Howard Swanson was too young to remember it - the monster tornado that destroyed his family farm 60 years ago last week, but to this day people still ask him about the monster, one of the worst to ever hit Watonwan County.
Howard was only one when the tornado that scoured a path of destruction 100 miles long and 10 miles wide made a direct hit on his father Lemuel’s farm on March 21, 1953.
Dad was at the South Central REA annual meeting at the St. James High School (Armstrong) when the tornado struck.
Howard’s Mother Alma snatched Howard and his sister Kathleen out of their room and got them in the cellar seconds before the twister hit. This was a time where there was no kind of weather warning system at all. An eye to the sky was the only defense and Alma Swanson used it to save herself and her children that day.
Alma emerged from the cellar a few minutes later and she found the roof of her house was gone. The room her babies had been in was open to the sky.
The family farm was and still is northwest of town in St. James township.
Howard’s father stopped at the grocery store after the meeting to get some groceries. A person told him, “You don’t need groceries Lemuel. Your house is gone.”
Howard said, “How would you like to hear that?”
History like this is only told by those who experienced it. What was headline news back then are faded clippings today. Howard was nice enough to bring them in for us to revisit that history.
This is the story in the St. James Courier on Tuesday, March 24, 1953 (St. James was big enough to have two newspapers), “One of the most severe storms in many years ripped through Watonwan county Saturday afternoon on the breath of spring, causing yet untold damage. Insurance adjustors said Monday they expect reports of damage to trickle in for the next week. Damage will be in the thousands of dollars. (A bit of inflation since then.)
“Two separate tornadoes struck the western half of Watonwan County, destroying two complete farms, and smashing trees, power and telephone lines, small buildings, signs, chimneys, and television antennas in a wide area. Dozens of farms sustained some damage.”
A little later on the story reads, “Mrs. Lemuel Swanson had just put her two children aged 18 months and four years to bed for their afternoon nap, when the lights went out. She herd the rumbling of the storm, so she rushed upstairs, grabbed the children, and took them to the basement just as the rain, hail, and high winds struck. The house above their heads was destroyed, but they escaped harm.
Page 2 of 2 - “It looks like my house is completely wrecked,” said Lemuel Swanson, who bought the place just last November.”
The New Ulm paper from Monday, March 23 had the size of the storm, “New Ulm farmers in a 10-mile wide and 100-mile long stretch from the Iowa border north to Hutchinson and beyond were cleaning up today after tornadic winds ripped through the area Saturday afternoon.”
The New Ulm paper reported the area’s only death, “One area man, Lester Meyer, 34, a farmer six miles north of Gibbon, was killed when the storm struck his farm and pinned him under the wreckage of his barn.”
This was big news back then. It’s good that Howard Swanson helped us recall what a big news event this was in the County’s history.