Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Colfax Tornado of June 4, 1958

Wednesday June 4, 1958, dawned sunny, hot, and muggy in Menomonie, Wisconsin.  I was in the first grade at Coddington Elementary School where I had a serious case of pre-pubescent lust for my teacher whose name I have now forgotten.  As usual I walked the few blocks (maybe 10?) from our home to school in the morning and gave nothing else much thought.

My father, an artificial inseminator (a “bull cheater” in the parlance of rural Wisconsin in those days) made his usual rounds inseminating cows in the barns of his many customers in northern Dunn County.  One of his stops that morning was at the farm of George House, a generally prosperous farmer whose land lay next to State Highway 25 about 3 miles north of Menomonie.  My dad was at the House farm about 11:00 a.m. where he bred a cow, his last of the morning, and then returned home for lunch.  His afternoon rounds took him on his typically circuitous route and he completed those calls about 4:00 p.m.  I arrived home from school about the time he returned home and just as he did a farmer between the villages of Elk Mound and Colfax called saying he had forgotten to get in touch earlier.  He had a cow that was ready for inseminating and asked my dad to make a special trip out to service the bovine.

As we left Menomonie on US Highway 29 headed east about 4:15 pm it was rapidly becoming obvious that the sunny and muggy morning we had experienced was being replaced by large, dark and very ominous storm clouds off to the west.  In those days there was no such thing as advanced Doppler radar, or storm chasers, or even severe thunderstorm or tornado watches and warnings.  Then we relied more on instinct than some talking head from the three television stations in Minneapolis/St. Paul or WEAU-TV in Eau Claire to tell us what was brewing in Mother Nature’s kitchen.

My dad parked our Volkswagen Beatle (the “bug”) on the east side of the customer’s barn and entered it to breed a cow.  Meanwhile my mother and I remained in the VW bug fantasizing about trips that would never be taken and places she would never see.   As we waited the sky grew even more ominous and threatening.  Its color had turned an indescribable green, the bottoms of clouds were hanging from the base of the thunderhead, and all of the sky was rotating like a clock in reverse.  Suddenly in the distance the occasional thunder we had heard turned into a nearly deafening roar.  Not knowing what was happening yet, we assumed that the roar was just a continual chorus of thunder because the sky was lit up with lightning in every direction and nickel-sized hail was pelting down.

However the roar was not from thunder.  As everyone who has ever experienced a tornado will attest, the sound we heard was the “it sounded like a freight train” of a tornado.  The funnel emerged from behind the barn and twisted and churned its way across the landscape sucking up soil and everything else in its way.  Along with it was a second, smaller funnel that (at least at that time) hung from the base of the rotating wall cloud and did not touch the ground. We sat in petrified awe as this massive storm passed less than ¼ mile (1,320 feet or about 4 football fields) from us).  I still remember seeing soil and branches and almost everything else imaginable being flung into the air by the passing tempest.

The tornado eventually passed by us on its east - northeast trajectory and unknown to us at the time, slammed into the tiny village of Colfax, Wisconsin, from which its name “The Colfax Tornado” was born.  Later estimates of the damage caused by the storm caused most authorities to say that the Colfax Tornado was an EF-4 – the second most destructive storm on the Enhanced Fujita scale.  More recently I have seen some who claim the Colfax Tornado was an EF-5 (the most destructive of all tornadoes) for at least part of its dance across the landscape.  One report received about the Colfax Tornado claims that not one but two funnels slammed into the village.  A local meteorological expert (in Wisconsin that is anyone in a bar who has just looked at a cloud) claimed that the funnel hit a nearby hill and that caused it to split into two separate funnels that slammed into Colfax.  Later research has shown that multiple vortices are fairly common in large rotating wall clouds and the second funnel was most likely just that – maybe the funnel my mom and I saw dangling from the cloud before it touched down a few miles away near Colfax.

Returning to Menomonie after the storm passed we like many other foolish people that day drove out to the Dunn County countryside to see what had been destroyed in the tornado’s path.  At first we drove north of Menomonie on State Highway 25 and just before Tainter Lake, at a small bend in the highway we crested a hill and saw the George House farm where my dad bred a cow at 11:00 that morning. Now, at about 6:00 p.m. there was no barn remaining in which a cow could be stanchioned.  In fact there was virtually nothing remaining on or of the George House farm. The barn or at least the part that remained on the House farm was a pile of splintered timber.  All of the outbuildings were gone as was the house.  In fact the only structure that remained on the entire farmstead was George House’s bath tub.  It was still anchored to the foundation of what used to be a house that surrounded it.  There was no sign of anything alive on the House farm at 6:00 p.m. and later reports indicate that Mr. House had died in the chaos an hour earlier.

From the House farm we drove west on some country roads and saw destruction and devastation everywhere.  One thing that we saw that remains indelibly etched in my mind was at the remains of a farmstead near the village of Knapp. There standing next to a decapitated barn was a Holstein cow, still on her legs, with a 2x4 of timber protruding from a hole in her stomach just forward of her hip.  I still remember today, 56 years later, watching a man walk up to her, put a pistol to her forehead, and pull the trigger putting her out of what must have been immense pain.

The Colfax Tornado first set down in Ramsey County, Minnesota just north of the Twin Cities.  From its initial touchdown it roared east crossing the wide expanse of the St. Croix River and then churned its way across St. Croix, Dunn, Chippewa and Clark counties. Later estimates revealed that the funnel (or one of its offspring) was on the ground for nearly 130 miles.  It remains one of the longest track tornadoes ever recorded in Wisconsin.  Twenty-nine people died that afternoon in the path of destruction and many lives were changed forever.  The village of Colfax was essentially wiped from the face of the earth. 

The day following the tornado about the only topic of discussion in our second grade classroom was the tornado.  At recess that morning I still remember classmate Doug Clemmons sitting on the sidewalk trying to describe the destruction.  To illustrate what happened Doug pulled up a loose brick from the sidewalk and threw it to the side explaining that was how everything looked where the tornado had been.  Our teacher was quite helpful in assisting us in talking about what we experienced.  I remember (because I still have it in a frame) drawing a picture for her of what I saw from 1,320 feet away.  It was a water color on construction paper but the greens and the yellows and the blacks I saw that day all stand out.  So too does the rotation of the giant wedge funnel, and adjacent to it is a smaller funnel dangling from the cloud.  Could that have been the second funnel that slammed into Colfax? Nobody knows or will we ever but now 56 years later it’s fun to speculate.

You can read more about the Colfax tornado and see a collage of pictures of its destruction here, here, here and here.  Frustratingly there are no known photos of the Colfax Tornado but plenty of photos of its aftermath. 

The Colfax Tornado had a profound effect that remains with me to this day.  I vividly remember another storm in 1963 when we were living in Barron County (one county north of Dunn).  The sky was black and a wall cloud was hanging from it and as I watched it in horror I began chewing on the collar of my t-shirt.  By the time the storm passed I no longer had a collar on my shirt – only the dangling strings of what used to be one. 

For whatever reason, since that first tornado, I have seen more tornadoes on June 4 than any other day of the year.  For example:

June 4, 1978 – one tornado on the ground 10 miles south of Great Falls Montana while I was conducting a census of nesting songbirds on a patch of native prairie.

June 3, 1980 (a day early) – the night of the tornado outbreak in Grand Island Nebraska in which at least 7 separate tornadoes rampaged through the city.

June 4, 1981.  While giving our nearly one-year old daughter Dana a bath in the kitchen sink (don’t ask why we chose to bathe her there – I do not remember), we saw a tornado drop from the sky just west of our home in Jamestown, North Dakota and briefly dance across the prairie before dissipating.

June 4, 1991 – My daughters and I sat on a hilltop north of Grand Island, Nebraska and watched three funnels form to the southwest.  One touched down briefly but caused no damage other than churning up some corn.

June 4, 2010 – A funnel formed and touched down briefly at Blackwater River State Park in Santa Rosa County, Florida.  I was driving west on US 98, saw the rotating wall cloud, and pulled over to the roadside and watched.

June 4, 2012 – A funnel formed over the intersection of University Parkway and Interstate Highway 75 in Sarasota Florida.  I was riding my bicycle home and saw the funnel overhead one mile away.  Luckily it didn’t touch down.

Today there is an abundance of information about tornadoes, how they are formed and where they have been that is available on the internet.  One particularly useful site is The Tornado Project from St. Johnsbury, Vermont.  People working on this project are assembling a chronological list of known tornadoes by state and by county in each state for as far back in history as possible.  There are a few missing storms in the database which is to be expected.  However they have compiled a huge amount of information about these fascinating and destructive winds.

The Colfax Tornado and its aftermath were important in developing a deep sense of wonder about tornadoes and at the same time an incurable fear of them.  It was later that same year when my parents let me watch "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time.  Having just seen a real tornado a couple months earlier the fake one in the movie was too much to bear.  On top of that the damned flying monkeys scared me as much as the tornado that took Dorothy and Toto on their magical mystery tour.  

To this day, 56 years later, anytime the sky turns black and takes on tints of green and maybe starts to rotate a bit my survival instincts kick in and I start to panic a bit thinking that I’ll be experiencing another Colfax Tornado sometime soon.  Whomever says that people quickly forget negative things that happen to them as a child should have been sitting with my mom and me that day in 1958 when my outlook on weather was changed forever.

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