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Compiled by LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Sixty five years ago, on June 4, 1958, a tornado — later determined to be an EF5, the most destructive of tornadoes — descended on Colfax at 7 p.m.
All together, the tornado left a path of destruction 33 miles long and killed 28 people, 12 of them in Colfax.
The June 5, 1958, Colfax Messenger did not have any information about the tornado. The newspaper had already been printed and put into the mail by the time the tornado struck.
The June 12, 1958, edition of the Messenger was almost entirely devoted to the disaster that had struck the area. In Colfax, 71 houses were demolished beyond repair.
From the archives:
In the space of a few minutes at 7:10 p.m. Wednesday evening, June 4, a tornado ripped through the village of Colfax, leaving death, injured persons and a vast destruction of property in its wake.
The day had started out as a mild summer’s day but in the afternoon it became decidedly sultry and the sky had taken on that yellowish tinge, almost always symbolic of tornado weather. Warnings from the weather bureau state that heavy thunder showers were to arrive early in the evening, but no mention of a tornado was heard for this territory.
At about 6:30, thunderstorms did arrive, and as predicted, they were heavy. As the minutes wore on, the intensity of the rain increased, until just shortly before the funnel arrived, when there was a momentary lull, and then came the wind.
Approaching from the southwest, the twister passed through the south part of the village, veered slightly northward and demolished buildings on the north and east portions of the village, then passed on east and north, causing further destruction to farm buildings as far north as the Running Valley community.
Amid all the confusion, those who were uninjured by the storm began immediately helping the injured from the wrecked buildings and assisting them to the auditorium [Colfax Municipal Building basement] where first aid was rendered. From there they were taken to hospitals at Menomonie and Eau Claire as quickly as possible.
Dead and injured
Twelve people lost their lives.
Those killed in the storm were Erling Lunn (age27); Leon Lunn, Erling’s son ( age 2 1/2); Mrs. Rolf Lunn (21); Spencer E. Fjelstad; Mrs. Ted Slaga (39); Petter George Nilsen (75); Bill Wagner (51); Lanny Fjelsted (16); R.A. Presnell, Bloomer; Vernon Meindel, Bloomer; Mrs. Nora Gerber (56) and Art Quevillon (64).
Thirty-eight people were injured and taken to hospitals.
Mrs. Erling Lunn and infant son; Mrs. Henry Larson; Bertha Severson; Gary Olson; Yvonne Quevillon; Mrs. Melvin Olson; infant son of Rolf Lunn; Mrs. Alma Lunn; Mrs. Leonard Keilholz; Mrs. Rose Jacobson; Mrs. Anna Larson; Mrs. Harry Mittelsdorf; Mrs. Art Quevillon; Mary Keilholz; Mr. Clarence Keasling; Mrs. Clarence Keisling; Donna Fjelstad; Mrs. Wm. Stockland; Erling Braaten; Paul Larson; Melvin Hendrikson; Mrs. Melvin Hendrikson; Egil Rasmussen; Peder Rasmussen; Mrs. Emelia Carey; Mrs. Victor Sundby; Mrs. Alfred Logslett; Mrs. Juel Stalson; Juel Stalson; John Higbie; Mrs. John Higbie; Harold Tape; Mrs. Harold Tape; Mrs. Alvia Olson; Donald Fjelsted; Mrs. Donald Fjelsted.
Early Thursday morning, volunteer workers from many neighboring towns and cities came to begin the process of clearing away the debris.
The chainsaws kept up a continual whine all day long, and by nightfall most of the village streets could be traversed, thereby making it easier for Friday’s crews to move debris.
Men were here from as far away as Gilmanton, Turtle Lake, River Falls, Mondovi, and most nearby towns.
Many farmers from the local area came to assist with the trucks and chainsaws, and Friday evening, most of the down trees had been cut up and removed.
A slower task will be that of collecting and removing the wreckage from buildings and so forth, but the bulldozers and tractors are working at that.
When the injured began to pour into the municipal auditorium [basement], it was apparent that local facilities could not possibly cope with the situation.
Menomonie was called via police radio to summon ambulances, doctors and additional police help.
A car was dispatched to the east to locate a phone and summon help from Bloomer, and doctors from that city were [soon] at the auditorium to assist locally.
Shortly thereafter, crews from the Northern States Power Company arrived and began the repair work necessary to light the Main Street. Since the storm had not affected the lights for about three blocks of Main Street, it was only a matter of about three hours before that part of the village was lighted.
In the meantime, someone had located a portable lighting plant, and it was functioning to light the auditorium. Previous to that, flashlights and lanterns of all descriptions had appeared from everywhere to furnish needed light.
Since the village well is located in that part of the village not disturbed by the storm, as soon as power was returned to a portion of the street, the well began to operate, and water service was again in effect.
However, a few truckloads of water were hauled to the auditorium prior to the return of the power, just in case the system could not have been put in operation in a short time.
Units of the National Guard were called, and they arrived on the scene shortly before midnight to take over the duties of guarding the devastated area and since that time, their services, together with the Highway Patrol, have been used to form road blocks to keep sightseers from entering the area and thus hamper cleanup operations.
On Thursday, units of the Red Cross came in and set up a clothing dispensing station in the basement of the Methodist Church as well as a place to serve food at Colfax Lutheran Church.
Mobile units have also appeared to give service to the outlying farm sections where workers were assisting with the cleaning up process.
Salvation Army workers and trucks then came and a food station was set up on the south side of the village, and their truck also helped with the rural areas.
Another eating station was supplied by the Rubber Company Union Local of Eau Claire with this one being located in the Hovland yard across from the auditorium.
On Thursday, Governor [Vernon] Thomson, by plane and car, visited the entire stricken area and proclaimed it a disaster area.
He estimated that damage beyond the half million mark had occurred in Colfax alone.
Word was received on Friday that loans would be available from the Small Business Administration and that a field office would be located somewhere in the area shortly.
One of the heaviest losses occurred at the Colfax public school building where wind plus rain after the storm accounted for the loss.
Portions of the new gym roof [Martin Anderson gymnasium] were lifted by the twister and the rain poured in on the wood block floor, causing it to swell.
In one portion of the room, a huge hump, about three feet high was raised. It may be necessary to install a new floor.
Portions of the roof on the main building were lifted, and again, water poured in to cause heavy damage.
The large ventilator atop the building was hurtled to the ground, and the ventilator system ruined. Untold windows were broken and partitions inside were bulged. A portion of the shop roof also was removed.
Contractors have been secured, and it is their estimate that it will take at least sixty days to repair the damage.
The school yard was a beauty spot in the village with its numerous trees of various kinds, some large and some small, but the force of the wind was such that not one single tree was spared.
Homes and businesses
The Colfax Messenger lists 71 homes that were destroyed beyond repair, but Kenneth Reed, publisher of the Messenger wrote “As was mentioned before, there may be other homes completely ruined, such as the Jennings Page and Ruth Anderson homes, but judging from a car it would be difficult to tell.”
The Messenger goes on to say:
A number of business places were also completely destroyed or badly damaged.
Among them: Gilberts Four Corner Grocery, completely; Colfax Tractor and Implement, completely; Southside Texaco Station, badly damaged; the Southside Grocery, badly damaged. The Southside Tavern suffered considerable roof damage. The Viets Barber Shop was completely destroyed as well as Dahlgren’s Auto Body Shop. [Viets Barber Shop was across the street diagonally from Colfax Lutheran, which was not damaged at all.]
Soo Line Depot
Although not directly in the path of the storm, the Soo Line depot sustained heavy buffeting of the wind. Almost the entire storage room was blown in, and a portion of the east end waiting room.
A box car across and toward the creamery was lifted from its trucks and turned over on its side.
The funnel raised havoc with the Colfax Cooperative Creamery, with damages including the complete wrecking of a new warehouse on the west end of the building plus another warehouse across the tracks from the plant.
The huge brick smokestack was blown down and a portion of the boiler room torn away. The large dryer was put out of order with all inventory of supplies being ruined along with 400,000 pounds of milk powder.
Even with all the damage, on Saturday the intake was in running order and milk was being received, separated and the skim milk sent to other companies for processing.
Just east of the village, the homes of Milton Knutson and Joe Dobbs were completely destroyed, as were all the buildings on the John Higbie farm.
A little farther on, nothing remains of the Clifford Fjelsted home, and very little of Abner Olson’s.
At Avil Alman’s, the granary went down with extensive damage being done to the house.
At the Carl Fjelsted, Alvin Fjelsted, Karmit Gunderson, Lloyd Anderson and Victor Sundby farms, all buildings were destroyed.
Barns and sheds went at the Victor Foslid place and everything but the house at the Erling Rostamo farm.
Roger Hones lost a machine shed. The barns at the Kennth Sundby and Erling Braaten farms were taken, and on the Hans Jacobson farm, everything is gone.
Donald Bergeson lost his barn and eight head of cattle. The barn and machine shed in the second farm of Willie Hilson’s is gone.
A barn disappeared on the farm of Mrs. Clara Bergeson, and other buildings at the Alvin Berge’s are gone.
Barns on the farms of Art Larson and Robert Larson are down; all buildings at the Norman Amble farm now owned by Byron Berg are gone.
A great deal of damage was sustained at the Running Valley Lutheran Free Church.
South of the village were like scenes of disaster. Frank Henderson lost a barn at home and all buildings on the next farm where the house was occupied by Floyd Scott.
At the Harry Mittelsdorf, Dan Emmerton, Ole Repaal, and Donald Fjelsted farms every building was taken.
Barns at the Carl Hainstock and Wilbur Maves farms were knocked down and considerable damage was sustained at the Knapp Settlement School.
Ernest Cardin’s lost their barn, and the sheds at the Homer Knight farm are gone.
Mrs. Gust Sell lost the barn and sheds on her farm.
Wonderment of everyone is the fact that more lives were not snuffed out by the storm for some of the places where persons survived do not seem possible.
Francis Tande was driving east at the storm’s height, and in the car was his sister, Mrs. Clifford Fjelsted and Donna Fjelsted.
The car was picked up off the highway, battered and pummeled and placed in a small tree, not too high off the ground.
They all crawled out of the car with Donna being the only one needing medical attention.
Occupants of another car, that of Juel Stalson of Duluth, were dealt with a little more severely when their car was swished from the road. The three occupants, Mr. and Mrs. Juel Stalson and Erling Braaten were all taken to the hospital although none are in serious condition. [In 2008, on the 50th anniversary, Donna Stalson said their car had been blown end over end, and described the place on east state Highway 40 as a “scene from hell.” Her husband came limping back to the car, holding his arm, and his face was so cut up, “it looked like a roadmap.” She said they all three had sand embedded in their skin and in their hair, and the sand came out of their skin for days.]
Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Gilberts [at the Gilberts Four Corner Grocery, intersection of Highway 40 and county Highway M] took refuge under the kitchen table and attempted to hold it in place over their heads. The tornado split the table right in two, but they were spared serious injury, even though the building was completely ruined.
Louis Christianson could not get the basement door open. So he threw his wife and daughter to the floor near a wall and lay on top of them. They received injuries and bruises but none serious.
At the Dan Emmerton farm, Mr. Emmerton and his daughter, Marsha, were in the barn when the storm approached. Dan yelled to his daughter to run for the house and the basement, but she did not get there before the storm struck. She remembers being rolled on the ground and up against a blown-over tree which she grabbed and was spared serious injury.
Freaks of the storm
Unusual stories concerning peculiar things done by the twister are being recounted by the hundreds.
Cards, letters and all sorts of items are being found miles and miles from their point of pick up.
Various items are being found in trees. Straws driven into trees that are impossible to pull out, and trees with the bark literally rolled off from the top down to their base make up other stories.
On the day after the storm, Mrs. Barney Olson was searching through the debris of the Jack Trandum home for glasses she had lost the night before, and she eventually found them with one lens broken. Surprisingly, though, right next to the glasses, was her wrist watch which had been left on the dresser in the upstairs apartment. She picked it up, wound it, and the watch ran as nicely as could be.
At the Martin Olson home, a part of the kitchen and one bedroom remained, and when Martin removed the mattress he found underneath it a pair of men’s pants that did not belong to him, as well as a large high top work boot underneath the bed.
When the storm struck, Helen Anderson was visiting at the John K. Anderson home. After the blow, she returned home to find her trailer house had completely disappeared. Wondering what had become of her little dog, she began to look over a pile of nearby rubble, and finally noticed a movement in the heap. She removed the things, and out walked her dog.
Lyle Babbitt of Bloomer was driving up the street the same evening of the storm. He was forced to stop, and while there, a boy came to his car with a small dog in his arms. He told Lyle that it belonged to some lady and asked that he take care of it for a while. Lyle did, and still has the dog at his home in Bloomer. If the owner would like it, he will be glad to return the animal.
At the Selmer Fjelsted home, the wind opened a closet in Lyle’s room — he is in the armed services — removed every bit of the clothing but one coat, and that was left as nicely as you please right on the hanger.