It’s been a year since the tornadoes touched down on July 19, 2019. I still shiver when I think of that day when everything changed at Northern Bliss. From that day until October 15th, when we left our lake home for the winter, I heard the grating buzz of chainsaws from sun-up until sundown. See my blogs about that terrible tornado and recovery efforts at https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/tornado-disaster-at-northern-bliss/ and https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/recovery-from-natural-disasters/.

One year later, a pontoon ride around White Ash Lake shows that residents have done an awesome job of clean-up but still more work remains. So many have planted new trees that will never reach maturity during their lifetimes. Indeed, “to plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow.”

Tornado

Last night, the National Weather Service issued warning for many counties in Wisconsin, including Polk. “This time, we will be spared,” I muttered, “for the simple reason that one should not have to endure a tornado for the third time.” I remembered the tornado of 1955, all of us on our knees praying in the kitchen of our farm home in Eureka township. (The house didn’t have a basement to run to for shelter.) I’d never written a story about that experience, but my brother Dave did. Here is his story:

From the Memoirs of Dave Glassel:

The Polk County Wisconsin Tornadoes of 1953

I was watching the weather channel the other morning and it brought to mind the tornadoes of 1953 in the St. Croix Falls, Polk County, Wisconsin area. I was about eight years old and it was my job to go get the cows at milking time. My sister Lois, three years older than I, used to go get them, but as she grew older, that became my chore. She was relegated to house chores by then.

Our small dairy farm was at its best in 1953. Dad was milking about 18 cows and we were filling about 5 or 6 milk cans per milking. The milk house was quite a way from the barn and Dad built a two-wheel cart that would hold 2 cans. It had big wheels he’d taken off an old horse-driven hay rake. I would help Mom push on the cart uphill on the last leg of the journey to the pump house where we put the cans into the stock tank to cool the milk. We had two tanks. Mom and I were able to lift the cans into the low tank. It was not easy because when the can went into the water it settled to the bottom slowly because of the buoyancy, subsequently one needed to keep it upright all the way to the bottom. I guess that is why my knees and back are bad. Too many hay bales and milk cans wrestled with in my youth!

We had a hired man in those days. His name was Larry. He was from McKinley and from a family Dad had known for years. He was a genuine slacker and Dad never could get him to do any work to speak of. He was always out behind the horse barn smoking cigarettes and that made Dad furious. When it came time for milking he was never around. He and his friend Wayne would be off riding Wayne’s Indian Motorcycle instead. Dad despised Wayne as well. He finally told Larry’s Dad to come get him. It was the same day of the Big Storm. No one came and he finally hitch- hiked his way back to McKinley.

I went to get the cows about 6 p.m. They were way back in the southeast corner of the 80 acres on the border of the Rock Creek Farm and the Old Rehbien Farm. Dad had made a pasture on the back of the big hill that always washed out when he planted corn there. The grass was green and lush and had lots of cow pies to step in.

I am suggesting it was probably in June when the tornadoes were spawned. I had gone to get the cows and bring them home for milking. I always carried my walking stick that Grandpa Glassel had made for me. I also had the Lassie, the cow dog, with me. I don’t know which Lassie as we had numerous Collies, all by that name. The cows were all bunched up in the far corner of the pasture. Lassie barked at them and tried to get them to get into the cow path and head for the barn. The cows always walked single file and had a deep rut cut in the ground. But this was a new pasture and the cow path was not well-defined. I thought that was the reason they wouldn’t start going to the barn. Between Lassie and me, we finally got them heading north to the barn.

Then, without any warning the cows all started to walk really fast. Then they began to run! I was scared because when they ran, they would let down and all of the milk would start coming out of their udders. Dad used to scold Lois and me for letting the Collie dogs make them run by biting at their heels. But soon, I couldn’t keep up with the cows.

Meanwhile, Dad saw the cows rush toward the barnyard. They ran frantically through the gate and into the barn—all into the wrong stanchions. “That had never happened before,” Dad told me later.

He figured out something was wrong and when he didn’t see me, he climbed the hill to go looking for me. By then I had just reached the top of the hill.

Dad later told me that he heard about the tornadoes on WCCO radio in the barn and then saw the tornadoes on the horizon over the St. Croix River, heading in our direction. I was scared and was running as fast as I could go but I kept tripping. I calmed down a bit when I saw Dad coming for me. He grabbed my hand and pulled me down in a gully. The storm blew over as fast as it came. In a matter of seconds, its fury had passed us by. It skipped over our farm but we watched in awe as the huge barn at the Rehbien farm flew into the air and landed in a million pieces.

The next day Mom and Dad loaded us all up in the rusted, green 46 Ford and we went for a ride to view the devastation. There were 18 tornadoes spawned by the storm stretching from the Glassel farm to Grantsburg and East as far as Clam Falls. The majority of the damage was done west of Eureka and north of Cushing. We drove past areas where as many as six barns and a few houses were totally demolished. Dead cattle were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately, most all of the milk cows were in the barn for milking at that time of the day and the barns collapsed on them. We stopped to visit Donald Christensen, Leroy Christensen’s Dad and Mom. Their barn was blown down and there were dead Holsteins everywhere. Some were still alive but immobile. They didn’t shoot them because they wanted to keep them alive until they could be butchered. The slaughter houses in Luck and Milltown were all backed up, however, and unable to take more cattle. Mom cried like a baby for hours for all those poor, injured cows. She loved animals!

But she loved her babies more. After the storm I remember Mom hugging me and thanking Dad. Her nine children were all saved.

The next Sunday, we went with Aunt Gertie and Grandma and Grandpa Glassel to Clam Falls. The old Glassel house where Dad and his brothers and sisters grew up was leveled to the ground. The farm had been vacant for several years. I went back to find the place years later but there was nothing there. Nature had taken over.

I often think about that storm. At the last class reunion, I talked to Judy Jensen, a historical writer for Polk County who worked for the Polk County Museum in Balsam Lake. She told me that they had numerous photos of the devastation from those 18 tornadoes in ‘55. It was the most devastating storm to ever hit Wisconsin and has since been recorded in the records as such.

I don’t know if I can actually say I was “in” the tornado or not. I just remember being really scared and Dad being on top of me. There was an unbelievable wind and then a flood of rain. I remember seeing Dads lips moving but couldn’t hear anything because of the overwhelming noise. Perhaps he was praying. Dad claimed that what saved our farm was the fact that it was built in the ravine sheltered with hills on all sides. During later years, he recalled that he saw the funnel going overhead and it looked like as if it went right over the barn and house. We never even lost as much as a tree limb!

As for the cows, later I came to understand that their erratic behavior was related directly to their sensing the oncoming storm. That is why they were all grouped in the corner of the pasture. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the animals can’t detect weather and storms. Dad used to say to Mom, I know it’s going to rain. I can hear Landahl’s horses whinnying. He was right every time.

I’ve forgotten many things about my St. Croix Falls childhood days. But there are many stories that I do remember—especially those events that took place on that 80-acre Dairy Farm during the fifties.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.