Column: The 1939 tornado changed Anoka’s identity

On June 7, 1939 a terrible storm swept through Anoka downing power lines, tipping trees and smashing small structures. Reportedly, it was the worst storm to strike Anoka in years. But it was only a harbinger of what lay ahead.

Bob Kirchner
Bob Kirchner

Eleven days later, on Sunday, June 18, Father’s Day, hot and cold weather fronts were on a deadly collision course in central Minnesota.

Anokans were busy about their lives.  In fact, it was a big day in Anoka.

The First Baptist Church at Main and Ferry was holding a regional youth rally.

The Seventh Day Adventists, about 50 strong, had just erected 200 tents in preparation for their annual camp meeting in today’s George Green Park.

A carnival was set up in Bridge Square complete with merry-go-round and tall ferris wheel.

And 1,000 legionnaires were in town.  Their program was at the armory, city hall, high school and Masonic temple.

But that Sunday afternoon the weather fronts met over western Hennepin County forming a massive storm.

The tornado first touched down in western Hennepin County, killing four people, and moved northeasterly through Champlin killing one man. Then it came to the Mississippi River.

Many Anokans subscribed to the widely held belief that tornados could never cross the confluence of two rivers. Indians told settlers that confluences held special powers.

When the tornado reached the Mississippi River, according to several eyewitnesses, it paused. Some claimed that it, momentarily, took a sharp turn. Several observed it taking up water exposing the river bed.

According to the Anoka County Union, “the twister hesitated briefly, then struck boldly across the Mississippi river over Second Avenue up Third Avenue and cut a diagonal swath about three blocks wide through the city, leveling houses, trees and other buildings.”

It ripped off the Masonic temple roof, demolished the armory and nearby church and cut through Swedetown and up Seventh Avenue.  The carnival was flattened.

Witnesses said it sounded like a dozen locomotives.

That evening WTCN radio station reporter Robert DeHaven flew over the scene and wrote that it was “as if Death … had perched in our position and said: This one. That one. Skip the next two blocks. This one. That one.”

In Anoka three died and scores injured, many seriously. Fifty of Anoka’s 200 blocks were hit. Forty buildings were demolished and over 200 damaged. It was immediately declared the worst disaster in the City’s history.

But Providence was also at work.

Though without public alarms, warnings came. At Rice Street Beach, swimming instructor Les Mason saw the storm approaching and raced downtown to sound a warning.

At the carnival, mechanic Walter Emmet climbed to the top of the stalled ferris wheel to fix a lighting wire. He saw the storm coming and quickly shinnied down to warn everyone. As reported, “only an Act of God kept injuries there to a minimum…”

The Adventist camp was spared. Rev. V. E. Paugh said: “The storm came toward us – we could all see it – then it lifted and passed about 300 feet over us. It seemed as if Providence protected us. We are grateful to Him.”

In the parking lot at the Baptist Church, Pastor Look saw the tornado, immediately prayed, and watched as “the wing of the tornado lifted over the church.”  No injuries or damage there.

Perhaps the most amazing turn of events was the placement of 1,000 Legionnaires in the path of the storm.

Fortunately, they had moved their main event from the armory to the high school.

Legion Commander R. B. Heinemann said “every Legionnaire became a Marine and jumped into action” searching for the dead and assisting the injured.

The high school gym became their command center. Their 250-plate dinner prepared at the Masonic temple fed the homeless and rescue workers.

Anoka’s identity changed that day.

In the words of an Anoka Union journalist, the myth of protection “was blown to blazes.”

Exactly four months later, on October 18, Anoka School principal R. B. Heinemann, who had suffered a head injury in the cataclysm, announced at a homecoming assembly in the high school auditorium that henceforth the

Anoka Maroons would be known as the “Anoka Tornadoes.”

And so we are 75 years later.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and retired as the city of Anoka’s community development director.

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