Remembering May 6, 1965 – and April 30, 1967

Fifty years ago next week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the deadliest storms ever to hit Minnesota.

Twelve tornadoes – four of them F4 strength – cut a swatch of destruction on May 6, 1965. One started near Cologne, then to Navarre, north past Waconia, through Minnestrista, Another F4 started in Chanhassen and went north across Minnetonka, Deephaven almost to Wayzata before hitting the lake.

The two worst struck further north and east. One F4 started in Golden Valley, crossed over Crystal and Robbinsdale, then slammed Columbia Heights, Fridley, Mounds View and northeast to Lino Lakes. That tornado traveled 31 miles.

Another F4 started in northeast Minneapolis, and then crossed the path of the other tornado, adding to the devastation in Columbia Heights, Fridley and Mounds View.

When the storms subsided, 13 people were dead and 683 people injured.

Fridley suffered the most, two direct hits by F4 tornadoes. Some 1,100 homes were damaged, another 425 homes destroyed. The Fridley School District was crushed – the junior high was in rubble and the other buildings seriously damaged. I read the loss topped $5 million – a huge amount of money in 1965.

Anyone who was around that day will offer you tales of horror and bravery.

I don’t recall the 1965 tornadoes – I was a kid living in southern Minnesota, the storms did not make an imprint on my memory. However, I vividly recall a day two years later – April 30, 1967 – when my small hometowns of Freeborn and Alden suffered a similar tragedy, when eight tornadoes, two of them F4s, struck nearby. Thirteen people died that day, too, but the injury toll was much lower as the storms hit rural areas and smaller communities. Some 81 people were injured. One of the tornadoes traversed 39 miles from Albert Lea north to Waseca.

The tornado that skirted the edge of our farm was an F3, killing two of my neighbors and injuring 23.

Almost everyone who has been in or near a tornado will offer very similar descriptions.

“It sounded like a freight train going over us.” It did.

“It got dark as night.” It did.

“The oak trees were turned into toothpicks.” They were.

“The houses looked like doll houses, with the sides open to view.” Exactly what my nearest neighbor’s house looked like.

Tornadoes are known for bizarre behavior – uprooting an oak tree in one yard, leaving a child’s swing set in perfect condition 25 feet away.

About an hour after the tornado hit back home, I recall my sisters and I ran to our neighbor’s house (over the objections of my father, who was very concerned of the downed power lines and snapped power poles).

My neighbor Lila was crying, her house ripped in half, the barn was flattened, and century-old trees stripped of branches.

“My mother’s ring, my mother’s ring, I can’t find my mother’s ring,” she repeated, over and over. She was coping with the destruction of her family’s entire home and farm by focusing on one precious possession.

Everyone – I mean everyone – spent the next week helping. Older students were excused from school to help clean up houses, barns and pull debris out of the farm fields. Farmers from throughout southern Minnesota showed up to reroof barns and rebuild sheds. It took months for our neighbors to rebuild their homes and barns. We felt blessed that damage at our house – about three-quarters of a mile from the twister’s path – was minor.

Sometime in the next day or so, one of those many volunteers helping my neighbors found a small jewelry box – damp from the rain but otherwise undamaged – under a pile of rubble. Inside, Lila’s jewelry – including her mother’s ring – was unscathed.

I imagine the people of Fridley, Columbia Heights, Mounds View and New Brighton – and the many other Twin Cities areas hit that day – have similar memories, of tiny details and massive destruction. Strangers dropped everything to help, the bond of community stronger than any political divide. For a while, all were one – no differences in race or religion, or wealth or poor – everyone came to help.

Fifty years later, we remember and say thank you for the strength of the human spirit – and especially for the power that comes when communities of people work together with only one goal.

We as people are always better when we work together.

Contact Sun Newspapers Executive Editor Peggy Bakken at peggy.bakken@ecm-inc.com.

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