by Joni Astrup
Seventy-five years ago this month, Sherburne County had a memorable storm of its own.
The Sherburne County Star News described it as being similar to a hurricane, and said it was believed to be the worst storm ever to visit this part of the state.
“The wind blew at an estimated rate of 80 miles an hour at times, coming in terrific gusts. It appeared to be a straight wind, more like a hurricane than anything else,” according to the newspaper account.
The storm killed four people and badly injured one local boy, Peter Deschenes Jr., when he was swept up by the wind.
It also was a close call for John Toth and his sister, Lucille (Toth) Abraham, who narrowly missed being in their barn when the storm hit and took half of the barn’s roof.
Though 75 years have passed since the big storm, Toth and Abraham vividly remember it. Both live in Elk River and met recently with the Star News to talk about that day.
They were born and raised on the Toth family farm, located in northern Elk River along the east side of Highway 169, just south of the wind turbine.
The two siblings were home alone when the storm came through about 6 p.m. Sept. 11, 1942, as their mother was in the hospital and their father was visiting her. Toth was 13 and Abraham, 18, at the time.
Toth said he had come home from school and gone to the barn to get everything ready for milking. He brought their Holstein dairy cows into the barn and did some other chores before returning to the house.
He remembers the young cattle were outside, running around in the cow yard with their tails up in the air.
Looking back, he said, “I think they sensed that storm was coming.”
Abraham, meanwhile, was on her way home from her job at the Fairway store in downtown Elk River when it got very dark outside. Once at home, she told her brother she would change clothes, have a bite to eat and help him milk.
But before either of them could get out to the barn, the storm hit with a fury.
They took cover in the basement. They heard bricks falling from the chimney of the house.
“It was scary,” Abraham recalled.
When the storm ended, they ventured outside.
The barn and a machine shed were both heavily damaged and a lean-to by the barn where the horses were had been blown away.
“When you walk out of the house and see everything down, it’s a shock,” Toth recalled.
No animals died. One of the horses, Blackey, was still tied to the stall where the lean-to had been. The other horses and all the cows also survived.
Meanwhile, their aunt and her car mysteriously ended up at their farm. She had been on her way to pick up her husband when the storm hit and didn’t remember how she got across the highway and wound up at their farm. There was speculation that perhaps the wind picked up her vehicle and set it back down.
“We heard some commotion out there,” Abraham said. When they opened the door, there was their aunt, very shaken up by the incident.
The storm left a wide swath of destruction. Toth said the storm hit at milking time when people were in their barns, milking their cows.
Two men were killed at Crown in Isanti County when the barns they were in collapsed. A woman living near North Branch and a farmer from the North Branch area also perished in the storm.
At the Deschenes farm, located just three-fourths of a mile from the Toth farm, 15-year-old Peter was in the hay mow of their barn with his father and brother, trying to brace the big door through which the hay was hoisted, when the storm hit. The Star News reported that Peter was picked up by the wind as the barn was falling to pieces and carried more than 300 feet in the air. When he landed, he broke his pelvis.
The newspaper reported that Peter remarked to his father afterwards, “Daddy, I saw you standing there, pale as a ghost, when I was flying through the air.”
Many other area barns and farm buildings were destroyed or damaged and hundreds of trees were blown down. The Star News ran photos of heavily damaged barns on the Houlton, Frank Hipsag, Oscar Engstrom, W.H. Clark and Clarence Leider farms.
The storm was widespread, apparently starting in the western part of the state, near Granite Falls, and sweeping in a northeasterly direction, according to the Star News.
At Big Lake, the roof on the school auditorium was completely torn off. At the airport near Monticello, 54 planes were destroyed or damaged.
The storm also claimed cattle throughout the area. On the Houlton farm in Livonia Township, north of Elk River, the barn collapsed over a “fine herd” of Holstein dairy cattle and a large quantity of hay overhead came crashing down, the Star News reported. Seventeen of the 21 cows were injured and had to be killed.
That farm was run by Toth and Abraham’s half-brother, Emil Kish.
Their brother, Ernie Toth, had stopped at the farm and warned Kish and his family to get out of the barn as the storm was approaching.
They escaped just before the barn was destroyed and took refuge in a small milk house a few feet away, where they were uninjured. Ernie took shelter under a tractor and also survived.
In the 75 years since, John Toth said he hasn’t seen a storm hit the area that was as bad as that one.
“You don’t forget it,” he said.