Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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

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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.

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Ice cream season, or not March 8, 2017

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peanut-buster-parfait

 

SPRING HAS UNOFFICIALLY arrived in Faribault. The walk-up/drive-through Dairy Queen along Lyndale Avenue is open.

Sunday afternoon I clipped a $1.99 Peanut Buster Parfait coupon from the Faribault Daily News to celebrate. DQ is a rare treat for Randy and me, afforded only when money-saving coupons are available. Opening weekend at the DQ always brings deals. Perfect.

I envisioned sitting on the DQ patio under sunny blue skies in predicted 60-degree temps. Perfect.

But forecasts do not always equal reality. I suggested Plan B—going to a park. In hindsight, I wonder what I was thinking. After an attempt to eat our parfaits on a park bench, I caved and headed back to the warmth of the van. There we sat, savoring ice cream, peanuts and fudge while grey skies hung and the temp locked at 48 degrees in a still slightly snowy landscape.

Monday brought much warmer temps, like those promised on Sunday, along with intense wind followed by storms. Remaining snow melted.  And two tornadoes touched down, causing damage near Zimmerman and Clarks Grove. These are the earliest tornadoes of the season ever in Minnesota, breaking a record set in 1968. Here in Faribault, we experienced heavy rain and even small hail for a brief time Monday evening. A light dusting of snow fell overnight. The Dairy Queen may be hinting at spring. But winter seems determined to cling to March in Minnesota.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Memories of the June 13, 1968, Tracy tornado: “Pain, anguish and blood…” June 12, 2013

HE DOESN’T RECALL the details like it was yesterday.

Yesterday, after all, was 45 years ago.

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 the evening of June 13, 1968. 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. Copyrighted photo courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Eric Lantz.

But for Mankato resident Steve Ulmen, certain memories of the aftermath of the deadly Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968, stick with him.

He was only 22 then, a college student and a senior member of the Mankato Civil Air Patrol squadron dispatched on a search and rescue mission to Tracy 90 miles away in southwestern Minnesota. They were the first responders, handling crisis management until other local and state officials arrived.

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.

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.

Ulmen remembers entering Tracy, feeling overcome by the sheer devastation. The F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, killed nine and injured 125. Destruction was massive.

“It looked like we were driving into a dump site, or a burned out slum, or what I would imagine a bombed out city would have looked like after World War II,” Ulmen recalls.

With experience as a hospital orderly, he was assigned to the emergency room at the Tracy hospital—removing victims from ambulances and placing them on gurneys and moving others around.

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

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

“There were victims coming in and lying on stretchers even in the hallways, as it was a small hospital,” Ulmen remembers. “Some were suffering from fractures, some from cuts and scratches. All were in one degree of shock or another and needed assistance and someone to talk to them and try and calm them down.

“There was pain, anguish, and blood, that I remember. As long as casualties kept coming in, we stayed on duty.”

The CAP squadron, comprised of cadets (high school age, 18 and under) to supervising senior members, volunteered for several days in the ravaged community. Among other duties, the patrol established a communications system based out of “an old military surplus deuce and a half 4-wheel drive vehicle” equipped with “radios of every description.”

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

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

Ulmen remembers the satisfaction he felt in helping those in distress.

Among his memories, Ulmen recalls a particular incident, one he still wonders about now 45 years later. “I was driving either my vehicle or an emergency vehicle, I forget which, and I went through an intersection. The stop sign was bent and twisted from the tornado and wasn’t pointing at the street I was on; it looked like it was pointed at another street. Nevertheless, the local cop saw me run the stop sign, pulled me over, and gave me a ticket,” Ulmen says. “Some thanks for coming all the way from Mankato and volunteering my service to a community in distress. My superiors were not impressed with this either, but I ended up having to pay the ticket as I recall.

“It is funny what you remember from 45 years ago.”

FYI: The community of Tracy is marking the 45-year anniversary of the deadly tornado with special events on Thursday, June 13. Click here to learn more in a post published here several days ago.

To learn more about Steve Ulmen, who served with the CAP for 17 years until he was about 27, click here. Ulmen, who is retired after 34 years of working in the corrections field, is also a published writer. He’s written a western screenplay, later rewritten and published as his first western novel, Toby Ryker. He then published a sequel, Deadwood Days. His most recent works include a book of historical fiction, Blood on the Prairie—A Novel of the Sioux Uprising (actually the first book in the Toby Ryker trilogy), and Bad Moon Arising, a fictional story based on his experiences as the first probation officer in LeSueur County beginning in 1969.

Ulmen and his wife of 42 years, Ida Mae, live in Mankato, his hometown.

© Copyright 2013 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

 

Belview residents celebrate tornado recovery & the story of a little sequoia tree July 2, 2012

Belview area residents and others gathered at a city park on Sunday to mark the one-year anniversary of an EF-1 tornado.

A YEAR TO THE DATE after an EF-1 tornado swept into the southwestern Minnesota prairie town of Belview, population 375, folks gathered in the late afternoon and early evening hours of an oppressively hot and humid Sunday to remember and to celebrate.

Food and music were part of the celebration.

They celebrated with a catered picnic meal and music right after a brief rain shower passed through town.

They remembered with photos and stories shared.

Ingrid Huseby, left, and Linda Sullivan. Yes, the t-shirts mean exactly what you think they mean.

“We were lucky. It could have been so much worse,” Belview resident Linda Sullivan said as we stood in the shade of the Belview City Park shelterhouse after I’d snapped a photo of her and Ingrid Huseby in commemorative, make-a-statement Belview tornado t-shirts printed shortly after the July 1, 2011 storm. “I can’t believe that nobody was hurt; that was the miracle.”

Linda’s right. It is a miracle. And you believe it when you hear stories like that of two women who rode out the 95-115 mph tornadic winds in a car just outside of town; of the couple who did not make it to their storm shelter, upon which a tree then fell; of the Iowa man and his son who sought shelter at the bank when they drove into town in the middle of the tornado; of the natural gas leak at a home…

“Like I said, it could have been so much worse,” Linda repeated several times as we moved into the shelterhouse to view an album of photos showing the damage at her home. She lost 11 trees.

It is Belview’s trees which are undeniably this prairie town’s most devastating loss.

Says City Clerk Lori Ryer. “We lost 70 percent or more of our trees.” In the park alone, where residents were celebrating on Sunday, 70 trees were lost.

New trees line the boulevard along Belview’s Main Street. A Belview native who owns a tree business offered the city a discounted price on trees. Tree replacement is not covered by FEMA or city insurance.

But already, this community is replacing its trees—57 in the Belview City Cemetery on the edge of town; many along the Main Street boulevard; and others planted at private residences throughout Belview, including peach, pear, apricot and apple trees in Linda Sullivan’s yard.

Linda, who was out of town when the storm rolled in, remembers the phone call from her brother, “You can’t find the house for the trees.”

And it was like that all over town with trees or tree branches lying atop houses, garages and vehicles and blocking streets.

In that environment, Belview’s volunteer fire department and emergency personnel responded as they drove a fire rig around town checking on the safety of their friends, neighbors and families.

Lori, the city clerk, praises those volunteers and the many others who came into town to help with recovery. Within two days of the tornado, Linda Sullivan’s property was cleaned up. It was like that all over town as a continual procession of vehicles hauled away downed limbs and trees.

A tornado-ravaged tree stands at the Belview Area Learning Center one year after the tornado.

Today visual reminders of the tornado remain in ravaged trees, in houses still under repair, in the rows of new trees spaded in and now growing along the Main Street boulevard.

But it is a community which has weathered the storm and which seems even stronger today for having experienced an EF-1 tornado.

Belview is the type of small Minnesota town where kids can just drop their bikes and scooters, unlocked, in the park.

The Belview Fire Department filled a temporary water reservoir for the kids to splash in during the tornado recovery celebration on a sultry July 1.

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A SPECIAL FED-EX SHIPMENT arrived from California on Friday for the residents of Belview. It came from Steve, the Federal Emergency Management Agency representative assigned to Redwood County. “He loved Belview,” City Clerk Lori Ryer said. “He’d never been to an area with such a hometown feel like here.” Steve was even invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Delhi Township Board member Tom Werner.

The tiny sequoia photographed here was given to the residents of Belview by their FEMA rep, Steve. Photos of tornado damage and recovery were posted on bulletin boards during the celebration. The image in the upper left corner shows the tornado, as it approached Belview.

The FEMA’s rep’s fondness for Belview showed in the sequoia he sent with the following note:

Some of you I was able to meet personally, with others it was a smile or head nod. In either respect, the experience of working with you during the tornado recovery effort has been engraved in my memory banks. What a fantastic town and great people.

Thank You for the invitation to the one year recovery celebration and tree planting. Believe me I’d very much like to be there, however FEMA wants me here, in New York City, until our mission is completed. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. New York City??????

I hope you can find a nice place to plant this “little guy”–you might consider giving him a little room to grow. They live in the mountains near my home in California and I can tell you that every time you see one it will certainly take your breath away, they are truly magnificent trees and very hard to forget. Somewhat like the Harvest and Thanksgiving Time in Minnesota.

Wishing you all continued success in the recovery process.

Decades from now, when travelers spy a giant redwood in the Redwood County community of Belview, they will likely ask about the tree. And they will hear the story of the tornado which touched down in this little prairie town on July 1, 2011, and how, one year later, Steve the FEMA rep gifted a sequoia to the city. Surely, the stuff of legends…

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Vesta & Belview celebrating one year after storms June 29, 2012

TWO REDWOOD COUNTY COMMUNITIES will come together to celebrate this Sunday, one year to the date after severe storms ripped through this region of southwestern Minnesota.

St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta, hours after a July 1, 2011, storm ripped half the roof from the sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

In my hometown of Vesta, area residents will remember the storm anniversary and rededicate St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at a 10:30 a.m. worship service followed by a catered chicken dinner.

Damage to one of the grain bins at the local elevator. Photo by Brian Kletscher.

The grain elevator complex, the visual defining landmark in the farming community of Vesta, was ravaged by winds. You’ll see the damage near the top of the old grain elevator. Photo by Brian Kletscher

During the late afternoon of July 1, 2011, a series of downbursts with wind speeds of 90 – 100 mph swept through Vesta, ripping half the roof from St. John’s sanctuary, felling trees, denting grain bins, damaging the landmark grain elevator and more.

Under construction in March, a pastor’s office, bathroom and storage room were added to the south side of the early 1970s era church. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling.

It took nearly a year for St. John’s to reopen after the congregation decided to expand the church as part of the roof reconstruction process.

Entering Belview from Sacred Heart at 9 a.m. on July 2, the morning after the tornado. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher, who were not yet living in Belview when the storm hit.

In Belview, about 10 miles to the north and east, residents will also mark the one-year anniversary of an EF-1 tornado which rode in on the same storm system. The tornado, with winds of 95 – 105 mph, wiped out many of this prairie town’s trees (which fell onto buildings and vehicles), damaged the nursing home to the point that it closed for awhile, wrecked roofs and more.

A month after the tornado, Belview’s Parkview Home (nursing home) remained closed as repairs were needed to the damaged roof, covered here with blue tarps. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling.

The communities of Belview and Vesta lost many trees in the July 1 storms. This photo is along a Belview street north of the park. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

Jerry Hagen’s house, across the street from Merlin and Iylene’s home in a July 2 photo. Photo courtesy of Merlin & Iylene Kletscher.

Damage along South Main Street in Belview. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

A year later, Belview residents are celebrating with a catered community picnic supper and entertainment at the local park (or in the air conditioned historic Odeon Hall if the weather is too hot) from 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. Sunday.

“We know we can pull together when the going gets tough as was proven after the storm,” says City Clerk Lori Ryer. “Now we would like to pull together in a spirit of community and fellowship and say thank you to everyone in town and to those that helped.”

My Uncle Merlin and Aunt Iylene Kletscher will be among Belview residents attending that picnic, celebrating and listening to the music of Ron and Kathy and Friends. The Kletschers had just closed on the purchase of a foreclosed fixer-upper home along Belview’s Main Street when the tornado ravaged Iylene’s hometown. They lost most of their trees—one of the reasons the couple bought the property—and sustained damage to their house, which they had just begun renovating.

Says Merlin:

So far we have planted four flowering crabs, a new disease resistant elm tree, 13 lilac bushes and the city has the Main Street boulevard planted with really nice-sized maples. We have two churches with new roofs, the bank is putting a new roof on right now and there are also more homes in the process of new shingles, etc., now.

One year later, Belview is looking pretty darn good!

A portion of Main Street in Belview a month after the tornado. Photo by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

FYI: To read more about the July 1, 2011, storms and to view more storm damage photos, check the Minnesota Prairie Roots archives from July 2011. In addition to the damage in Vesta and Belview, many rural residences also were hit. The farm of my cousins, Danny and Marilyn Schmidt, was struck by a second EF-1 tornado which nipped the northwestern corner of Redwood County. Near the South Dakota/Minnesota border, the community of Tyler experienced an EF-2 tornado which followed a 3-mile path through Lincoln County. The tornadoes and wind storms were part of a massive storm system  on July 1, 2011, which began along the western edge of Minnesota and extended as far east as northwestern Wisconsin.

I was on my way with my husband to a party near Nerstrand not far from our Faribault home in southeastern Minnesota when these threatening clouds moved in during the early evening hours of July 1, 2011. It was while driving to our friends’ rural home that my sister Lanae phoned to tell me about the storm in our hometown and to warn me of the approaching bad weather. Fortunately the ominous clouds delivered only rain and nothing severe. But I was worried, very worried.

Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Stories from the Tracy, Minnesota, tornado remembered and published 44 years later June 13, 2012

Eric J. 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.

FORTY-FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY Minnesota’s first F5 tornado, the most powerful with wind speeds in excess of 300 mph, plowed through the southwestern Minnesota farming community of Tracy killing nine.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast, my farmer father paused from milking cows on that sultry June 13 evening in 1968 to watch the tornado churn across the flat prairie landscape. Not wanting to unduly alarm his family, he did not warn us of the approaching storm. Only afterward, when the menacing clouds dissipated before reaching our farm, did he tell us what he’d observed through the open barn door.

Days later our family of eight piled into the family car and drove to Tracy to see the devastation.

This photo, taken by Eric J. Lantz, a printer’s devil/photographer for the Walnut Grove Tribune, was republished in  the Tracy Headlight Herald courtesy of the Tribune. It shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968.

I was an impressionable 11 ½ years old at the time. Specific memories of that destruction—except for twisted, shredded trees and tossed boxcars—have long vanished. But the overall, chaotic scene and the deaths of those nine Tracy residents are forever seared into my memory. The deadly Tracy tornado is the sole reason I dream about and fear tornadoes.

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

So I knew when I picked up Tracy native Scott Thoma’s recently-published book, Out of the Blue—The true story of two sisters and their miraculous survival of one of the most powerful tornadoes in Minnesota history—that the nightmare would come.

And it did, on the night I finished the chapter about sisters Linda (Haugen) Vaske, 20, and Pam Haugen, 8, who never made it to the basement of Linda’s home, I dreamed that I could not reach the basement during a tornado.

I’ve blocked out the rest of that nightmare. And for more than four decades, Linda, who was flung about by the fierce winds of that 1968 tornado as was Pam, also blocked out much of that terrifying event. That is until she and Pam sat down with Thoma, a long-time writer and newspaper reporter, to talk about that fateful evening when they nearly lost their lives.

For 44 years, Linda blamed herself for the death of the tornado’s youngest victim, 2 ½-year-old Nancy Vlahos, whom Linda’s then-husband and she were in the process of adopting. The preschooler was ripped from Linda’s arms and later found dead in the street.

While the story of the Haugen sisters and little Nancy centers the book, Thoma’s account of the Tracy tornado encompasses the stories of others, including his own. He lived less than a block from the twister’s destructive path and recalls his father searching for an elderly neighbor and unintentionally stepping upon the man’s lifeless body wrapped in a tattered drape. It was the first time he saw his father cry.

That intimate familiarity with the scenes that unfolded in the aftermath of the tornado and the understanding of how small towns pull together assure readers that Thoma is writing this for reasons which are deeply personal. He is honoring those who died, those who survived and those who helped his community of then 2,500 residents in its hours of greatest need.

You will read about Delpha Koch, who from her farm home five miles southwest of Tracy, phoned a dispatcher at 6:55 p.m. to warn of the approaching tornado, saving countless lives. Ditto for the police officer and train crew and others who alerted residents to the storm.

Delpha, a critical care nurse at the Tracy Hospital, her husband and two sons immediately headed into Tracy, arriving as screaming and stunned residents covered in dirt and silt emerged from the rubble. Almost immediately rescuers began taking the dead and injured to the hospital in a furniture delivery truck and other vehicles.

Thoma, via conversations with survivors and through extensive research, writes with absolute attention to detail, taking the reader inside that 42-bed hospital where 171 patients were seen for tornado-related injuries in the outpatient department. Twenty-three were hospitalized, including the Haugen sisters—Linda was seriously injured, Pam was not.

In what I consider one of the most memorable lines from the book, Thoma quotes Kathy Haugen, upon seeing Linda: “That’s not my sister.” Due to the extent of her injuries, Linda was unrecognizable to even her closest loved ones.

Thoma’s book is as much a tragic story of lives lost and homes and businesses damaged or destroyed as it is about a community pulling together. From Tracy Fire Chief/Fire Marshall/Civil Defense Director Bernie Holm who worked tirelessly for his community to the 80-year-old retired doctor who volunteered at the hospital to the veterinarians who sutured wounds to the farmers who brought tanks of water to the hospital and more, this is a story of how we as humans assist one another in need.

But it is also a story which emphasizes the ferocity of an F5 tornado, one of only two which have ever occurred in Minnesota, the other in nearby Chandler on June 16, 1992. One person was killed in Chandler and 35 injured.

I remember, from 1968 accounts of the Tracy tornado, the reports of tossed boxcars; a 25-ton boxcar was blown two blocks. Thoma spews out the numbers—26 toppled train cars, 111 destroyed homes, 76 houses with major damages, five businesses destroyed and 15 businesses damaged.

Yet, what impacts me most upon reading his book are the nuances of this tornado, like the account of Tracy resident Jerry Engesser discovering a book upon the rubble in his yard. He turns it over to read the title, Gone with the Wind.

And then, the bit that makes goosebumps rise on my arms comes in a partial letter found by a farmer 45 miles away near Redwood Falls. It reads:

Cliffy,
It’s raining and hailing here tonight and the wind is blowing hard…

Linda (Haugen) Vaske had just begun writing that letter to her military husband, Clifford, when the tornado swept into Tracy around 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, 1968, claiming nine lives and forever changing this southwestern Minnesota prairie community.

Eric J. Lantz, photographer for the Walnut Grove Tribune, also took this photo which was shared and published in the Tracy Headlight Herald. He captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School.

FYI: Click here to link to Willmar, Minnesota, author Scott Thoma’s Out of the Blue website. His book was published in May by Polaris Publications, an imprint of North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.

To read an earlier post I wrote about the Tracy tornado, click here. It features information from Al Koch, who is married to one of my best friends from Wabasso High School, Janette Koch. Al witnessed the Tracy tornado and destruction and his mother, Delpha, phoned the Tracy dispatcher about the approaching tornado.

My experience with tornadoes is personal. About 30 years ago, when I was already an adult and living away from home, a twister struck the farm where I grew up. Click here to read that post.

Click here to read a post about a tornado which struck my father’s childhood farm about a mile away in 1953 or 1954.

Last July 1 a series of downbursts with windspeeds of 90 – 100 mph swept through my hometown of Vesta. Read about the damage there by clicking here.

And finally, click here to read a post about a terrifying storm my husband, son, mother and I rode out in a car along a rural road north of Walnut Grove (near Tracy) two summers ago. I’ve probably never been more terrified than during those 45 minutes on that stormy, black night.

Yes, I fear and respect tornadoes. You should, too.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Copyrighted photos are courtesy of Scott Thoma and are published here with his permission. Photographer Eric J. Lantz retains the copyright to the above photos.

 DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of Out of the Blue. However, that did not influence my decision to write this post nor its content.