Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

7:04 PM, June 13, 1968, Tracy, Minnesota June 13, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:04 PM
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ELLEN HANEY. Mildred Harnden, Barbara Holbrook. Ellen Morgan. Fred Pilatus. Paul Swanson. Walter Swanson. Nancy Viahos. Otelia Werner.

They ranged in age from two to 84. The same age as my granddaughter and just a few years younger than my mom.

On this evening 50 years ago, the nine died in an F-5 tornado that ravaged the rural farming community of Tracy in my native southwestern Minnesota.

At 7:04 p.m. today, church bells will ring in Tracy, marking the precise time the twister, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, roared into town killing those nine residents, injuring 125 and desecrating the landscape.


A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.


All these decades later, the visual memories of that devastation still flash before my eyes in twisted, broken trees and piles of jumbled lumber, once homes. I was an impressionable almost 12-year-old when my dad drove our family 25 miles southwest from our farm to Tracy just days after the storm. You don’t forget a scene like that—such utter and chaotic destruction that a place no longer resembles a town. For that reason I’ve always feared and respected tornadoes.

I’ve written many times about the Tracy tornado. I’d encourage you to read those posts by clicking here.


Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.


Tracy residents, current and former, remain committed to honoring the memories of those who died in the June 13, 1968, tornado. Last weekend the town held events to commemorate the 50th anniversary. That included tolling of the Lutheran church bell and the release of nine black balloons. A noted Twin Cities meteorologist and storm chaser came to town as did Scott Thoma, hometown boy who authored a book, Out of the Blue, about the tornado. Locals shared tornado stories in words and in photos posted on a memory wall. A Tornado Tree Memorial has long been in place. Selected 2018-2019 Tracy area high school graduates will receive scholarships given in the names of those who died. Monies from the sale of “Never Forget” t-shirts are funding those financial gifts.

Never Forget. Those two words have themed this 50th anniversary remembrance.


Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.


Down in Nashville, Tracy native and award-winning songwriter Dennis Morgan, penned, performed and recorded a song, “The Ballad of the Tracy Tornado, 50 Years Later.” Morgan was just 15 and cleaning a calf pen when he and his family spotted the twister from their farm west of town. They raced to get their father from a field where he was cultivating corn before sheltering in a neighbor’s basement. Morgan sent 300 copies of his ballad CD to his hometown with all sale proceeds designated for the Tracy Fire Department and Ambulance Service.


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 retained by Eric Lantz.


While researching this post, I also noted an iconic, award-winning tornado photo on the City of Tracy website. The image was taken by then 16-year-old Eric Lantz for the Walnut Grove Tribune. Today that photo takes me back to this small town on the prairie as, at 7:04 pm 50 years later, I schedule this post to publish. I shall never forget…


© Text copyright of Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Images copyrighted as noted.


26 Responses to “7:04 PM, June 13, 1968, Tracy, Minnesota”

  1. bev walker Says:

    I was at Marilyn and Dan’s place as Michelle had just gotten home from the hospital. Her birthday is on June 10. Very scary time!

  2. Whoa. I cannot imagine….

  3. My dad’s family lived in Redwood County in 1968. My parents were in the process of planning their wedding in 1968 too. There were 5 tornadoes that day on June 13, 1968. Scary! With technology comes better preparation, however; still unpredictable at times. Sending prayers and healing vibes (((()))))) Take Care

  4. Murphy's Law Says:

    I am so fortunate that I have never been through the horror of a tornado and its aftermath. These photos are very sobering Audrey. The photo of the tornado itself shows how evil it is. I don’t know how that youngster was able to stand still long enough to take the picture.
    🔹 Ginger 🔹

  5. Caryl Larson Says:

    I remember my Dad and a few neighbors taking their farm trucks from Brookings to Tracy to help with the clean-up.

    • I’ve not heard that part of the story, so thank you for sharing. That would have been a bit of a drive back in the day. If you remember any other specifics, I’d love for you to pass those along. How kind of your dad and his neighbors.

  6. Kathleen Cassen Mickelson Says:

    The photo of the tornado itself is astonishing! I’ve long been fascinated by tornadoes – their sheer force, their surprises, their way of wiping out whatever is in their path. And a tornado warning always reminds us that there is a whole lot that is not under our control.

  7. Don Says:

    I was in the boy scouts at the time and our troop went to Tracy to help with the cleanup. I still have memories of the utter devastation the tornado caused and remember talking with a family as they sat in the basement of their destroyed house and telling me how they survived in that basement as the house was torn apart. Their story imprinted deeply into my brain and to this day I have a very healthy respect for the weather especially thunderstorms which are the breeding grounds for tornadoes.

    • I remember you previously commenting that you helped as a Boy Scout. Thank you for that service. You saw first-hand, up-close, the destruction. No wonder it made an impression. Good to hear from you, Don. It’s been awhile.

  8. Don Says:

    Your are so right Audrey “It’s been awhile”! Summer is in full swing here and with all the activities that summer brings time flies by way too fast. We are having sun all night now (the midnight sun) and because of that I am outside doing more activities than I have time for! Between my work yard work, fishing with grandkids etc. the days just fly by. I hate the midnight sun because it’s so easy to completely loose track of the time and before I know it it’s 2 or 3 in the morning and I still haven’t been to bed……………………….

  9. valeriebollinger Says:

    I remember a tornado ripping though an area close to my childhood home when I was a child and we took a drive to see the devastation. It sticks with you. Interesting story.

  10. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    How heartbreaking! The photos grip at your heartstrings especially the residential street photo.

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