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COLFAX— Helen Reed, co-owner of the Colfax Messenger, wrote a weekly column for the newspaper at the time of the June 4, 1958, tornado.
Here is Helen’s column the week after the tornado in the June 12 edition of the Messenger:
White-faced and weary, after a whole night of wakefulness, and with a numbness that knows no emotion, the stricken families of Colfax searched through the ruins that were once their homes early Thursday morning.
Those who lost their homes counted themselves lucky, as compared to those whose loved ones had been claimed by the tornado. But no matter what the loss, so little or so very much, they were all there searching in the ruins.
It wasn’t the new electric stove, the favorite chair, or the refrigerator for which they looked, but for the precious little things. Things that can never be replaced. Sometimes they were found, but most of the time not.
Soon, piles of other little things were gathered — a bouncy red ball, a doll with a broken head, a dish or two, some silverware, an afghan that took so much yarn and so much work, a pieced quilt, a little jacket — all dirty it’s true, but so dear to the owner.
Gradually the neighbors compared notes on what they did, and what they thought when the tornado struck the previous evening. Many thank God that someone or some thing drove them to seek protection in their basements. Otherwise they would not be there at all.
The memory of those first hours after the disaster will never be erased from many minds. The damage was already all done, but still, the angry clouds threatened. The ominous yellow tinge in the sky still struck fear in the hearts of us all, even as we stood in small groups, and wondered how destructive the storm had been.
Word came from first one quarter and then another. The stories were so tragic, they were nearly unbelievable, yet there was no emotion displayed, just a calm acceptance of the inevitable.
As night closed in, the magnitude of our destruction became apparent, but soon we were not alone with our loss, for help came early from many quarters.
The appearance of the National Guard before midnight caused many silent prayers of thankfulness. Somehow the weight was lifted somewhat by their presence.
The night wore on. The dead and injured were being found, and reported. Relatives hurried frantically into town from neighboring communities in search of their loved ones.
Systematically — as though from long practice, our people worked with and for one another.
Red Cross donations, and the occasional giving to the Salvation Army, were just things that were done with not a lot of personal benefit. The need for their services would never come our way was the popular thought.
Now we have been helped beyond all expectations by these wonderful organizations. The insignia of these groups, and the help they give in our desperate need, have made an indelible mark in our minds.
Most households — those that remained standing — were left helpless by the lack of electricity. The rapidity with which that service was restored by NSP men was surprising. We watched with deep respect as the men, so expert in their work, set about helping us in our dilemma with no thought of the hours and hours of extra labor they must expend to do it.
The willingness to help us in our need by people all over the nation finds us at a loss to express our thankfulness. The hard labor necessary to restore things somewhere near normalcy has been so cheerfully given, one wonders if ever we can get some way to repay the favor by helping someone else when the need arises.
It is quite understandable that relatives should fear for the safety of their dear ones, but there are always those who have an intense desire to see destruction and suffering firsthand — the curious sightseers.
The latter group were kept from entering the village by blockades, guarded by the State Patrol and the National Guard. Appreciation for that protection alone was deeply felt by all who suffered loss, and by those who are attempting to help in the cleanup.
One cannot help admiring the courage and willingness of those who have lost so much to dig in and do everything they can to ease the hurt for someone else. Incidents of that real courage and unselfishness was repeated many times Wednesday night — and the good hard labor, one neighbor for another — goes on and on.
Thankfulness for so many things is expressed over and over. Supposing the tornado had come when many had retired for the night. The number of casualties would have been tremendous.
Supposing that our problems had to be carried on our own shoulders alone. Life would not seem worth the effort of such a struggle.
Supposing this was an earlier age without power saws, the many tractors, trucks, fast traveling vehicles, and so many other modern conveniences. Ours would be a lifetime of restoration.
It was suggestive of wartime to see the soldiers, the Red Cross, the canteens, the blockades.
The angry snarl of many power saws operating at once was a strange, but welcome sound to all of us with downed trees, and the men who operated them all day long must have been very, very tired each night.
The busyness of the telephone operators — the help of the La Crosse loud-speaking system — the willing help of the doctors — all taken for granted at the time, were appreciated beyond measure.
The smelly little bonfires, appearing here and there all over the village as useless articles are burned is a familiar odor now.
All these things we shall remember always — just as the evening of June 4, 1958, will be marked in our minds and hearts.
But just as the little martins on our front porch have rebuilt their nest which I had destroyed — our homes, too, will be restored and rebuilt — and Colfax will be lovely once again.