truck.

    • It happens when you have lived in multiple states. I am guilty of jumping out of my skin and maybe screaming when I hear a crack of thunder. I am not a fan of really high winds where it is almost deafening and rattling and shaking everything. It is pretty bad when you live out west and have a preference over a shaking or rolling earthquake. I have a great respect for mother nature, especially when she gets in a foul mood or a wild tear.

      I remember in the early 1980’s my dad when to open the front door and it was a wall of packed snow. It took us a while to plow the drive and find the cars. Those snow drifts can be deceiving in that you think you can drive through one and it is actually deeper. We had fun as kids too playing in the snow.

  3. Emily B Says:

    Wow, I would love this exhibit. Thanks for highlighting it, Audrey, and as always for documenting it so well. If I don’t get there myself, I can learn a lot by just hanging around Prairie Roots (no surprise!). Thanks!

  4. Don Says:

    Earthquakes really bite! I have been in many of them. I dislike tornadoes (except to watch from a safe distance) but at least you get a warning that conditions are right for them to happen vs. an earthquake just happens with no warning. Either one can leave vast amount of devastation. I remember the Tracy tornado very well. At the time I was in the Boy Scouts and we volunteered to cleanup after it, what a mess! It sure left strong memories with me………

    It goes to show that no matter where a person lives the forces of nature can reach out to smite thee!

    • I’ve never experienced an earthquake. But, like you, I think they would be scarier than a tornado for the exact reason you cite– no warning.

      Thank you for helping to clean up after the Tracy tornado. We share that commonality of strong memories of that deadly twister’s aftermath.

  5. Great posts and pictures. Weather is something to be respected.

  6. Beth Ann Says:

    What an interesting post—I read them out of order but still my thoughts are the same that it is such an interesting thing to have an exhibit formed around. I can imagine that anyone who was around for any of the disasters would really be interested in seeing all that information in black and white although in some cases it might be really difficult to view those pictures. Very interesting concept. Thanks for sharing.


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