The afternoon of Tuesday, April 3rd, 1956 was warm and humid. Strong south winds had brought summer-like temperatures and humidity, with record highs in the upper 70°s at Muskegon and Grand Rapids. Holland and Kalamazoo both reached 80 degrees. Dew points were in the 60°s even near Lake Michigan. But a strong cold front was approaching from the west and out ahead of it, a line of violent thunderstorms had formed over Wisconsin and Illinois. By 1 PM, a tornado had roared through Bancroft, Wisconsin, killing two people. Another tornado would level the town of Berlin, Wisconsin an hour later, leaving 7 more dead and 50 injured. Michigan was put on alert. The U.S. Weather Bureau (forerunner of the National Weather Service) office in Grand Rapids began notifying the public and civil defense officials that the risk of tornadoes across western Michigan was increasing. Some schools began letting out early, anticipating the severe weather to come.
The storms crossed Lake Michigan, and when they reached the west coast of Lower Michigan by late afternoon, they immediately began producing tornadoes. Three hours of terror would follow. At least four powerful tornadoes would be spawned, tearing their way across the landscape. When it was over, areas from Saugatuck to Traverse City, and inland to Middleville and Rockford were dealing with unprecedented destruction. Almost 20 people were dead and hundreds injured. Dozens of homes were obliterated. Many people’s lives were irrevocably changed.
The worst hit areas were Hudsonville and Standale, where entire neighborhoods were laid waste. Many people, some of them badly injured, helped in the immediate recovery by searching for neighbors trapped under the debris of what had been their homes. Police and National Guard units were dispatched to make sure roads were kept clear of sightseers, allowing the injured to be evacuated to hospitals. Dozens of seriously injured people were brought to hospitals in Grand Rapids, Holland, and Zeeland.
In the following days, the cleanup and rebuilding began. The Red Cross and Salvation Army would provide much needed supplies, including food, clothing and temporary housing. Homes and farms were rebuilt, even as family members recuperated in the hospital. But the impact of the storms would never be forgotten by those that lived through them. The following descriptions of the individual storms provide more details on that impact and include eyewitness accounts to the incredible fury of the storms that day.