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Clay County,Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County

June 7, 2011

1957 Fargo Tornado – the Clay County Story

By Archivist Mark Peihl
The 1957 Fargo tornado was one of the most memorable local events of the 1950s. The F5 twister damaged or destroyed 1500 homes, caused between 10 and 20 million dollars in damage (more like 75 to 150 million today) and killed 13 people, including six children from one family and injured more than one hundred. It was certainly the deadliest disaster in the city’s history. However, Clay County was affected by the storm as well, though, thankfully, nowhere near the degree suffered by our neighbors to the west. We thought we’d look at what happened outside Fargo on June 20, 1957.

The 1957 event was far from the worst in Clay County’s history. Tornadoes touch down in Clay County about every other year on average. Sometimes they cause damage. Only two storms have caused fatalities. On June 9, 1902 a twister dropped from the clouds southeast of Ada in Norman County and made a bee-line for northeastern Clay County. It caused little damage until it reached the Andrew Hoium farm, five miles north of Ulen. The family sought shelter in their new barn. The storm smashed their log cabin, carrying several timbers miles away. Then it slammed into the barn killing four of the seven Hoium children. The twister then swept into Becker County, destroying a church and killing Mrs. Elef Berg near Voss. Hundreds of others were injured.

Late in the afternoon of May 27, 1931 another tornado dropped from the sky near Rustad. It swept northeast striking the Great Northern Railway’s east-bound Empire Builder passenger train near Ruthruff, a siding 3 ½ miles northwest of Sabin. The storm struck just behind the locomotive. The wind lifted the first car, the mail-baggage car, and turned it on its side shearing the heavy coupling device connecting it to the engine. It carried the car to the left about 90 feet and set it down rather gently in a plowed field. It slid 150 feet before coming to a rest 115 feet from the rails. All 11 of the remaining cars followed the mail coach off the tracks and onto their sides like links in a chain. The locomotive remained on the rails. One man was killed and 57 other passengers were injured, one of whom later died from her injuries.

The storm turned north and began a 50-mile destructive tour of Clay and Norman Counties. Some 50 farms sustained damage. It bore down on Mrs. Clara Hatledal’s farm in northwest Moland Township. Mrs. Hatledal, four of her children, and a teacher from a nearby school huddled in the basement. As her 18-year-old son, Melvin, struggled to close the door, part of a concrete block wall gave way and fell on the boy. He died soon after.
The storm tore through the trees along the Buffalo River and slammed into Concordia Lutheran Church. When the dust cleared, only the church’s cement steps remained. Several more farms sustained serious damage before the storm dissipated south of Fertile, MN.

In a similar incident, on June 7, 1890 a tornado lifted 12 cars from the Northern Pacific tracks on the west edge of Fargo. No one died on the train, but Mrs. James McCarthy and her seven children died when their north Fargo home collapsed. It was Fargo’s worst storm until 1957.

The Fargo twister was one of the most studied storms in US history. A few weeks after the event, Ferguson Hall of the US Weather Bureau collected some photos of the tornado on a trip to Fargo and shared them with meteorologist Dr. Tetsuya Fujita of the University of Chicago. Little was known about tornado formation and development at the time. Dr. Fujita realized that photos could provide insights into the storms. He made three trips to the FM area collecting images. With crucial help from WDAY TV weatherman Dewey Bergquist, Fujita collected hundreds of photos and several reels of movie film from area people. He and Bergquist interviewed many local witnesses and visited scenes of damage. Fujita combined these images from many different vantage points and time frames into a single movie-like history of the Fargo storm from beginning to end. He also determined that the Fargo tornado was one of a “family” of five separate tornados which stretched 64 miles across Cass and Clay Counties. His seminal report is still studied today. Now-familiar terms such as “wall cloud” and the 1 to 5 Fujita Scale (developed by Fujita to measure the destructive power of tornadoes) came out of this study.

The days leading up to June 20 were marked by turbulent weather. The crops that year were looking fantastic. Several farmers told the Moorhead Daily News they were the best they’d seen since 1918 when wheat went over 40 bushels an acre. But on Wednesday, June 12, a nasty wind-rain-and-hail storm wrecked stands around Georgetown and Felton. John Jereszek, 5½ miles south of Felton, said it was so white out he couldn’t see anything. The hail pounded his soybeans until he couldn’t distinguish the rows.

A week later on Wednesday the 19th, another storm ripped crops from Felton to Hitterdal, Hawley and points southeast. Hail “the size of large apples” pounded Hawley. Propelled by high velocity downdrafts, they sounded like firecrackers when they hit the pavement. Others reported the huge hailstones cratered into the earth making yards look like they had “black measles.” A tornado south of Barnesville damaged two farms. Eighty per cent of the crops there were destroyed.

The main event occurred the next day. About 4:30 pm Central Standard Time (North Dakota did not use Daylight Savings Time then) an observer noticed “a dust cloud picked up by a whirlwind” east of the Wheatland, ND elevator. It dropped a slender ropey-looking funnel which caused some minor crop damage as it passed east-northeast through Cass County before disappearing northwest of the Madsen farm north of Casselton. Fujita called this “the Wheatland Tornado.”

Soon after, Mrs. Madsen noticed another dust cloud, this one southeast of her farm. She filmed it with a movie camera. It, too, produced a funnel which touched ground north of Casselton tearing up trees and leaving a damage path 300 feet wide through the crops. It demolished a garage on the Byram farm north of Casselton then abruptly lifted. This Fujita named “the Casselton Tornado.”

The huge, black cloud which spawned the twisters grew as it approached Fargo from the west. The Weather Bureau issued several warnings through local TV and radio stations. By 6:00 pm it was northwest of West Fargo heading east. Bergquist took his camera up to what’s now 19th Ave N. and watched the storm develop to the southwest. The circulating cloud took on a mushroom shape and then suddenly dropped a funnel about 6:27. Ten to fifteen seconds later it was on the ground throwing debris into the air.

The twister tore into Fargo’s Golden Ridge neighborhood at 6:35 and leveled eight square blocks. The worst damage occurred between 23rd and 29th Streets and 7th and 10th Avenues North. The area, then on Fargo’s extreme northwest side, was home to folks of modest means, folks least able to bounce back from adversity. Only about 42% of home owners reportedly had any insurance. Most of the rest were under insured. Of the 123 homes destroyed or damaged in Golden Ridge, only three had basements. The neighborhood was home to the Munson children and many of the other victims.
Coursing east, the twister wrecked the million-dollar Peavey fertilizer plant and passed just south of the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) campus causing much damage to the YMCA and the Hasty Tasty Restaurant on University and 12th Ave N. Veering northeast, the tornado struck Shanley High School, Sacred Heart Academy and Immanuel Lutheran Church. Books from the Shanley library were later recovered north of Park Rapids, MN, nearly 90 miles away.

The funnel tore east through north Fargo crossing the Red River just southeast of the El Zagel golf course about 6:45. On the Minnesota side the twister again headed northeast, tearing up trees and wrecking an outbuilding at the Moorhead Country Club. It followed the edge of the river to the John McCann farm, just north of the golf course. The McCanns’ initially thought of sheltering in the basement, but John Jr. convinced his parents to flee by car. Mr. McCann had parked his car in the garage, fearing hail damage, so the three jumped into John Jr’s vehicle and sped off.  The tornado lifted their home off its foundations and set it down several feet away. All the buildings on the farm were destroyed, machinery smashed.

On the Paul Van Vlissigen farm, just to the north, the house was heavily damaged, the barn and granary demolished.  (After the storm passed, neighbors rounded up Van Vlissigen’s cattle and tied them for milking to their stall stanchions, the only remnants of the barn left.) The tornado continued northeast across old Highway 75 (11th St N) causing $100,000 in roof damage to the American Crystal Sugar beet plant. It totally destroyed five buildings at the Moorhead Rod and Gun Club just north of the plant. The Club lost all of its records, hundreds of photographs and many stuffed animal mounts.

Witnesses saw the twister then head north, loop back toward the west and disappear. It left a damage path up to 700 feet wide and 9 miles long. The damage occurred in less than 30 minutes. Fujita called this the “Fargo Tornado.”

It wasn’t the end. Sometime around 7:00 another funnel formed just north of US Highway 10 on the west edge of Glyndon. It damaged a fence along the Great Northern Railway tracks and then cut east-northeast through what was then a bean field. Now it’s home to a trailer park. Over the next mile it built into another huge funnel, tearing a 600-foot-wide path through trees along the Buffalo River. Mrs. Rodney Wyland and five children huddled in the basement of their new home as the tornado bore down on their farm, three miles northeast of Glyndon. The twister demolished the home and leveled all the other buildings on the farm, but the Wylands suffered no serious injuries. Mr. Wyland was at a meeting in Bismarck. He learned of the storm and hurried home. On the way, he heard that the tornado had struck his home over the car radio.

The twister continued east, considerably weakened, though still strong enough to seriously damage the John G. Ackerson farm, half a mile east of the Wylands. It completely wiped out the Oren Zepper farm, 2 miles northwest of the Buffalo River State Park. It turned northeast heading for the Henry Sandal farm in section 26, Spring Prairie Township. Observers nearby heard the distinct sound of water being sucked up as the funnel crossed a beaver dam nearly a mile to the south. Mr. Sandal was milking in the barn and was unaware of the danger. Alerted by his son, he let the cows out of the barn and headed for cover. He lost some calves but the cows survived. The house, barn and other buildings disappeared along with two cars. Their engines were found later. The Hawley Herald reported the “only objects recognized were a bed spring in a tree and a demolished tractor which was wrapped like a spool with fencing.”

The twister continued north for another mile or two and then dissipated leaving a 10-mile-long trail of destruction. Fujita called this the “Glyndon Tornado.”

About 8:00 yet another funnel formed about 1½ miles north of US Highway 10 just west of Highway 32. It also headed northeast dropping to the ground east of 32 damaging the Carl Carlson farm just north of Manitoba Junction. From there it headed east destroying barns at the Elmer Frisk and Ben Gross farms. It skirted the north edge of the hamlet of Dale shattering a high voltage electrical pole, stopping a clock on the Wallace Gol farm just to the east at 8:05. The Gol farm was the final target in Clay County. When the funnel passed, only the house remained standing. Gol lost some cattle, but one cow tied in her stall survived the destruction of the barn. After the storm, she flat refused to leave the spot. Feed had to be brought to her. The twister turned southeast toward Lake Park but turned northeast again disappearing over Stinking Lake in Becker County, leaving a seven-mile damage path. Fujita called this fifth and final twister the “Dale Tornado.”

There may have been other tornadoes that day. Reports indicate one or more twisters visited the same area south of Barnesville struck just a week before. These destroyed or damaged barns and other buildings on the John Tschample, Ben Berndt and Frank Stellmach farms. The Barnesville Record-Review reported “conservative [damage] estimates of… over $100,000.”

Folks from all over the area pitched in to help out. Various funds set up for relief raised tens of thousands of dollars. The Clay County Red Cross mounted a door-to-door campaign which netted over $10,000. Local churches held bake sales, and collected and sent clothes and food. The Hawley Band and FM Symphony Orchestra played benefit concerts. The Fargo-Moorhead Twins minor league baseball team staged two exhibition games against the Winnipeg Goldeyes and the Aberdeen Pheasants to raise funds to aid tornado victims. (The tornado had interrupted a Twins game against visiting Duluth White Sox. Storm warnings sent hundreds of fans scurrying for home while about 50 players, officials and others sheltered in the clubhouse at Barnett Field, some four blocks north of the tornado’s path.) Clay County 4-H girls held a pie bake-off at the Courthouse. The twelve pies went to feed some of the homeless sufferers staying at Fargo’s Ben Franklin School. Others found shelter in Concordia College dormitories.

Townsfolk helped area farm families hit by the twister find undamaged items and cleaned debris out of fields. Neighbors held a “disaster shower” for the Sandal family to replace household items lost in the storm.

Though losses in Clay County never approached the tragic levels of Fargo’s experience, many here lost their homes, farms and livelihoods. They would never be the same again.

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