75 years later: Remembering the Anoka tornado

By Pat Groth Schwappach
For the UnionHerald

It was the day of the American Legion Parade in downtown Anoka, Minnesota. The parade was the culmination of the American Legion Tenth District Convention. It would start at the Legion Club and end at the Anoka Masonic Temple on Third Avenue and Monroe Street where the Mason and Eastern Star members would serve them a banquet meal.

A tornado ripped through Anoka in June of 1939, resulting in nine deaths and destroying many homes in its path. Photo courtesy of the Anoka County Historical Society
A tornado ripped through Anoka in June of 1939, resulting in nine deaths and destroying many homes in its path. Photo courtesy of the Anoka County Historical Society

The sun was shining. Although it was a bit sultry it was a perfect day for a parade. Mom, Dad and I walked from our home on Branch Street to the Rum River Bridge and found a curbside space right in the center of the bridge. (The north side, facing south). Most kids like parades and I was no exception. It was fun to see the precision marching band, hear the peppy music and watch the Legionnaires and Woman’s Auxiliary march in perfect step.

At 3:28 p.m. I was engrossed in the pageantry when suddenly Dad, in a rather loud shaky voice said ‘’look at those clouds!” He pointed towards the south following the Rum River. They were big and black and swirling in a suddenly strong wind. “Let’s get home!” Each parent took one of my hands and practically ran towards Branch Street. My feet barely touched the sidewalk!

By the time we reached home it was very dark and windy. Trees were swaying, their leaves and small twigs and branches were falling and it was raining. We scurried to the basement. I don’t recall how long we were down there; it seemed like a very long time to me. It was an unfinished basement with a very small window near the ceiling. Dad watched the window and when it seemed calmer outside we ventured upstairs.

Mom was concerned about her brother Joe and his family who lived in Champlin; the storm had come from that direction. We got in the car and drove as far as the Champlin Bridge on Ferry Street before we were turned back by the local policemen. Champlin had been hit hard and no one was allowed in the area unless they lived there. This news sent Mom into near hysteria.

We drove through the downtown area. The Armory on Main Street and Fourth Avenue was no longer standing, there was debris everywhere; trees were down, people and cars were everywhere. It was mass confusion. The north part of town in the Seventh Avenue and Johnson Street area was hit very hard.

There were reports of seeing animals being tossed in the air by the force of the wind. Papers belonging to Anoka residents were found as far as Wisconsin. A wedding ring had been ripped off the finger of a lady who had been standing on Main Street waiting for the parade to march by.

The American Legion Banquet was forgotten and the Masonic Temple became a rescue headquarters. The banquet food fed the rescue crews. It was also the designated place for family members to find their loved ones if they had gotten separated. Years later, as an adult, I had the opportunity to hear first-hand, from some of the Mason and Eastern Star members who had been preparing the banquet on that Sunday. Their building had been spared; only a huge tree in the back yard of the property was hit. A man, a stranger to the members working there, began washing dishes as the tables were cleared for the next group of workers. He stayed until the last dish was washed and put away and then silently disappeared before anyone could thank him and find out who he was. What was his name? Where did he come from? The answers to these questions are a mystery to this day.

Countless stories could be told about that fateful day. It had been thought that a tornado would not cross a river. Tornados do cross rivers. It was proven that day.

Mom’s brother Joe had taken his wife and their three older children to the parade, leaving Grandma to tend the three smaller children at home. He was in the Herr Schmidt buying ice cream cones for the kids when the storm hit. Imagine the heart-stopping thoughts when he learned about Champlin. It turned out well, however. Their home was not damaged. Grandma later related that when she went to close the windows when the storm came up, she had a very hard time getting them closed.

One of Mom’s sisters, Adeline, and her two daughters, Mildred and Lucille, were also downtown for the parade. They too were in Herr Schmidt. They were in the basement enjoying one of their wonderful hamburgers as the storm raged above them. Their home was also spared.

Another sister, Rose, lived on East Main Street. She and her family were also spared from damage.

Nine lives were lost that day. Two hundred fifty homes were destroyed.

This June 18,2014, will be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Anoka Tornado. Anoka recovered from that great disaster and has grown and prospered through the years. There are not many of us around to remember that event but it will be forever a memory of mine.

Postscript: The Anoka High School teams then chose to be known as “The Anoka Tornados.”

The Kobs family from NE Minneapolis had been picnicking at a lake near the city that afternoon. Upon hearing about the storm, they drove to Champlin to witness the devastation. Mr. Kobs picked up a big piece of wood from a fallen tree and kept it as a souvenir. He engraved “Anoka Tornado June 18, 1939” on it. He kept that piece of wood in his home until his death. Little Kenny, the son of Mr. Kobs now lives in Champlin with his wife, Beverly, daughter of mom’s brother Joe. It’s a small world.

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