The following are accounts of the devastation of April 3rd, 1956, as recounted by eyewitnesses to the event. In the interest of historical accuracy these statements have not been edited for content, but are presented as they were submitted to the National Weather Service.
I remember that day very well. We lived 1/2 mile South of Graafschap on Graafschap Road. We (Oetman family) lost our barn and the barn across the road was lost too (Heetderks). We both lost windows in our house and our family lost at least 4 vehicles on the yard. I remember standing at the kitchen window and saw this strange thing in the sky and they saw Rivulet Hurst Dairy all begin to blow around. We didn't know what to do. Our dad and brother were in the barn but figured there was not enough time so we headed to the basement. When we came up the barn laid flat. Needless to say we were concerned how our dad and brother were. As it turned out my brother (about 10 or so) was thrown into the feed barrow and a beam was across the back of a cow and the cow was holding it up and there was our Dad alongside the cow. None of the animals were killed. From our place it hit a house on 48th (Castle Park Road). Mother and 3 of us sisters were in the house when the storm hit and we were all okay too. It was a very frightening situation and of course have never forgotten it but were very thankful that nobody from our family was killed.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was home alone with my 11 month old baby girl, and a sudden wind came up, and took the eavestrough off the south side of the house, held only in one place, and was swinging back and forth, I thought it may go through the picture window so went out and pulled it completely down. The wind was so strong, I could hardly stand up. I was frightened, so I loaded the baby and our German Shepherd dog in the car and started for Holland, as that is where my husband was working. I didn't realize the danger I was in by going out, as I didn't know it was a tornado. I took the highway from the south side of Hutchins Lake, near Fennville, believe I took old US31 and I could see it to the west of me, bouncing away-whatever it was, it was fascinating, so watched it, but had to really hold on to the car as the wind was so strong, it was coming mostly from the west. It looked like a black whip bouncing along. I saw it cross my path in front of me, and that must have been when it hit the Gibson area. From there it seemed to go straight ahead of me through Graafschaap, then when I got into Holland on Washington Avenue, and just north of I believe 35th St, it crossed there. There was some kind of a brewery or packing plant as there were metal kegs strewn all over the road. I stopped and asked how they got there, and the people who were standing around said a tornado had just passed through. That is when I found out it was a tornado.
My family lived on 104th Avenue between Zeeland and Holland, and I just turned five on April 1. My mother was in Holland Hospital on April 3, having given birth to my younger brother, Bill, on my birthday two days earlier. My father was going to visit her after work, while us children stayed with his sister. I remember the sky was very dark and there was thunder and rain. My dad, Louis Steenwyk, was driving to see my mom and the baby, heading southwest along US-31 near the southern part of Holland. He spotted a whitish-gray funnel coming down from the clouds that appeared to the southwest of his location towards the town of Graafschap, probably a couple miles away from him. He was terribly afraid that it would hit the hospital where my mother was. He said he stopped his car short of a railroad overpass and prayed to God right there for safety of himself and others. As he watched, he was ready to throw himself against an embankment by the road if it came closer but, fortunately for us, the tornado pulled back up and bypassed the cities of Holland and Zeeland. He said he didn't remember any noise, but then the funnel never came close to him. He also didn't think it was raining hard, though it may have been raining lightly. When he got to the hospital, people said he looked like he'd seen a ghost. He told a somewhat skeptical group of people he had just seen a large tornado over the city. People at the hospital told him that they had seen something similar but thought it was a column of smoke. He said he knew it was a tornado and they would probably be hearing about it later. Indeed, the victims began to arrive by ambulance before he left that evening.
I remember taking a ride with my family a few days later through the Hudsonville area. Though I was only five, I can still remember seeing nothing but piles of rubble. An image of a white refrigerator stand incongruously upright in the midst of all this rubble is still etched in my mind.
My father was the caretaker for the David Bennett estate in the spring of 1956. The estate was located near the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, on both sides of the river. On the south side of the river was flat land beach all the way south to the Oval. On the north side of the river was Bennett's residence. The residence was on a bluff about 90 feet straight up from the river. There were three buildings there; the big house which had an uninterrupted view of the lake and the oval, the three car garage with a six room apartment above, which was quite big, and the two story coach house. These three buildings were situated on the outside of a circular cement drive. The coach house was to the northwest.
Our family lived in the apartment above the garage. I was home on spring break from the University of Michigan graduate school visiting my parents. It was an unusually windy day on the third of April. Dad and I were home alone in the kitchen which looks out on the circular drive. The big house, Bennett's home, was to the southwest of the garage apartment, about 30 yards from the apartment and to the south of the driveway. Just north on the other side of the drive was a giant tree, about four feet in diameter. It was about 30 feet north of the house. All the trees going up the bluff from south of the house were trimmed so the house could have a clear view of Lake Michigan and the oval. This was 90 feet above the Kalamazoo River.
We heard some loud blowing winds getting louder and louder. My dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table talking and he got up and went to the window which was already open because the weather was warm for this time of the year. I naturally followed him to see also. We were looking up toward the sky and southwest. Up in the sky we could see whirling around all sorts of debris, just floating in the sky. I noticed that one of the pieces of debris was a screen door from somewhere. How unusual I thought to myself. Then realizing this was not natural, I grabbed my dad who was half out the window pulling him back in the kitchen because I was scared. Then we saw this giant tree rise up from the ground in slow motion, pulling its roots with it, along with big chunks of cement. It rose up about three feet in the air and slowly lay down to the north, just missing the garage. The exposed roots were about ten feet in diameter and it left a great big hole in the drive. Then the noise and blowing wind suddenly stopped, leaving nothing but this giant fallen tree. I later assumed that the tornado that hit the bluff shot up and grabbed the tree by its upper branches and pulled it from the ground. This was the only damage on the estate. Later, we heard that it was a tornado and that it had come and gone northeast through Laketown Township and Holland. It also destroyed the concession stand at the oval and the light house on beach.
From the view of Bennett's estate on the bluff, one could see the damage to the concession stand and the light house from this tornado that came through the Douglas and the Saugatuck Area on April 3rd 1956.
The house of my husband’s parents’, Jim and Ruth Boyce of Laketown Township on 65th Street was completely destroyed by the 1956 tornado. Their youngest daughter, Pat, was also still living at home when the storm struck. All of them were in the house at the time. They had been running toward their small cellar as they saw the funnel cloud come over the sand hills at Goshorn Lake after it had destroyed the beach house and old lighthouse at Saugatuck When it hit, Jim's mother was carried through the air, riding on the floor of the back porch. She landed out on the back yard, like Dorothy of "The Wizard of Oz." Jim's father was hit on his shoulder by the water pump and spent several days in the hospital. Pat was tumbled by the wind into the garden. She had previously set her hair in pin curls, preparing to go out later that evening. Every hair-pin was taken away by the wind. She was badly frightened and dirty, but unhurt.
The storm swirled down into that basement they had been trying to reach. Stored on the shelves were several hundred glass canning jars, all of which were smashed into many small pieces. They would have been cut into ribbons had they gone downstairs.
Four large maple trees, the house and its contents, a barn, and three cars were spread all over the countryside. The piano was smashed, yet the box of Christmas ornaments survived unopened. A cooking fork was driven so firmly into an apple tree that Jim could not pull it out. Their Siamese cat, who had been in the house, came home three months later, but would not ever come inside where they were then living, nearby the old Boyce homestead, nor would she come into their new home, built a year later.
At the time of the storm, my husband Jim had been sitting on the back porch of our neighbor's house in Saugatuck, watching the clouds. He saw a sudden burst of debris go up and said, "Wow! Somebody really got it!" Little did he dream at that time that it was the Boyce home. Our family remembers April 3, 1956 very well.
We had just finished supper, time being about 5:30 pm on April 3, 1956. Dad commented on how bad the sky to the west and south looked. Mom said there were tornado warnings out for this part of the state. No one took those warnings too seriously in those days. I was taking the dirty dishes to the kitchen when I looked out the window and saw black clouds almost like smoke but they were going in circles. They were so low I could almost reach up and touch them. Dad went to the front door and looked out. The funnel was on the ground headed in a north direction in the field across the road from our house. Suddenly, it turned in an easterly direction heading straight for our house. We started running through the house to get to the back door and get into the basement of the house. We never made it.
We were in the northeast part of the house when it hit. The noise and pressure was terribly loud, like jet planes. Mother laid flat on the floor which was the best thing for her to do. She was right in line with the washer and dryer. She said afterwards she could feel both move over her hair, that by this time was standing right up straight. I felt myself literally being blown head over heels and having the sensation of I’m going to die so I might just as well relax and go with the wind. The next thing I remember was a quietness and mom calling my name and my dad’s name and asking if we were alright. We were not hurt bad. Mother had a cut finger that involved a tendon. She was hurt the most. Dad and I were mud covered. We had a few bruises. That was all. Huge 50 foot maple trees that lined the road in front of the house were twisted out of the ground, exposing the roots. There must have been at least three of them down. We found blades of grass that were driven into tree trunks. I had bought a box of stationary for a friend that had her name and address on it. A piece came down in the yard of someone that lived 60 miles away. They sent it to her with a note. A box of glassware that was packed in a box upstairs was found out in the field, nothing broken.
The basement that we were headed to was in the southwest corner of the house. It was lucky we never made it. After the storm the very southwest corner of the basement was littered with debris. I don’t think we would have been safe. Mother said she felt the floor she was laying on lift and float through the air, settling down with her on it, gently on the ground in the back yard about 100 feet from the house.
We lived on 65th street about a mile and a half from Lake Michigan in Laketown Township at the time. We watched this tornado coming off Lake Michigan through our basement window. Afterwards we went out to watch it continue on to the east. None of us knew at the time what kind of damage a tornado could do until one of our neighbors came by to take another neighbor to the hospital.
We lived almost right in the middle of 65th Street between what was then called Gibson Road and Paris Road. Paris Road went directly to the seminary which later became the state park. The tornado came over the sand dune almost directly southwest of the intersection of Paris Road and 65th Street. You could see the gap in the trees for many years where it came through.
We were off school for some reason that day and it was a hot day. There was no such thing as garbage pickup in those days and most people had their own garbage pits they buried trash in, or else they hauled it out and dumped it in the sand dunes. My brother Ray and I spent the day digging a new garbage pit and we had it as deep as we could get it with shovels and we had just sat down to eat supper when my Uncle Don Anderson called from my grandmother's house and told us to look out the west window as he thought a tornado was coming. We had not heard much about tornados in those days so we were not overly worried.
We could see the tornado from one of the bedroom windows, so we each grabbed a folding chair and went down to the basement to watch it from a basement window. I can still see the picture in my mind to this day. It looked like a giant unicycle with debris rotating vertically. It looked to me like it was right over my grandmother's house but it was actually much further away. After it passed, we went outside and watched it travel east, at that stage it looked like a giant rope hanging from the sky. My brothers all said it sounded like a freight train but I could not remember hearing anything.
We went back into the house to finish our supper when Bob Kimball came by honking his horn. He had Patti Boyce (she would probably have been about 17 or 18 at the time) in the car. He told us their house had been blown down and she had ran down the street to Kimball’s house. Bob was taking her into Holland hospital.
We all jumped into the car and went over to Boyce's house which was totally demolished. Several of the maple trees along the road had been torn up by the roots (which were probably twice the height of a car in those days). For some reason none of the trees laid across the road.
We started picking up as much as we could salvage and loading it on trailers which we hauled back and stored in my grandmother's barn. Jim Boyce was the Allegan County Treasurer at the time and had a huge safe in the house. It took six of us to lift it and get it onto a trailer.
I believe we worked until it started raining that evening. The weather stayed warm that day. The next day was cold and rainy and we spent most of the day salvaging what we could. A lot more people showed up to help clean up and about the middle of the day there was a bunch of shouting and one guy took off running. Somebody told me he was looting.
After the tornado hit the Boyce’s home, it seemed to lift until it crossed 64th Street where it next hit (I believe it was the Wolf's) home just north of Gibson Road and then it hit the dairy shortly after that.
I would have been 13 going on 14 at the time. I liked to hunt at the time and for years hunted the area in the path of the tornado.
Our family lived on 65th Street in Laktown Township when the1956 tornado struck. We were about 1/2 mile from the nearest home that was destroyed. It came right over the dunes, near what is now the State Park, and at that time was owned by the Augustine Fathers out of the Chicago area.
It was coming directly at our house and swerved to flatten our neighbor’s house. The neighbor was James Boyce, who at the time was the Allegan County treasurer and had a large safe in his house which was picked up and carried by the strength of the wind. It also uprooted large maple trees (many of the trees still remain on that road). I believe James Boyce had a 1953 GM auto which was leaning upright against one of the remaining trees.
The day was a particularly warm day for the month of April and I remember reveling in the strong, warm wind. I remember not wanting to go into the house for dinner (chili), because of the beautiful weather outdoors. That day was a good day, because my mother had baked chocolate cake for dessert. We were just finishing dessert when my uncle who lived next door telephoned and told us to look out the south window. As we looked we could see this large black swirling cloud with a lot of debris.
My mother told us all to take a chair and go into the basement, we then watched the tornado coming toward our house and swerving at the last minute to take out our neighbors house (James Boyce). Of course we heard the loud roaring sound. A few minutes later it was all over, we ran outside and could see the tornado heading east. It now appeared as a large white rope against the black background of the clouds off to the east.
We were just out of our house when another neighbor drove up and announced the Boyce's house had been hit by the tornado. We all went over there to help. The house looked as if a giant had stepped on it. It was flattened with debris scattered all over. Fortunately, none of the Boyces were seriously hurt. It was at that time I realized the power of a tornado. For many years afterwards, I would dream of tornados, always as a nightmare.
I was 8 years old when the tornado came through our farm south of Graafschaap. About 3/4 of the roof of our barn was blown off. A neighbor saw it and said it looked like a keg of dynamite was inside. Two small building were gone, one was moved over 3 feet and back 2 feet. We had 52 broken windows in the house and a picture that was on the piano in the living room was found upstairs. Several trees near our house were blown down. That’s a few of the things that were observed. We were all huddled in the basement. We had minor cuts but not serious injuries.
My former roommate at Hope college who was from Oklahoma showed me potential tornado clouds in 1953 as we walked across campus. She said they were up too high and the next day we read it hit Flint, MI. She told me what the signs of an imminent tornado occurrence were. In 1956, I remembered those signs. The hail stopped, sky very black, extreme silence. My in-laws didn't believe me. When I made move to go to the basement I realized that they didn't have stairs because of remodeling, so we went to the lower level of the Knoll Hatchery building next door in Graafschap. My then husband and his father didn't follow. I went to the door and saw them standing on the picnic table watching it go by. I looked up in the sky over the two-story plus attic in the direction it traveled. Suddenly a tiny (maybe pink) house appeared, turning slowly in the sky. I blinked and it was gone. My mother-in-law called the Red Cross and they said “You are it. Take coffee and doughnuts for the people cleaning up.”
In April 1956 I was 15 years old and a sophomore in Holland High School and lived on East 15th Street, a few blocks east of HHS. We were dismissed early that afternoon, shortly after lunch, and told that threatening weather was on the way; I think tornado was mentioned. The school officials had to be concerned that all the kids were safely home prior to the storm, because in ’56, HHS was the only high school in the area and some of them lived quite far away, like Hamilton, perhaps further.
Coming home from school mid-afternoon was a new experience (we had never been released early) and having heard first hand about the devastating tornado, which hit the Flint area a while earlier, I was very interested and quite curious. Our family had no television, so I stood at the back screen door in our 100 year old house and just watched the sky to the south. Suddenly a gray funnel cloud appeared, which I thought was fascinating. The newspaper photos of the Flint storm flashed through my mind and I began praying. The next day, I was extremely fortunate to be invited by my good friend’s father, a pilot, who owned a Piper Cub, to fly over and view the damage, which was quite extensive, from Saugatuck Beach to Hudsonville, flying low, we saw it all, much damage!
Our location where we observed the 1956 tornado was one mile east of the city water tower on East 48th Street. We had just come in for supper and I looked out of our west window to see if it was going to rain as it had gotten cloudy .What drew my attention was a hole in the clouds that the sun was shining through. This was unusual and upon looking closer I saw a very small tail extending all the way down. It was far to our southwest. As it continued on to the northeast it began to swell up in size for periods of time and then get smaller. Finally we realized that when it became larger it had hit something .When it traveled over the farmland southwest of Grasfschap it would puff up for only a few seconds at a time. This swelling would continue up the funnel to the clouds. My brother and sister’s family lived on West 35th Street we called them and alerted them. They took a picture of it from 2 blocks away.
The last damage in Holland that I know of was to the two story cement block Modders Plumbing building on the northeast side of the 35th and Washington intersection with Mr. Modders watching through the picture window. He was very shook up to say the least. Several of my friends were dip netting from the Paw Paw Drive bridge they reported hearing a noise like some kind of a train and ran down under the west side of the bridge. They watched the funnel cloud pass overhead, to the south of them. By that time it was no longer in contact with the ground.
Several years later in about 1959 we went for a dune buggy ride near Goshorn Lake down near Saugatuck and saw where it cut a path through the woods, even the back side of some very steep wooded dunes.
At the time I lived in Zeeland, on Gordon Street, west of 88th. I watched the funnel cloud over Holland lift and dissipate as it moved over Zeeland, then saw the dark cloud base moving east. I did not see the funnel form that hit Hudsonville.
On April 3, 1956, my father, George, and I were going to go to a livestock auction in Hopkins, but we decided not go because we heard on the radio that we were going to have severe weather with a chance of a tornado. Instead, we went to the barn to milk the cows and do chores. My mother and sisters stayed in the house to clean up after dinner.
Soon after we arrived in the barn we heard a tremendous roar, what we thought sounded like a freight train, but we knew the railroad tracks were over four miles away. The noise seemed to last forever. We kept trying to look out the barn windows to see what was going on but the windows were too high and we couldn’t see much, only that it was very dark.
All of a sudden it became very quiet for just a minute or so and at that time, the barn started to collapse around us, the next thing I remember is my father calling for me. I believe I was knocked out by some boards and a refrigerator box that landed over me. When I answered my father he said he was stuck under some wooden barn beams and was unable to get out. I came out from underneath the refrigerator box to try to help him. I went to him and picked up the beams so he could get out, his leg was hurt, but it was not broken. It was very scary because the entire barn was all crumbled in around us.
Later my brothers, who are much older than I am, tried to pick up the same beams but were unable to. Apparently, at times like these you get extra strength when needed. I was only 11 years old when this happened.
We owned a 1 ½ ton farm truck which was parked in the driveway but the tornado picked it up and moved it in front of the farm, crossways in the road. We also had several incidents where spears of straw were stuck in telephone polls and power poles along the road. Our house was saved with only minor damage
At this time of the year I find I watch the weather very closely – once you experience something like this you tend to be more watchful of weather conditions.
April 3, 1956 was a day that would impact my life as I knew it forever. It still does. We lived on VanBuren St. just west of 40 th Ave.
I remember it was very hot and sticky that day and we were all eager to get out of school. I was almost 8 years old and in the 2nd grade at Hudsonville Christian. We had been shopping for summer clothes the week before and I had to beg my mom to wear my new pedal pusher outfit. That night my family (mom, dad, brother and myself) ate supper together. We had goulash for supper. My favorite! My dad had to go to work – he worked part-time in real estate and he had office duty in Grandville that night. Shortly after he left for work it started to get unusually dark for that time of night. There was this eerie kind of look to the outside - a greenish- yellow sky. My mom immediately told us to get in the basement. As we were going down the stairs, the phone was ringing, but we didn’t go back to answer it. We were in the basement only a few minutes when, all of sudden, you could hear the sound of a freight train – everything got dark and the whole house started falling inside the basement. I can remember trying to push everything out of the way so I wouldn’t get buried. I ended up on top of the rubble in the basement. Our house didn’t blow off the foundation – it imploded on itself. I got out by myself and started walking across the field. We had a young family who lived next door to us – mom, dad, two small children and another one on the way. The mom was sitting in the field to the side of our house, bloody, dirty, covered in feathers from a pillow, and crying. She was asking anyone who walked by “where’s my baby’? This was the Oostendorp home and we found out later that both Bill, the dad, and Steven, the youngest son, had been killed in the tornado.
Everybody was dirty from all the muck blowing around and nothing was left standing. People kept telling me not to step on any of the electrical lines as all of them were lying across the ground.
I found out later that night when my dad found me at the old Zeeland Hospital, that my 5 year old brother, Greg, had been killed in the tornado. He had become wrapped up in a rug from upstairs and had suffocated. When they found him, there were no marks on him and his body was still warm. He had turned 5 on March 30 and my mom was planning a birthday party for him on April 4. The cake was made and the ice cream bought. My 8 th birthday was April 13. We were celebrating together that year. My aunt took a movie of our house before it was bulldozed under. The ice cream was still in the freezer of the refrigerator. We were able to save very little of our old life and very little was found that belonged to my brother – just his Davy Crockett coonskin hat and a coloring book. It was all we had to remember him by.
Life was never the same after that. Our family had lost everything we owned and a member of our family. Everyone who rebuilt in the area made sure they also included a tornado shelter. Thunderstorms took on a whole new meaning to all of us.
In my own family, life has taken on some strange coincidences. On April 3, 1979 my son was born. He was due on April 15, but wouldn’t you know it, I went into labor just after midnight of April 3. On March 30, 2000, Greg’s birthday, my son’s son was born. I can’t quite get past the coincidence of these two dates.
There are many more memories having to do with that night and the days that followed. The utter destruction, the loss of life, the way we lived our lives after April 3.
One of the houses left standing after the tornado, happened to be my Grandma and Grandpa's. It was the house on the south east corner of VanBuren and 40th Avenue in Hudsonville.
The following comments were told to me by my 98 year old mother, Jennie Rutty, and by Herm Hamming, also 98. Jennie told me that as John Hamming, and his wife Henrika, were seeking shelter in the house a tree narrowly missed them when it came in thru the dining room. All the chickens were gone, only to return later, but missing all of their feathers!
Herm told me that he lived at Van Buren and 36th Avenue. His wife was home at the time of the tornado. It was a frightening storm, and when she saw it coming, they prepared to save themselves by crawling into the basement. Herm happened to be at work at the time. Their car was parked outside. It was lifted into the air and dropped right back down. There were shingles off the house. The north side had no shingles left on it. She was able to bring her car back home, and it didn't have much damage. "Not much damage", Herm said. Although, the roof of the barn was blown right off! On the inside, there were eight 2 by 4's ripped from the ceiling, that were left inside. And, in the attic, the 8 by 8's were torn off the wall.
A building approximately 1 mile southwest of Herm's had lost boards and pieces of lumber that evidently landed in his area. The wind was so incredibly strong that there were pieces of straw embedded into the side of the tree, and sticking right out!
This essay was written April 1956 when I was in seventh grade at Hudsonville Christian School:
School was at last dismissed. Thinking nothing was going to happen, I went home. I was playing basketball when someone said, "There are tornado warnings." Thinking nothing of it, I kept on playing. I was soon called for supper. As we were eating a storm came. I did not feel much like eating after I heard about the tornado warnings and now the storm, which I do not like.
After supper my older sister and I were becoming a little more scared. (My Mother was not at home.) We did not want to do dishes, so we went and watched the clouds for about a half-hour. Soon I saw a cloud, which was not twirling, but coming together from the sky and the ground. I had a feeling that was it. I said to my sister, "Do you think that is a tornado?" She answered and said, "I don't know, go ask Dad." (Who was in the basement painting) I went to call him, he answered and so I went upstairs again. We waited awhile and were scared. He didn't come up so I went to call him again.
He and I were soon upstairs when my sister said, "Run for the basement, tornado!" I took my little sister downstairs and the rest followed all except my Dad who went outside to see in which direction the tornado was coming.
We waited for him, not knowing what was going to happen next. The window above our heads blew open and we thought it was coming. But my Dad called my oldest sister to come and see, and he called to tell us it was going past us. We came up to see it go past not knowing where it was hitting or what damage it was doing.
Soon the sirens were blowing. My Dad and the next door neighbor (Harry Meyer) went to help, but the destruction was finished.
My Dad was Harold Peuler, the city manager of Hudsonville. We lived at 166 Wilson Ave. to the southeast of where the tornado struck. I remember Dad coming home sometime during the night and telling us what he saw. People were bringing in victims to the city hall. Many could not be identified because their skin had been permeated with the muck and as I recall my Dad saying many had swollen heads. My Dad was able to identify a number of the bodies. He came home during the night for a break and I saw my Dad weeping. This was the first time I ever saw him weep.
My Mother was cleaning offices at Goodwich Welding (located on the service road and 36th Ave.) and called us that she tried to get out of the building as the tornado was passing to the north of her, but was not able to. The pressure on the big glass doors was so great she couldn't get out. Once she was able to get out, on her way home she decided to go north on 36th to see if she could see any damage. She saw injured people walking up from the muck area to Dr. Hager's office, which was on the corner of 36th and VanBuren. She told us the people were black from the muck. When my Mother came home and reported that, my Dad and neighbor went to help.
There are details of the tornado that I remember such as Mrs. Hamming whose home was destroyed by the tornado. She had a grand piano, which they could not find any pieces, but a china teacup and saucer was found in one piece. Also, there was a cement block house that stayed together but was turned a quarter of a turn on the foundation.
As I remember it was a normal day. I went to work as a nurse at Holland Hospital in the morning. My shift was from 8 AM to 4 PM. I was also a member of the nurses bowling team from the hospital. That evening was our turn to bowl at the Douglas Bowling Alley in Douglas at 6 pm. As I remember, when I drove to Douglas the sky looked very different, kind of yellow and somewhat dark, but I don’t remember there being any weather report out for bad weather. So after we were done bowling I went home. It was raining and a little more windy, but I was still not aware that bad weather was on the way. At around 1030 PM that evening I received a phone call from Holland Hospital. I was to come in to work right away. There had been a tornado that had touched down in Hudsonville and we had lots of injured people coming in. The hospital was filled with people in rooms and some had to be placed in beds in the halls. We worked all night. Later the hospital issued a special pass, which I have saved all these years.
At that time we lived at 3758 Kenowa Avenue, Grandville on the Kent County side of the road. Upon arriving home from work that day, I heard that a tornado was headed toward the Grandville area. Our family went out on the front lawn to see what would develop. Almost immediately, this pencil thin, rotating white cloud came out of the underside of a dark cloud. It looked as if some rain clouds had passed over Hudsonville going north. We had a few big rain drops with the sun peeking through. The funnel cloud came down and up a couple times and at one point we saw three funnels appear briefly; then one came down and stayed down. The upper cloud was slowly working its way down. At this point the bottom of the tornado was much wider, but still quite transparent and then it turned very black. We were over six miles away, but it seemed much closer. Having never seen anything like it before, it looked like leaves were being stirred up. After it turned black we could see all kinds of debris flying around. From where we were located, there was neither sound nor wind. It was just very quiet. The neighbors had a smoky fire at the time and the smoke would drift north a while and then drift south slowly. Eventually the tornado became a very smoothly shaped funnel and a very dark blue. We watched it from when it was far to the southwest, until it was directly north of us. There weren’t many houses or trees back then, so we had a good view. My mother and two sisters ran in and out of the house, one carrying a bird cage. They wanted to go to our basement, but the guys wanted to watch. We were going to wait until it took the neighbor’s barn down before we sought safety. Since it never got that close to us, we never did have to take cover.
My father Roger Cole is a survivor of the 1956 tornado as it swept through Standale. The following is his story.
Roger was 22 years old in 1956. Both he and his younger sister Barb lived with their parents at 465 Kinney near the corner of Lake Michigan Drive and Kinney in a brick 2-story Dutch Colonial. His parents were Frank and Josephine Cole.
Rog’s mom and dad were on their first vacation to Florida in April 1956. Rog was covering his dad’s job delivering fuel oil. His parents were due back April 4 so his maternal grandmother Alice Meyer came over to clean the house, saying that those two kids couldn’t keep it clean enough.
Roger remembers April 3 being cloudy and unseasonably warm. He arrived home from work between 5 and 5:30. His grandmother had just finished scrubbing the kitchen floor and it was immaculate. The three had supper after which Barb left to go bowling at the alley on the second floor of the downtown movie house (where the Fifth Third bank building is now). Roger got cleaned up for a date.
As Rog shaved in the upstairs bathroom, he looked out the west window and on the horizon saw a strange V-shaped thing that looked like a tiny thumbtack. Interesting, he thought and kept on shaving. When he looked out again after about 5 minutes it was still there but bigger. So he called his grandma to come up and look—had she seen anything like it before? “No”, she replied. It seemed to be stationery so Roger got dressed in a good shirt, pants and tie. On his way downstairs, he looked out the window again and it was still there but it was bigger and coming straight toward him. He estimates this was about 25 minutes since he first saw it. Now it was about on Cummings Road on the swamp behind the slaughter house. The treetops were whipping around with great force. Roger called to Alice, “You’d better get in the basement fast” as he ran down the stairs. When he reached the living room, the power went out. The clock stopped at 7:12.
In the basement Alice was in a twitter, hysterical. Rog had her sit in a chair and he was in the southwest corner looking out the basement window. He watched the neighbor’s house as first the shingles started flying off, then board by board was peeled off, then the house disappeared. This was the old Stanton farmhouse. Then the basement window blew out—he doesn’t remember any glass so he thinks it blew outward. The gravel from the driveway came pouring into the basement. The screen door always had a spring that whistled when the wind blew. Rog listened as this spring whistled higher and higher until he could hear it no more. Then he heard a gigantic thud and then everything went quiet- deathly quiet with no wind sound.
He went up the stairs to check things out. The 2 stall attached brick garage was gone—except for the west wall which was on top of his car. The chimney had fallen on the fuel oil truck. The condiment cabinet contents had fallen into one big pile on the kitchen floor, all the glass bottles of ketchup, mustard etc broken. Grandma took one look and kept repeating, “Oh, my beautiful floor”.
Rog walked outside. The old Stanton farmhouse was rubble. He shouted over there and received no answer. Ralph and Dorothy Higgins lived next door to the south. They had a house with no basement. Only the center bedroom remained of the house, with no roof. Neighbors, mostly from the north, began congregating. Bob and Esther Randolph volunteered to take care of Grandma at their house since it had started to rain. Rog then walked to the corner of Lake Michigan Drive and Kinney. The old 2-story Stanton store was completely collapsed. The new grocery store next to it looked intact from the back but the front wall was damaged and the roof gone. The brick service garage next to it was gone. A new building whose brickwork had been finished that day at the northeast corner was now a pile of rubble. Heyboer’s market on the southwest corner was demolished. The drug store on the southeast corner was intact. Vander Veen’s clothing store was demolished with one of its I-beams on 2 cars in its front lot. Next to it another drug store was in rubble and the lumber yard was demolished.
Rog decided he wasn’t going to be going on his date and he’d better change into some work clothes so he went upstairs into his clothes closet. He realized that his clothes were there but no closet ceiling. All windows of the house were gone—9 in the sunroom, 4 in the living room, 3 in the kitchen, 5 in the dining room.
Then he went to the Randolph’s to check on Grandma and she was in hysterics. She insisted she had to get home to her apartment on Alpine near Leonard to check on its damage. Rog knew from the direction the tornado arrived that it wasn’t possible that there was any damage there but she was very upset. Passerby Vern Beemer said he’d take Rog and Alice to her apartment. At Leonard and Kinney he tried to take a right but was stopped and was told that Leonard Heights (at Leonard and Remembrance) was demolished. Since Vern’s father lived in that neighborhood getting Alice home was not a priority. Vern found a passing acquaintance of his who agreed to continue driving Rog and Alice. So off they left with a complete stranger. It was an awful trip. Horrendous rain, couldn’t get through as streets were blocked, the driver said he was running out of gas so they stopped at a service station where Rog paid him $20 for his trouble. Finally they arrived around 10 PM. The apartment was fine.
Rog got the stranger to continue driving him to his brother Ron’s house at 7th and Covell. Ron was a pharmacist at Butterworth and finally got out of work at 11. When he came home, Rog and Ron went to see their parent’s house. The rain had stopped and it was windy with patchy clouds. The high tension wires were down across Lake Michigan Drive. The National Guard wouldn’t let cars through so they parked the car and walked gingerly on boards over the wires. In the moonlight the house looked awful—the roof was gone, no windows, dark, and a large spruce tree was down. As they got close, they called out “Anybody around?” From the darkness they heard “I’m over here” and it was Barb!
Barb had an adventurous story to tell. When the tornado alarm sounded she got in the elevator to leave the bowling alley and stopped between floors—not a pleasant experience for a mild claustrophobic. She finally got out and was told “Standale is wiped off the map” as she drove away. She drove to Lake Michigan and Maynard and the National Guard would not allow her to go any further. Then she drove Maynard to O’Brien to Cummings where she was stopped again. Then Cummings to Wilson where she couldn’t turn onto Lake Michigan Drive. She next turned onto Leonard where she wasn’t allowed to turn onto Kinney or to park her car. Finally she parked it along Wilson and came walking three quarters of a mile across the dark fields to the back side of her house. As she walked through the peach orchard she could see the ruined house. She came closer and then heard her brothers’ calling!
Barb ended up moving to her brother Ron’s house while Rog stayed with his grandmother. The next evening Rog and his dad’s co-workers borrowed a platform truck and moved the furniture out of the house into storage. His mom and dad arrived home that evening. They lived at a motel until a trailer was moved onto their lot. Rog’s dog’s remains were found 2 days later under a neighbor’s house. Their other dog wasn’t to be found until an acquaintance mentioned that after the tornado a man driving down Lake Michigan Drive called out saying that he had found a wandering dog and was bringing him to the Humane Society. It was the Cole’s missing dog! Rog likes to mention that he lost his car, his home, his clothes, and his dog but the greater calamity is that 3 weeks later he received his draft notice!
A day or so later as they were cleaning up his sister’s room on the northwest corner they noticed that paper money from their Monopoly game was fluttering in the joint between the wall and the ceiling! Apparently the roof had come off and then came back down as the money was flying out! Her comforter and blankets were gone also. The house didn’t have a roof but most rooms still had the plaster ceiling. The front (east) bedroom wall was in the shape of an inward V, with the 2x4s broken in and the dressing table pushed across the room. One week later Mrs. Tommy Thompson who lived the next block to the west of them asked if they had found the car that hit their house! She said she watched the tornado from her window (when she realized it wasn't coming her way) and saw a car flying through the air toward their house and then come bouncing back. No one found a car right there but when they were tearing down the house, a pile of oily dirt was discovered below the inward V as though an oil pan had fallen out.
About a week later, Rog’s mom was continuing to bring things out of the house. She was upstairs in her linen closet when suddenly two well-dressed women were in the house, on the second floor with her, admiring linens and doilies from another closet. As she walked by, they picked up things and walked down the steps. She turned to them and said, “I want to thank you for the help”. The women were puzzled so Rog’s mom explained that this was her house and these were her things so which the women replied, “Well I never” and left. They thought she was a looter too! So looting is nothing new. The National Guard did do a good job of keeping people out of the area for the most part.
Their house was torn down. A new ranch house was built using the old basement with new foundations around it and a new basement attached. This new house was torn down in the late 1980s and is now the site of the car wash. Very few of their contents disappeared but most furniture had to be replaced. One of the dining room chairs had stone chips from the gravel driveway. This dining set was placed in the basement, still covered in mud with plastic over top of it for 27 years. I bought it from my grandmother in 1983 and my husband and I refinished the set. You can still see all the stone chips marks!
The family who lived in the old Stanton farmhouse had just brought home their newborn child from the hospital that day. When the tornado came, they went into the well pit. They lost everything except the clothes on their back and a broken rocking chair. They had also just bought a service station that was demolished. The Kuzma’s lived to the north and east. At first glance it looked as though their house was undamaged although the roof was gone. However, when you looked from the north so you could there was no north side and all the contents were gone. Rog’s dad had a service station at Leonard and Remembrance on the northeast corner. The boy running it watched as the service station across the street at Leonard and Nixon was demolished and then he decided to run for home! Vern Beemer’s dad lived on Nixon. His house was ok but the house next door was gone. Heyboer’s grocery store was rebuilt. The Stanton grocery store moved. The store that had just had its brickwork finished that day rebuilt using the same plans and is the site of the fabric store.
Rog heard this story but doesn’t know if it is true: Neighbor’s Ralph and Dorothy Higgins lived down the road. Their son William was home on leave from the Air Force and brought home his fiancé from Amarillo Texas to meet his parents. During the day she became more and more agitated; telling them she knew a tornado was coming as she could smell it and she had to get out of town. Finally they took her to the airport where they all were when the tornado hit their house!
Rog left for the Army in June. He thinks his parents moved back into their new house in October.
Looking back on it, Rog wonders why he watched the tornado for 20 minutes without any alarm. He thinks now he should have driven his grandmother home and then his car would have been fine too! Insurance paid for the car and fuel truck repair.
April 3, 1956, I returned home from Grand Rapids Union High School on a school bus at about 3:30. I got out my bicycle and peddled my Grand Rapids Press route. I had about 90 customers. It took me till about 5:30 to get that paper route done. As I got home, my father arrived home from work. The sky was already pretty ugly, and the temperature was very high and it was hot and muggy. We had our supper, and then my father put a finish coat on the hardwood floors that we had to put into the new part of our house and the bedrooms of the old part of the house. And about 6:45, he sent us all to the basement (our clocks stopped at 7:06pm). I did have a fellow scout with me named Jim Uzarski who lived near Cummings School. You can imagine his parent’s worry. The brushes from painting the floor were in a jar on the kitchen table where my dad sat and watched the storm coming and pretty soon he ran downstairs to join us where we were hiding in the basement at the east side of our house between two cement walls. As the tornado went through, the roar of the thing was so loud that it can't be described as a freight train, because it was louder than that. I had hung a towel over the window in the area were we were. Just as the tornado hit my dad took it down to look out and all the glass exploded in on all of us. My brother David was the only one that really got cut and he had to have a lot of stitches in the back of his head. The whole house came down on us and moved about 16 feet forward. And I can remember in the middle of all roaring noise screaming at the top of my lungs “God save us!” and He did. After everything quieted down I could hear gas escaping from our gas pipe, and my father and I had to crawl over there. On the way there we found a big 30 inch pipe wrench that God must have put there, because without it we would never been able to shut off the gas. I kept that pipe wrench with me all night. When we went to get up out of the basement the power lines were still snapping, popping and sparking and we had to wait till they all went dead before we could even get out of the basement. The house was way ahead of where we were, so we were looking up at the sky, and we were looking at with what was left of my bedroom, and as we were looking at the house we saw that all of the old part of the house was gone. Only the new addition that we had built the past summer was left, but it was about 16 or 18 feet to the east towards the road, which was 1059 Nixon Avenue. All the houses across the street from us were all gone. The house to the south of us was all gone, except for the brick walls, the one of the houses in back of us was gone. The house the Herrmans lived in was turned one quarter turn so all of the corners hung off of the foundation. The house to the north of us which was the Kalee's was pretty much intact, but the windows were gone and the roof was puffed up. Over on the next street, which was Brownwood, was the Wiersma's horse farm. All three horses were dead and the barn and house were gone. Two of my Explorer Post guys arrived on the scene, and they found Charles Weirsma Sr., lying on the ground with a 2 x 4 stuck in his side. So Larry Peterson and Judd Spayde loaded him on a door and carried him out to the road and put him and Mrs. Weirsma in a vehicle headed for the hospital. In the meantime, I had helped load all my family into a vehicle and headed them for the hospital where my brother got his head sewed up. My sister Cathie (Ver Hage) had her back x-rayed and they found she had a broken back. So she spent the next two weeks in the hospital and my mother stayed with her most of the time. And the rest of us went to my grandma Tuttle's house up off of Plainfield and Knapp. But the scary part was my parents didn't remember me being with them. So they had set the police and the National Guard to find me.
The rest of my Explorer Scout group showed up at my house, and we went around the neighborhood shutting off gas pipes with the wrench. One was broke off at the wall, so we made a peg and drove it in the hole with the wrench. And of course they had already helped people get out of their houses and into vehicles to get to the hospital. Nobody ever knew we are there, but we did what Boy Scouts do. Larry Peterson's sister and brother-in-law lived across the street from me and their house was totally gone. And we help them get out and get into a vehicle and sent them to the hospital. His brother-in-law's name was Richard Gregitis, and he was a police officer with the Grand Rapids Police E-unit. He had quite a few guns and we had to help find those guns and get them stored away from the area so nobody could steal them. As it is started to get dark we all congregated at my house, and that's when the police and the National Guard found me. And then I had to find a phone somewhere that worked to call my parents. One of our adult leaders named Claire Horan got their station wagon and the guys helped me get out all of the good stuff from our house, like guns and camping equipment and some important clothing. I have hundreds of pictures of everything that happened, including pictures of straw through telephone poles, a tin can cover stuck in a telephone pole, pheasants that are plucked clean, a cow in at tree, etc. Two houses south of us there was a house that was totally gone. The people that lived there had just got back from Florida that afternoon at about 3 pm. They had a brand new Plymouth (with 2500 miles on it), which the tornado picked up, twisted it like a dish rag, and set it down in our driveway. Needless to say it was picked up on a flatbed. All in all everybody in my neighborhood survived pretty well. No one was killed and everybody learned to live with all of the distraction, mess and noise that occurred every time it rained or the wind blew. Somebody lent us a house trailer to live in, but we could not stand to live in it because of the noise of the rain on the roof and the sway in the wind. All of my family, friends and scouts came and helped clean up our yard and tear down the rest of our house. I remember the Red Cross coming in and feeding people, and I can remember the Salvation Army giving people clothing to wear, and there was lots of coffee, donuts and chili.
I went back to school a few days afterwards (Friday) and went to my driver education instructor, who was a retired police officer and said I needed my driver’s license today, as I knew I was going to be doing some driving of trucks over the weekend. So he said you haven't even driven on the road, I said no, but my dad let me drive a few times in my grandpa allowed me to drive his tractor for years on the farm, so I knew how to drive. So he got me a driver test with a police officer from the GR police force, he put me in a brand new ‘56 Ford two-door sedan with a stick shift. I was “jumper than a cat” and I went out and drove around the city, parked a couple of times and got my license that day. I was probably the first kid to get a drivers license from the Grand Rapids school board's first class of driver education. During the school year I had to go back and finish the class to get the credit. But the next day I started driving a big flatbed truck (5 speed shift) with a tall wooden rack. We filled it up with junk and I drove out to Standale and dumped it in the big dump area they created for all of the debris. Needless to say they'd have pretty good fires, because all of wood that had to be burned. The traffic from the sightseers was horrible and it caused us great difficulty getting to the dump and getting help in. The National Guard had to patrol all the time to prevent looting and keep people in their cars so that traffic kept flowing. It was a pretty difficult situation, but we made it. By the way, that night when I went back the first time to look at our house I noticed that the jar with the paint brushes were still sitting on the kitchen table, even though the entire house was gone. The house was 16 or 18 feet ahead of the foundation, and our foundation was broken off at the level of the ground. Our garage was gone and our two automobiles, which were "48 Dodges", were flattened to the engine block. One had 2 x 4 all the way through from one side to the other. Needless to say they were junk. Some of the papers that blew out of the attic of our house ended up on a farm in Tustin, which is a long-distance away. The people (by the name of Tuttle) mailed them back to us, telling us where they found them and about their ancestors. There so many more stories to tell, but I need to just tell you that the people of this country and our city pitched in and helped us and all the others. And if we have ever forgotten to thank anybody I wish to do that now, 50 years later. We tell all you wonderful people that we appreciate that which you all did for us, and hope that God blessed you in your life because He sure did in ours. Thanks for listening!!!!. My name is Richard C. Tuttle, all of my friends call me Dick.
“Should’ve Stayed Home”
April 3, 1956 is a date that will forever be etched in my memory bank, somewhat like December 7, 1941, - ‘The Day that will live in infamy’.
For it was on this day in April, one of the most destructive tornadoes ever to hit West Michigan changed our attitude toward the destructive power of tornadoes. West Michigan residents had forever been under the impression that we were protected from these storms by Lake Michigan. Storms that roared across Wisconsin stalled when they hit the east shore of the big lake. Earlier we read about the Flint tornado during which more than a hundred people lost their lives---- but that was atypical of Michigan.
April of 1956 began during a year when winter was reluctant to leave, with some lakes coated with ice this late. But this day was unseasonably warm as I headed home after my stint as a press photographer at the Grand Rapids Press and I managed to get stuck in gooey mud on my street which was unpaved. I walked home to phone for a wrecker and later pulled into my driveway.
This was also the evening we were to bowl and despite the unpleasant news that thunderstorms were to hit West Michigan, and pleas from my wife not to go, I still didn’t want to let me team down, regardless of the weather. Besides, I was also supposed to pick up a team mate.
When we piled into my car, a burst of heavy rain hit us as we headed for the downtown bowling alley. By the time we reached our destination, the brief storm cleared and we could see a coal black cloud hanging heavy on the western horizon. The bowling alley was on the second floor and since it was muggy had a large fireproof door open. By now that black cloud was hanging in the sky like some inverted pyramid, and though it was the first tornado that most of us had ever seen, it didn’t look like it was hitting the ground from our viewpoint. There seemed to be a blank, open space between the funnel and the ground.
Once the bowling began, people were on the move constantly, running to that open door between frames and phoning home with other phones ringing constantly. Several times the power dimmed or went out completely. It was a hectic scene as some bowlers gave up and headed home. My wife called and said a neighbor told her that Standale was flattened, and I asked if the paper had called, and she said no. Since the Press hadn’t asked for help, perhaps the storm was not as bad as we had feared.
When we finished bowling, we quickly headed home in the dark. I dropped off my partner and then I gathered up my camera gear and headed toward Standale to see what I could photograph. There was no damage to our house or nearby homes. When I drove down Lake Michigan Drive there wasn’t a light to be seen except for a giant WWII searchlight that rose straight up into the blackened sky in Standale. It was an eerie scene, and with one dim flashlight and stumbling around in pitch darkness with downed power lines a constant threat, I took about a half dozen photos before I gave up and headed for the Paper.
I developed my pictures as reporters milled about in the newsroom, not knowing what to do or looking for directions. I talked to my boss, the picture editor and told him what I could about what was happening. It was near impossible to photograph in the dark. He told me that since I lived so close to Standale, at first light I was to go back and get what I could.
At home, my wife told me that when she first saw the funnel cloud through our picture window she thought it was heading straight at her, so picking up our toddler, she headed for a basement well pit that had poured concrete walls and was the safest place in the house.
When the noise of the tornado abated, she ran upstairs and listened to the many sirens that raced down Lake Michigan Drive, heading for Standale. Our home was about a mile and a half from Standale with the track of the storm less than a mile away. There was no damage to any of the houses on our street except for a few missing roof shingles.
After a sleepless night with daylight approaching and a quick breakfast, I headed for Standale to record the effects of one of the most destructive storms to hit this section of West Michigan. Everywhere I looked there was utter destruction, and everywhere another picture. Not a building was standing in this tiny business area, even solid buildings of cinder block. Cars were overturned and often flattened by falling walls. Surprisingly, there were a number of armed National Guardsmen already on duty to curb any problems and I was constantly having to prove that I was a legitimate newsperson. Since I was hired at the Press just a few years back I had not been given any official nor had any of the newsmen, a big mistake.
For the rest of that week I was sent to area after area where there was storm damage and the sight of buildings torn apart by the fury of those winds. I quickly learned that tornadoes were something to fear and to head for shelter when a warning is sounded. At the time, this area had no tornado warnings, such as sirens but this would soon change.
The Hudsonville/Standale tornado experience gave the five photographers at the Press important knowledge about how to cover future storms. There would be several other tornadoes and destructive storms to hit the Grand Rapids area later and all of us gained valuable lessons of what to do or not to do when a storm hits.
And in closing, all I can say is that I should have stayed home that evening just to record one of the most important happenings in my long newspaper career.
I was on the way to downtown Grand Rapids to pick up my future wife and mother-in-law who were visiting Ferguson Hospital, where my future father-in-law had surgery. I lived in Galewood, so I took Godfrey Avenue downtown and when I got to the railroad tracks by American BoxBoard – just before Market Street - looked to my left by the tracks and noticed this huge gray funnel hanging in a greenish grey sky! I got out of my car, stopped some other cars and we watched the fury of the wind from there. Then I thought to go to Lookout Park (now Belknap Hill) and watch it from there. So I took off for there. I got there and met a Kent County sheriff and it was just in time to watch it dip through Standale. From that vantage point we could see roofs of buildings swirling in the air and then watched it disappear in the clouds toward Rockford.
I did eventually get to the hospital to pick up my future wife and mother-in-law who were quite upset with me because by the time I got to there the sirens from ambulances were already arriving from Hudsonville!
P.S. We got married in 1958 and this April 25 will celebrate 48 years together.
My husband, Roy Breen was at work at the radio station WJEF. The radio station was located on the 10 th floor of the Pantiland Hotel (now the Amway) located in downtown Grand Rapids. The station had what they call a “RED PHONE”. This phone was for community emergencies only. It rang that night notifying them to announce that a tornado was heading for the Standale/Grand Rapids Northwest area. The alert was immediately announced over the radio.
Roy called home to tell me to get into the basement with the children. We had a 3 and a half year old son and a 5 week old daughter. “Get into the basement and stay there until I call you back!” Our home was on Sylvia Street just down the road from Richmond Pool. As I went down the stairs to the basement, I formed a plan for the safety of the children and me. The strength I got came from nowhere, but I moved Roy’s workbench to the southwest corner of the basement. There was a lower shelf where I made a protection for the children. I had time to grab diapers, blankets, and pillows, along with books for son Tom, and bottles for the baby, Joy.
Roy was able to watch the tornado as it went across the northwest side of the Grand River. He watched the tornado pass across the northwest part of Grand Rapids and off to the northeast. As I went to the basement, I remember looking out the window and seeing the sky colored orange.
Days later, when Roy went to move the workbench back in place, he couldn’t move the bench! After getting some help from his friends, we needed FOUR men to move the work bench back in place! We took the car and rode the trail that Roy saw the tornado take from Pantiland that night. It was a scene of devastation.
I lived at 4036 Childs Street in Comstock Park on April 3, 1956, along with my husband Hank and our four children. Kim was the oldest at 4 years, Bob was 3, Sonny was 2, and Tom the baby was 14 months. We had moved in just before Christmas, renting the house from Grandma Visota. She had bought the house and began construction of two additional bedrooms and a bath, but had run out of money before they were finished. So we were living in the front three rooms with only one bedroom and a bathroom that lacked electricity. But we had moved there from a dilapidated house in the city, and we now had the kids in the country, with a big yard and a nice neighborhood. So in spite of the cramped quarters, we were happy.
Elvis Presley was scheduled to be on TV that night and we were looking forward to seeing Elvis for the first time. This was the first warm day after a hard winter and everyone wanted to be outdoors. A good day for yardwork and the first day the kids could go outside and run and play after months of winter confinement. I took advantage of the weather and did the laundry in the basement and filled the clothesline outdoors. Hank busied himself cleaning and raking the yard of debris left from last fall’s construction, and making plans to go fishing later that afternoon for a few hours (he and his friend had been planning that trip all winter). He said for sure he would be home in time to see Elvis on TV. We were both looking forward to that.
By mid-afternoon it began to really heat up and the weather forecasters on the radio began to warn of the possibility of bad weather by evening. Soon the warnings changed from thunderstorms to the possibility of tornadoes and the weather bulletins became more frequent.
It seemed much too nice for rain, and except for a tornado that struck Flint a few years earlier, we had no idea what a tornado really meant. So we were not concerned, we just went on enjoying the nice day. However, I took the clothes in off the line as soon as they were dry “just in case” the storms were coming, and Hank took in all the yard tools “just in case”. He also gathered up all the boy’s toys and put them between the house and car. That way they wouldn’t blow away if the wind got strong.
All afternoon we had the radio turned to WGRD and had been listening to our favorite music, and we were listening closely to the weather bulletins. At some point during the afternoon Hank called his friend and canceled the fishing trip, saying “If we do have a bad storm I better be here to help with the kids”.
While we were eating dinner the weather reports were almost constant (between every song). The warnings were becoming so strong and insistent that we began to worry. They also began giving instructions on how to protect yourself and your property. The weather had turned very muggy, but it was still a wonderful, warm day. I can still smell the air, it seemed so clean and fresh.
As soon as we finished dinner we decided to give the boys their baths and get them ready for bed early, in case the power went out. While I cleaned up the dishes and prepared to give the baby a bath, Hank started filling the tub. The sky was darkening considerably and we wanted to give them all a quick bath before the lightning started. Before we could get them into the tub, Bruce Grant, the radio announcer, cut in with a report that a tornado had been sighted in the Jamestown area (which was several miles away) and he said to prepare to take shelter. The radio station we were listening to was located in the tallest building in downtown Grand Rapids. Bruce Grant reported that he could see the tornado and he began to describe the direction it was taking. It appeared to be heading toward the west side of Grand Rapids. We thought it would probably hit on the other side of the river and we lived north of the city in Comstock Park. We decided it was too late to give the boys their bath and we began watching out the front door in that direction. We could see nothing, but then all at once -- our sky began to change. It became very dark, it began to rain lightly, there was a short spurt of hail, and then everything seemed to take on an eerie glow. The streets were glistening gold…it was different than any weather we had ever experienced.
Hank and I became very leery and decided that “just in case”…maybe we should go to the basement. Bruce Grant, who had continued to broadcast all this time suddenly said, in a very excited voice, “It’s turned, it’s turned. It’s heading north. Anyone living north of the city should take immediate action” --- and then the power went out. We knew that meant that the tornado had hit the substation at 4 Mile Road, and that was just a few short miles away. There was no time to re-dress the boys. We all headed down into the basement. There we had to decide which part of the basement to go to, the old or new part. We went to the new part because the old part had the furnace, water heater, gas meter, etc. By now we could hear the dull roar of the approaching tornado. Hank saw it through the window and he said to me “Red look, there it is”. It was coming straight at us but it was up in the air. It looked like a large, heavy sagging cloud with a short tail…and then the tail swooped down and it was on the ground again. The ground erupted in a cloud of dust and we could see parts of buildings and trees flying through the air.
We grabbed the kids and put them between us and the wall. Sonny squirmed free and I grabbed him and pulled him back as he screamed and fought to get away. I had to kneel on him to keep him under us. I looked out the window and saw a small pine tree roll past. Then it hit. There was a terrible roar and suddenly it was daylight over our heads – the house was gone instantly – and debris began whirling all around. I looked at Hank and his face looked distorted as if he were in a great “G-force”. Later he told me that my face looked the same way. I can only guess that this was because of the great pressure drop in the tornado. Then just as suddenly as it hit, it was gone – and it was deathly quiet. The basement was a shambles, with broken glass, tree limbs, wires and assorted debris scattered about. All the windows had shattered except for the one directly across from us. Part of the basement wall had split open and everything was destroyed or tossed about - everything except our little family circle. We were all alive and unhurt. But we were not safe. I noticed that Hank looked very upset and he was looking around for something. I asked him what was wrong and he said “Do you hear that noise? We have a bad gas leak and there could be an explosion. We have to get out of here, but I don’t know how to get us out”. At that point I began to panic.
The neighbors came to our rescue. Although we had never met, they knew that we had a house full of babies. They brought tools and turned the gas off and a ladder to help us out of the basement. A neighbor took us inside their house, as it was beginning to rain. The kids had no clothes, and none of the neighbors had young children. We had to borrow the tee-shirts of the neighbor’s teenage son and use towels as diapers. During this time, people were wandering in and out, bringing candles and flashlights. Someone with a portable radio came in and told is that people had died, but he didn’t know how many or where. My family lived on the west side of Grand Rapids and I had no idea how far into that area the tornado had gone, and no way of knowing until morning. The neighbors made a makeshift bed on the floor and we all slept there. The boys were exhausted from the trauma of the storm and from playing all day outside and they went to sleep right away. Even though there was no bottle, the baby went to sleep without any fuss at all. There was no power, no water and no heat, but that makeshift bed on the neighbor’s floor was really comforting.
Although the boys went to sleep right away, Hank and I laid awake all night. I kept thinking about my mother’s crushed dream and about how hard she had worked to get that house and in the morning I would have to tell her that it was gone. And all night we listened to the “lookers” and “looters”. When we looked out the window, we could see they were going through our things with flashlights. Sometimes we heard them say things like “Oh, look what I found” or “Hey, look at this, couldn’t you use this?” We knew that what hadn’t blown away was being carried away. But we didn’t care. We were all warm and safe for the night and that is all that really mattered.
Except to get a baby bottle and diapers, we spoke very little about the future and what we could do next. We never could afford to buy insurance, but except for two payments left on the car, we were debt-free and that would help. We talked about guardian angels and destiny, and at some point during the night we remembered that we had missed seeing Elvis on TV.
As soon as it got light enough, Hank walked the half mile to the main street in Comstock Park and found someone who would give us a ride into Grand Rapids. The closest relative to where we lived was my Uncle Frank and Aunt Flora. They were stunned to see us walk in at that time of the morning with the kids. A few minutes later Grandma Visota (my mom) came in. She had been driving around Comstock Park all night trying to find a way to get to us. She was almost in shock she was so worried, but the roads had been cordoned off by the National Guard. When she saw us she let out a whoop and started hugging and kissing all of us. At that moment I started to cry and she panicked again and said “What’s wrong, who is it?” Hank was in the backyard and she started screaming “Where’s Hank? Where’s Hank?” We told her that he was in the backyard and that he was alright, and she asked me why I was crying. I said “Oh Mom, I am so sorry, your house is gone.” She gave me a real disgusted look and being Grandma she nearly exploded. “Well what the hell are you crying about? That’s just a house and I don’t give a (deleted) if it blew into the Upper Peninsula. It’s the family that counts. I didn’t have that house before and it won’t hurt me not to have it now.” I had been fretting all night and she didn’t even care. She was just so relieved to see that we were all okay.
Because Grandma didn’t really have a place for us to sleep, we stayed with Barb and Chuck Lobdell (some of our best friends) for about a week until we could get into our own place. We found an upper apartment with two bedrooms, but it was hard to have to move back into the city.
The Happy Ending
We received so much help to get us back on our feet. The Red Cross was wonderful, they were on the scene the very next day. Sears gave a 10 percent discount to all tornado victims and the Red Cross replaced all of our furniture. Everyone in the family got a new bed, blanket and sheets and each member of the family got a new outfit of clothes so that we had something to wear to church. The Salvation Army told us to come and take whatever we needed for clothing for the entire family. And St. Vincent de Paul’s opened their doors and said “Just take whatever you need”. They provided all the necessities such as kitchen utensils, dishcloths, toys, etc., etc. All the little things you don’t think of until they are gone. Both the Salvation Army and St. Vincent’s gave us used living room furniture. And the factory where Hank worked put on a benefit dance for us.
And the MENNONITES, those wonderful people, came into the area (I believe from Indiana) and helped rebuild homes. My mother had very little insurance on the house, but she had enough to pay for a lot of the materials and the Mennonites rebuilt the house and we were back in the country by September. I will always be thankful for what these people and organizations did for us when we needed it the most. For the next six years while we lived in the house we helped finish the inside.
We found our kitchen clock later and it had stopped at 7:15 pm, when the power went out. Our house was taken within 5 minutes after that.
The frame of the new section of the house stayed intact as it blew away. It tipped to the side and dug a trench about 50 feet long. Then it flipped upside down and landed on the neighbor’s house directly north of us. The toilet was still attached to the floor and it was hanging there upside down.
After the tornado went through, it rained red mud. We found Sonny’s birth certificate in the yard and it was stained by the red mud.
We lost an E-bond when the house blew away and it was replaced about 30 years later when we learned there was a way to get the info to make a claim.
A heavy stove that must have weighed hundreds of pounds was against the basement wall when the tornado hit. It ended up in the middle of the basement floor. That heavy stove wasn’t one foot behind my back yet we weren’t touched by it.
All things considered…it was a great day.
In March 2006, after nearly 50 years, I finally met Bruce Grant. I had wanted to meet him ever since the tornado to thank him for alerting us that the storm was headed our way.
My dad had a farm on Kendallville Road, about 5 miles east of Coral. I was down in Trufant at the time the tornado came through. It hit the Kinsey farm southwest of town and we followed the fire trucks out to the farm. I didn’t know at the time that our farm had been hit. We lost a barn, but the cows were not hurt. It also took out the end of the barn on the farm across the street, which I believe was owned by Fred Smith at the time. And that’s where it ended.