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50 years ago, powerful tornado rolled through area

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Life Mitchell, 57301
The Daily Republic
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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Storms rumbled over Mitchell for several days and nights in May 1962.

Conditions were at their worst on May 21, 1962, a rainy Monday night. People were on alert for a storm, or, perhaps, a tornado.

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DeWayne and Evelyn Hohn were at their home at 1422 W. Fourth Ave., keeping an eye on their kids, Mary Jo, 3, and Dennis, who was an infant.

Jeanette Cain was headed to work at Herbie's Diner and West Side Mobil in Mitchell. Cain was a 16-year-old Mitchell High School junior.

Lyle Swenson was just starting his long career in law enforcement. Swenson and his wife Irene were at their home near Lake Mitchell, and they were keeping an eye on the clouds.

Trouble was literally in the air, and people knew it, sensed it, felt it coming.

At 8:37 p.m., a tornado ripped a path through the west side of Mitchell.

In three minutes, 32 people were injured, several buildings were reduced to rubble, and parts of Mitchell looked like they had been bombed.

Fifteen businesses were demolished. The total damage was estimated at $2.5 million.

It's often been written that no one was killed in the storm, but that's only partially true.

DeWayne Hohn did not fully recover from serious head injuries, according to his family, and died five years later.

Now, a half century after powerful tornadoes ripped a path through the area, people who lived through the storm and witnessed the damage it caused recall it vividly.

"You never forget something like that," said Swenson, a retired Davison County sheriff and U.S. marshal and now the president of the Mitchell Area Historical Society.

Don Morin, the National Weather Service's data acquisition program manager in Sioux Falls, said the tornado that struck Mitchell was an F3 on the Fujita scale, which means winds were between 158 to 206 mph.

"That was a bad day," Morin said. "There was a bunch of tornadoes in that part of the state that night."

Tornadoes were reported northwest of Armour, southwest of Spencer, three miles southwest of Woonsocket and west of Platte, he said.

More than 10 farms were hit by the storms. One farm place north of Armour was virtually destroyed, the house knocked from its foundation and other buildings ripped to pieces.

Stormy weather had hammered the area for several days before the Storm of '62 struck.

Thunderstorms had battered the area and left the ground soaked. The sky was jagged with lightning and thunder shook nerves across the city as Cain, now Jeanette Cain Baas, went to work at the café. She liked her job and was looking forward to full-time work in the summer.

In 2007, she wrote an essay on her experience the night the storm struck.

The employees at Herbie's Diner had a plan in case a tornado hit, she wrote. They would get inside the walk-in cooler.

That night, as the thunderstorm raged overhead, she recalled that plan. But she was also very busy, since the storm had pushed drivers off the road and many were waiting out the storm over a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. They all knew the weather was dangerous, she recalled.

An employee's husband called at 8:20 p.m. that a tornado was on the ground west of Ethan and headed their way. Be ready to take cover, he said.

Swept up in the storm

At 8:37 p.m., the wind and rain paused. The air became eerily calm at the cafe.

The cook, Faye Corcoran, yelled to her co-workers and the customers that this was it, the "calm before the storm." It was time to seek shelter -- now!

Cain and another waitress tried to get inside the cooler as the south window of the café exploded. The two waitresses pleaded, to no avail, with others to join them before they were able to get inside the cooler.

A roar like a large freight train had replaced the stillness.

At their home on west Fourth Avenue, Evelyn Hohn's instinct was to protect her children. She reached for her baby in the crib when the house seemed to explode around her.

Her two children were swept up in the wind and taken away from their parents, their home, and their block.

Hohn, who told her story to The Daily Republic in 1992, was knocked out, and her husband had been struck on the head and was bleeding.

When she awoke, she was on the street. Hohn was cut and bruised, with cracked ribs and back injuries. No one was around her.

"It was silent ... no noise at all," Hohn recalled 30 years after the storm. "I was afraid the rest of my family had been killed."

Amazingly, her children were safe. The tornado had dropped them a block away, with nothing more than a few cuts and bruises.

DeWayne Hohn wasn't as fortunate. It took 32 stitches to close the wounds in his head, his wife recalled. The worst was yet to come.

"The doctor said it affected him mentally," Evelyn Hohn recalled in 1992.

He was eventually committed to the Human Services Center, and he died there in 1967.

Cain emerged from the café cooler to find a barren landscape.

"Devastation far beyond my imagination was all around me," she wrote in her essay.

Eight people had jumped inside a car parked inside the gas station. They were OK.

Five people were trapped under the debris at the diner and three of the women had been burned by the hot water from the coffeemaker. They were all rescued, and not were seriously injured.

Clyde Goin, a Daily Republic employee, came to the aid of the people who had been hurt. He drove them to their homes, and helped Cain, who said she later realized she was in shock.

She had suffered bruises on her arm and leg and she was covered in red.

It wasn't blood. Strawberry juice in the cooler had spilled on her during the wild ride from the tornado.

But Cain said she did suffer mental anguish she now believes was post-traumatic stress. For nearly 30 years, she became extremely upset when a storm neared.

After she retired from the restaurant business in 1989, that eased. While she still doesn't like stormy weather, the pain has been greatly diminished.

Swenson had been a deputy sheriff for a year when the tornado struck. At his home, the storm had caused relatively little damage.

But he headed to the city to assist Sheriff George Carstens, and his wife Martha, who had served as sheriff herself when laws prohibited George from serving more than two consecutive terms. They would need all the help they could get.

The north side of Mitchell was a mess.

Swanson said he tried to drive to where the storm had done its most damage but the Cemetery Road and every other street he tried was blocked by downed trees and other debris. He finally reached the center of the storm by taking Third Avenue.

Once he arrived when the tornado had struck, the damage was amazing, Swenson said.

The only good thing is that the tornado, which he said generally followed Ohlman Street, didn't head down the more populated Rowley, Main or Sanborn streets. If it had, there may have been fatalities.

As it was, there injured and frightened people.

Tessie Wright, 86, tried to get out of the trailer she lived in. But the wind threw her back inside before it sucked the trailer from its moorings and blew it away.

Wright was left sitting on the floor, her home gone.

Several other homes were destroyed or extensively damaged. Swenson recalls seeing strands of straw propelled through car radiators, and numerous cars and trucks were demolished.

Two Mitchell police officers, Donald Hanson and William Heintz, were stopping at a house when the storm hit.

They dove into their squad car, which was picked up and tossed across the street. A 4-by-4 post was driven through the back window, Swenson said, but the metal grate that separates the back and front seats saved their lives, he said.

"If that had hit them in the head, it would have killed them," he said.

As it was, the officers patched up their injuries and returned to work trying to help at the disaster scene.

Mitchell bounces back

Once the storm passed, the South Dakota National Guard and Mitchell residents, including high school students and Dakota Wesleyan University students, took to the streets as darkness fell to help people.

There was plenty of work for them, Swenson recalled.

Huge trees, 40 to 60 feet tall and so wide two men couldn't get join hands around it, had been uprooted, he said.

"I remember looking at it and thinking, 'What kind of force could take a tree like that?' " Swenson said.

He helped clear debris, deal with downed power lines and, and do anything else that was needed.

Morin said the tornado struck at the time most do in South Dakota: in the evening.

They usually happen on a night after a hot, moist day. That night, a cold front collided with the hot weather and spawned the storms, he said.

"It's a clash between the two fronts," Morin said.

After the storm passed, Mitchell went to work patching itself up.

Swenson said volunteers responded, and other cities, counties and the state sent crews in to assist in the clean-up.

But the job was so big, some of the effort waned. Swenson said Mitchell Mayor Charles "C.W." Klingaman had to urge people to get back to work and finish the job.

The flattened businesses, including the Mitchell Boat Company, which was just a year old, rebuilt. A state highway maintenance shop was replaced with a new, gleaming building.

The city reported more than $2 million in new construction for the year, according to a Daily Republic report in early 1963.

It was the most devastating tornado in the area for years, until it was sadly topped on May 30, 1998, when an F4 tornado destroyed the small town of Spencer, killing six people and injuring another 150 people.

In 1999, an F2 tornado struck Slim Butte in Shannon County, killing one person and leaving 54 hurt.

Only those two tornadoes caused more human pain and injuries in South Dakota history than the one that ripped its way through Mitchell and the surrounding area 50 years ago.

According to National Weather Service information, tornadoes have caused 18 deaths and 439 injuries in South Dakota since 1950.

Amidst the damage and the pain, some odd, humorous things occurred that people recall when they talk about the tornado of May 21, 1962

For some reason, cattle had escaped from a farm and were loose on Fifth Street. Swenson herded them off the street.

"Where they came from I don't remember anymore," he said.

A friend snapped a photo of the young deputy sheriff moving the cattle to safety. He later sent it to the sheriff, attaching a note that he thinks he spotted a rustler in action.

Charlotte Nicholson was at her farm home 14 miles northeast of Mitchell when the storm hit.

The damage was minimal, there, Nicholson recalled, but the power did go out. She lit candles to illuminate the house.

It was her daughter Jodi's second birthday, Nicholson recalled, and she had a hard time stopping the child from blowing the candles out.

Nicholson said her mother told her of a neighbor whose entire house was lifted from its foundation.

The house was gone, but a table remained where the kitchen had been, she said. On the table was a pan, where some freshly baked bread was cooling, Nicholson said.

The pan was still there, as was the bread and a dishcloth left to cover it.

But, she said, the bread was black from all the dirt that had blown through the house.

Photo courtesy of Mitchell Area Historical Society

The State Highway Maintenance Shop on the west-side of Mitchell was severely damaged as the tornado came through town.

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