FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — 1919 was a rough year for Otter Tail County.
The international flu pandemic had killed 235 people — most of them children — and 87 men had died fighting in World War I.
Then on June 22, dozens were killed in one of Minnesota’s worst disasters on record — the Fergus Falls cyclone.
On that Sunday, a hot, sultry, summer day in Fergus Falls, people had been heading to Otter Tail County lakes in their church suits and dresses to escape the suffocating heat.
It had been a humid week with a lot of precipitation, and around 5 p.m. that afternoon came hail and torrential rain.
“(A witness) said it was like they laid the whole river upon the town,” said Chris Schuelke, executive director of the Otter Tail County Historical Society.
Minutes later, a tornado touched down.
“Once it got dark and went black, that was it,” one survivor told Lance Johnson, the author of a 1982 book on the disaster.
“Big buildings, the courthouse, the Grand Hotel, the old Opera House, all gone. It is still one of the most destructive storms in the history of the state of Minnesota,” Schuelke said.
The Otter Tail County Historical Society is now featuring a special exhibit for the 100th anniversary of the disaster, with photos and documentation of the destruction.
Judging by the disaster’s impact, it’s an understatement to say the town of Fergus Falls was leveled.
“Those few moments on that Sunday of June 22nd of 1919 — it forever changed the physical structure of the town,” Schuelke said. “Two-thirds of the town gone, nearly 60 people killed, hundreds injured, the most single impactful event in the history of the community that is still felt today.”
With no television or radio, there was no warning that the tornado was coming, Schuelke said, and news of the tornado would reach the rest of the world when a telephone company worker walked several miles east of Fergus Falls to find a line that was still live.
“He climbed up and down poles and found one, and cut into that line and got word out that Fergus Falls had been wiped off the map,” Schuelke said.
Fifty-seven people were killed and around 200 were injured in the tornado, then called a cyclone, and the historical society’s exhibit shows the extent of the damage.
A clock from a hotel shows the time the storm struck. A coin-pierced piece of wood shows the speed of the wind. Photos of homes and businesses obliterated by the cyclone show just how immense the storm was.
It even blew the Oriental Limited, a passenger train that traveled between Chicago and Seattle, off its tracks.
Churches, the county courthouse, a huge hotel and the opera house were all gone. It took five days to remove the bodies from the Grand Hotel.
Martial law was declared, and the governor arrived by train to call out the National Guard.
Minnesota had never experienced such destruction, and all of it was documented by professional photographer W.T. Oxley, who took remarkable aftermath pictures, including panoramic photos.
There were so many trees and so much timber thrown about from the tornado that it filled Lake Alice. In fact, legend has it that people could walk across the lake.
Schuelke said a jewelry store still sits at the bottom of the lake, possibly with gold inside, and the bell from St. James church was never recovered.
Recovery took months and months. Hundreds of homes vanished in the tornado and families that had nothing needed to be fed and housed.
Few had insurance, but everyone pitched in. Donations came in from as far away as Europe to help the town get back on its feet again. Those few minutes on that fateful day would change everything in Otter Tail County for the next 100 years.
The city of Fergus Falls is marking the 100th anniversary with Cyclone Days.
More information on the events can be found on the Otter Tail County Historical Society website: https://www.otchs.org/Exhib its/Cyclone_Exhibit.html.