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.
Unfortunately, I do not have pictures other than memories of the event but perhaps did have the best view possible of the storm. Our farm, which I still operate, is five miles south of Hudsonville and on one of the highest points in Ottawa County. On a very clear day you can see downtown Grand Rapids, Hudsonville, Zeeland, sand dunes at Lake Michigan and 18 miles into Allegan County.
My father and older brother had gone into Zeeland to get a hair cut leaving my mother, my younger sister, and me (age 12) at home. My mother sensed that a bad storm was on its way due to the warm temperature and a very black sky developing in the west. She had us come with her to the back yard to look at the unusual sky. There seemed to be no wind. Today I can still point to the spot where we stood. Suddenly, mother pointed to a spot in the sky, became nearly hysterical and said that it was a tornado forming. The view was quite clear although the western sky was as black as coal. Between our vantage point and Zeeland, the tornado was small, thin, and snaked up to high black clouds. It did not seem to be touching the ground. As it progressed towards Hudsonville it became wide, white, and definitely moving on the ground. There seemed to be a much shorter distance between the clouds and the earth. Large objects were visible being blown into the air. We stood there watching it travel the entire distance through Hudsonville, Standale, and then disappear north of Grand Rapids.
Mother was teaching at the Alward Elementary school on Port Sheldon Road at the time. She became frantic that it may have hit the school and loaded my sister and myself into the car to see what had happened. Just about that time a terrific amount of rain began to fall and daylight was fading. We made our way north on 32nd and west on Port Sheldon around fallen trees and branches. The school was untouched but the area was a mess. About that time emergency vehicles began to arrive amid the darkness and rain. Mother felt we needed to return home to get out of the way and see if the rest of the family was safe.
At the time of the tornado I lived on 64th Street just north of the intersection with Byron Road. I was outside playing and my father suddenly told us all to the get to the basement. My uncle, who lived in Hudsonville, had been visiting and had left not long before. I recall watching the tornado from our basement window as it touched down not far from our house. I remember seeing shingles and other light debris blowing around outside. The tornado looked huge and it appeared to move further away and then suddenly come back towards us. Eventually it passed and we were very worried about my uncle. We got in the car and drove to Hudsonville. I recall that my mother became very quiet and then started crying as we arrived in an area where there was tremendous destruction. One thing I vividly remember seeing was a bathtub in a tree. We found that my uncle had made it back home and was safe. Later I learned that the tornado had hit the Floyd Boss farm on 56th and Riley, just east of our house, and this was the start of the damage path of the tornado that went through Hudsonville and Standale.
It was after 6 pm and I was in the barn milking the cows, when I noticed light shining on the floor of the barn. I looked up and saw that half the roof was gone. The power went out and when I walked out of the barn I saw the roof of my chicken coop hanging from the power lines. A beam from the barn had stuck in the ground right in front of the picture window of my house and a board had gone through a bedroom window, but otherwise the house wasn’t damaged. I looked to the northeast and saw what I thought was a fire in a stand of trees known as “Doc’s Woods”. I had no idea this was a tornado, but the next day we got power back and heard about all the damage in Hudsonville. Then I looked at the woods where the “fire” was and noticed a path about 150 feet wide where all the trees were knocked down, some of them very big beech trees.
My brother lived about a half mile south of me on Felch Street and he was in the barn milking too when he noticed that the wind was making the barn walls move in and out about a foot and a half. He dove on the floor of the barn, but the barn held and he had no real damage on his farm.
I was 6 years old at the time, but I remember the events as if they happened only last week. We lived on a hill on 32nd Ave., 1 mile south of Hudsonville. That Tuesday was a warm, humid day, and it stormed in the evening, causing us to lose our electricity. I was reading or writing at our kitchen table and I recall that as it began to get dark, my father said that I would have to work by candlelight "just like Abraham Lincoln." My mother was washing dishes at our kitchen sink. Suddenly my father came rushing from the living room, where he had been looking out a north window. He yelled for everyone to get down the basement because he saw a tornado. My mother grabbed my arm (I still remember the wet soap suds on my arm) and my parents, two brothers and I rushed down stairs.
We had a north window near the basement stairs, and as my father watched and saw that the tornado was staying north of us, he said, "Kids, come and look at this because it's something you'll probably never see again for the rest of your lives."
So I watched out that window and saw a huge black cloud (because of all the black muck blowing around) with pieces of debris blowing around in it.
When we got back upstairs my mother tried phoning her parents, Albert and Grace Geers, who lived on 36th St., just south of Port Sheldon. Of course she couldn't get through. Her father had been sick and she was worried.
We got into the car. Finding it impossible to go north on 36th St., we turned around and took 28th and then west on Port Sheldon. I remember the drive was very slow and rough going. By now it was getting dark, but I saw houses down, trees down, chaos, etc.
Finally, we got to my grandparents' house. Trees were lying in their yard and across the driveway, windows were blown out, shingles off. The back window of my aunt's car was broken out. Their barn was twisted off its foundation but still standing. Everyone in the house was shaken, but O.K.
Exactly a week later, Tuesday evening, April 10, my family and aunt and uncle and cousins were at my grandparents' house to work on tearing their damaged barn down. I was in the dining room. My grandfather was there also, reading the newspaper. I saw him get up, take a couple of steps, and fall down of a fatal heart attack. So even though he wasn't a direct victim of the tornado, I'm sure the stress of it contributed to his death.
The memories of witnessing the tornado and its destruction, and the death of my grandfather, have stayed with me vividly these 50 years.
It’s been 50 years since the Hudsonville tornado, but it could just as well be 50 days. The memories of “before the tornado” and “after the tornado” are still very clear and significant in my life.
The picture in the Grand Rapids Press (January 27, 2006) shows some of the rubble of what had been my neighborhood. This is the area on New Holland Road where it crosses M-21 and the railroad tracks, and west to 48th Street. My home was located about in the middle, just outside the right of the picture. Ron Woodwyk’s little brown house is in the upper left of the picture, then the back of Wierenga’s house. What you don’t see is Hart’s barn and celery packing shed, Jennie Grasman’s house, sawmill buildings, lumber sheds and barn/garage. Just to the right of the picture and across New Holland Road was another barn, then Lawrence and Nell Peuhler’s house, their barn and greenhouses. Our family home, onion storage, tool and equipment shed and greenhouse was across New Holland Road on the north. Within seconds, all of this was flattened, shredded, gone! The Herm and Nelvia Schreur home (1/8 mile west) was shifted on its foundation but salvageable. Later it was picked up and moved to the area between Woodwyk’s and Wierengas’.
On April 3, 1956 there was a weather report, but not a “watch” or a “warning”, no radar or warning sirens. We didn’t have those modern advantages back then.
My father (Willard Brower) and I stood at the windows looking west. A big yellowish spot appeared in the churning, pea-green sky. My father said, “Oh here comes the sun, it’ll soon blow over”. I believe the tornado was already approaching us, but more from the south, and we didn’t see it. We went to the living room, and as I recall, only a few minutes passed before our home was pelted with debris and all sorts of flying objects from the homes, barns and greenhouses just across the road, or maybe as far away as from the De Kleine farm which was south and west of M-21 and 48th Street. Then the windows exploded and doors flew off their hinges, and as I crouched on the living room floor, I saw a wall disintegrating as it fell toward me. That’s all I remember until I crawled out from under some rubble. My father and sister were stumbling over the debris, trying to find me and my mother. My little sister was thrown far out into the fields, about 400 feet away from where my mother was found, although they were right next to each other in the upstairs bathroom when the tornado hit. My mother died from her injuries that night, Louise Roeters Brower.
In about 5 seconds our house, barns, greenhouses, farm equipment, cars and trucks were demolished. Only the foundations of buildings were left. It seemed like everything just exploded. We lost so many things, but it was the loss of those we loved and needed that was so devastating. Trying to rediscover who you were and where you belonged in the aftermath of that day was an ongoing dilemma for many, many years.
We now have the advantage of a pretty good storm warning system, but many just ignore the warnings. I wonder if they would be able to get their family, friends, neighbors to a safe place in 5 seconds before the disaster hits.
The Grand Rapids weathermen/women always refer to the April 3, 1956 tornado as the “Standale Tornado”. The tornado first descended south and west of Hudsonville and traveled along a path just on the west side of Hudsonville and Jenison and remained on the ground through Standale and beyond.
April 3, 1956 was an unusually warm day. There were thunderstorms in the evening. I expected the electricity to go off at any time, so I had set the flashlight on the stove, just in case. After supper, my oldest daughter, almost 13, and I were in the kitchen. My three youngest children, two boys and one little girl, ages 9, 6, and 3, were playing in the front room on the south side of the house. We lived at 4575 New Holland Road, Hudsonville, very near the railroad tracks. Shortly after supper, my daughter commented that the train sounded very loud. There were many trains everyday and I realized this one didn’t sound right, so I went to the front of the room to take a look. It was not a train. It was a tornado!
When I first saw the tornado coming, it was like a huge black funnel. It was already over M-21, coming across the railroad tracks, less than 200 yards from our home. I grabbed my little girl and yelled, “To the basement, kids!” It was very dark outside. We hurried down the steps then remembered we forgot the flashlight. My oldest son ran to get it, but couldn’t find it because I had put it on the stove. Finally he got it and was just at the bottom of the stairs when the tornado hit. We all huddled in the little room that had been used for coal on the south side of the basement. I could not have counted five before I heard my house creaking and cracking. I said, “Here goes our house, kids!” I was holding my little girl and trying to cover the other three children with my arms. Within seconds our whole house, including the stairway my son had just come down, was gone and it was daylight again. Then the bricks and debris started hitting us. My little girl was hit in the head by a brick. My younger son was hit in the back. I also had a cut on my arm, but we were not seriously hurt. In just a minute or two it was all over. The Lord had surely sent His Guardian Angel to watch over us that day. When we managed to get out of the basement, by climbing on a table in the corner, we were not alone.
We saw two little girls running across the street. For a second I thought they might be migrant workers, but then I realized they were black because they were covered with muck from the fields. The littlest one didn’t have any clothes on because her mother was giving her a bath when the tornado came. Her mother, Mrs. Louise Brower, was killed. She was the only fatality from our neighborhood. Five homes were completely destroyed on our street and five more were damaged. We assembled all the children at one of the houses that were still standing. They just sat on the steps until help came because there was glass everywhere. We were taken to Zeeland Hospital. There I realized we were not the only ones who were in the tornado. There were many people with worse injuries than ours and they were all familiar to me. What a shock! That was when I decided that we were not hurt as bad as others and really didn’t need medical attention.
We could just as well go home… then it hit me. We had no home to go to! We lost everything we owned in the tornado. All we had were the clothes on our backs. Because of the warm day, the kids had dug out old clothes from the summer before when they came home from school. My little girl was wearing hand-me-downs from her brother and that was all she had left. I never felt right about letting her wear her brother’s clothes after that. We stayed with my sister and her family for a couple of weeks until we were able to move into a little house owned by my brother-in-law. My husband had fixed up this house for his family a few years earlier after their home had burned down. I’m sure he would never have guessed that we would also need to use it someday. We lived in this little house for seven months while a new house was built at the same location as the one we lost. The junk was cleaned up, the old basement was dug out and a new foundation was poured in the same hole for the new house.
Every building on my property was gone, my house and all the buildings of my husband’s business. I had continued operating the Grasman Box & Crate Company after my husband passed away two years earlier. He had started this business in 1947. For a time he worked for the government painting boxes used to ship airplane motors. He would put the serial number on them and deliver them to the Continental Factory in Muskegon. They would pack the airplane motors in them and ship them where they were needed. After the Korean War ended, there was no need for these boxes so they kept coming back to our business. That’s why we had such a huge pile of these boxes when the tornado struck.
As the weeks and months passed after the tornado, I received a lot of my old mail from many miles away, including from Rockford, Coral, Blanchard, Lake, Farwell, Clare, Mt. Pleasant, and as far away as Saginaw. Many of the letters included references to my business; titles for my truck & pickup, blank checks, cancelled checks, check stubs, etc. My fur coat landed in Rockford. The people who found it in their field saw the Herpolsheimer’s label and serial number inside it. They called the store. The store had the sales record of it and gave them my name and address. They called me and I went to pick it up. The lining was loose at the bottom and the fur was in good condition. I still have that fur coat, even though it was never worn again. My daughters would like to make a teddy bear out of it someday. We lost all our material possessions that day, but the Lord took good care of us. Over the past fifty years He has blessed us all with beautiful homes and all the material goods we could ever need. He truly provides for His own.
I was only four years old when “the twister” as it came to be called, hit our home at 4161 Barry Street just outside of the Hudsonville city limits. There are several things and events related to that day that I have never forgotten.
I remember how unusually hot and windy it was that afternoon as I was riding my bike. The heat still sticks in my mind. My parents, Ed and Hazel Grant, had to go to Holland that evening so my brother, Jim, and I went next door to the Grysen’s to stay there until mom and dad got home. I remember sitting in the living room hearing the wind kick up and Mr. Grysen went over to the front door to look out the small pane of glass that was about at eye level in the door. He immediately said, “Get in the basement”. We found out later he saw part of a building flying by. No one asked why and we ran downstairs and huddled together in the southwest corner. The combination of sounds that followed cannot really be described. Breaking glass, an intense roar, the entire house shaking, these were all part of it.
I don’t have any memory of how long it actually lasted. We were fortunate that the house stayed standing. My next memory is standing in the front yard in a driving rain looking at debris and downed power lines. Then I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table crying. The whole thing must have finally gotten to me. I vaguely remember my parents finally making it home but I don’t remember any more about that night.
Our house remained but the garage was down. When a large section of the garage was finally picked up from our garden area, our cat was found dead underneath. Another house also remained but the next three houses to the west on our street were totally destroyed. The front living room window of our home did not break but the glass was embedded with sand. My dad sold the house several years ago but the window was still there and had not been replaced. The woods to the south that we played in had metal roofing wrapped around trees for many years that followed.
Within a year or so the Grysen’s added a “tornado shelter” off their basement. Also one of the destroyed houses to the west was rebuilt with a “tornado shelter”. The addition of these shelters exemplifies the fear that the storm left with a lot of people.
My family and I now live in Leelanau County near Traverse City. This area is not known as a likely tornado area but oddly enough there was a report of a tornado on that same day in 1956!
Al Koster had a muck crawler which looked like a mini-bulldozer. Oil would “weep” from several very small holes which were in the oil pan. He said the holes were from pieces of straw that had penetrated the pan from the force of the tornado. He lived in Hudsonville near 40th and Van Buren.
Our family was from Kentucky, so we knew what a tornado was. My sister, Myrtle Coats, watched the tornado form from her home on Kelly Street in Hudsonville. She took photos of the tornado from there and the next day she took some photos of the damage. I was living in Indiana at the time and learned of the tornado when a friend there called early the next morning to ask if my family was all right. We found the story on the front page of the Indianapolis Star on our front porch. I immediately called my home in Hudsonville and remember the great relief I felt to hear the phone ring. During the rest of that day I received several calls from relatives in other states who could not reach Hudsonville by phone. We were so grateful that my early morning call connected.
On April 3, 1956, the day the tornado swept through Hudsonville, Ethel Tanis was at home with her five children and pregnant with the sixth child. Her husband, Donald, was working the night shift at McInearney Spring and Wire in Grand Rapids. The Tanises lived in a two-story bungalow at 5391 School Ave., just south of Chicago Drive (M-21) which bi-sects the city. 11-year-old Judy, 10-year-old Betty, 7-year-old Esther and 5-year-old Randy were home from school. Four-year-old year old John and some of the children were watching an afternoon kid’s show on WOOD TV when an announcer broke into the program to warn about the tornado.
To this day Randy remembers hearing the announcer’s words that the tornado was “headed toward Hudsonville.” Fearing the worst, the kids took what they valued most at the time. Judy grabbed her saxophone, and all of them took their penny banks. Betty remembers clutching her “Mr. Peanut” Planter’s Peanut Bank. When Randy told Mom about they had heard on TV she was in disbelief. “No, that kind of thing doesn’t happen here,” said Ethel. She went to the back of the house which has windows facing the southwest and remembers that the sky was a greenish yellow and the clouds were dark. “Some clouds looked like they were boiling.” She and Judy saw the cloud forming a funnel, which began to descend toward the ground. Ethel told the kids to go down the basement. They followed her instructions.
Getting to the steps leading to the basement meant passing by the back door, and some of the kids cast a quick glance outside toward the western sky. Betty remembers seeing the funnel cloud “shaped like a pencil in sky.” The kids huddled underneath a table in the southwest corner of the basement. The TV announcer said the southwest corner of the basement would be the safest. Mom stood nearby and prayed aloud. They heard the roar of what sounded like a train. “At the time I thought 'that poor train,'” said Betty. “What a time to be going through town now,” she said. Later she realized it wasn’t a train at all. A strong wind blew open the back door of the house, but the tornado passed by without damaging the house. The electricity did go out. They estimate they were in the basement about 15 minutes.
Once it appeared to be safe, Ethel told the children to get in the car, and she drove to the farm home of her parents, Fred and Jenny Ensink, a mile-and-a-half away on 32nd Avenue (now the site of the proposed Meijer store). Soon other family members arrived at the homestead seeking the comfort and safety of loved ones. Ethel’s brother-in-law Henry Visser reported that he was trapped instead his barn near the corner of 48th Avenue and Ransom Street west of Hudsonville when the tornado went through. None of the buildings on his farm were damaged, but when he tried to leave one of the outbuildings, the doors would not budge. Apparently, unusual atmospheric conditions produced by the tornado created a strong vacuum effect.
At McInearney Spring and Wire, word of the tornado reached the factory, and management let the second shift out early. Donald drove home and, finding no sign of the family, went to Ethel’s parents' house.
Ethel remembers the next day was very cold and gray--a drastic shift from the warm humidity of the day before. Donald’s sense of awe and curiosity tugged at him. Mom fixed an early breakfast and the entire family piled into the car to tour the area north of Hudsonville to see the damage. Randy remembers seeing National Guard troops blocking the roads leading to the homes that were destroyed. When troops wouldn’t let them through, Donald drove in from another direction. Donald took the Bell & Howell home movie camera with him and filmed the damage. Debris was strewn across the muck fields north of Hudsonville, where the worst of the damage occurred. Seeing all of this upheaval was frightening to young Randy, and he remembers vomiting outside the car. Several months later after the tornado, Betty saw a girl’s light green dress in a ditch.
In the ensuing days and weeks as word of the tornado’s terrible destruction became known, Donald and Ethel Tanis realized just how fortunate they had been. Though they were in separate places when the tornado cut a path of destruction near their home, they and their children lived to tell about it.
Editors Note: Donald Tanis passed away in 1996 at age 79. Ethel Tanis turns 85 on April 23 in 2006. Carol Tanis, who was born 25 days after the tornado, wrote this story with the help of her siblings and mother.
On April 3, 1956, I was 15 years old. Along with quite a number of young people, I was at the Hudsonville High School (which was then located north of the railroad tracks) for a 4-H Achievement Night. As we were driving into Hudsonville from Forest Grove (my home town), we remarked on the unusual stark whiteness of the houses in the area. It was almost as if they were glowing. My parents dropped us off at the high school and returned to Forest Grove for a community supper which was going to be held in the Forest Grove Fellowship Hall.
Just before the Achievement Night program began, Willis Boss, who headed 4-H in Ottawa County, announced that he had been notified by Civil Defense that a tornado was in the area. Tornado? What's a tornado? We did obey Mr. Boss and sat down along the walls in the hallway of the school, but we sang "Shake, Rattle and Roll" -- a big hit at that time -- at the top of our lungs. We had no idea what was going on outside our doors. I have always thought that thanks should really have gone to Mr. Boss, who knew what to do in that emergency.
Later after we were told that we could go and that there would be no program, I walked outside and looked up at the sky. I had never seen anything like it! Giant puffballs (almost like "tater tots") were hanging down from the higher clouds and they were an eerie yellow color. I knew then that something terrible and completely unknown to us had happened.
We somehow managed to get home south on 32nd Avenue without seeing any destruction. We went to the Fellowship Hall and found our parents sitting quite calmly eating by lantern light. There was no electricity. They told of seeing a huge black cloud going over and at first thought that the Forest Grove Reformed Church (now Christian Reformed Church), which sits on a hill directly across from the Fellowship Hall, was on fire. They, too, had absolutely no idea of the power of that storm.
I was 16 years old at the time of the tornado on April 3, 1956 and lived at 1708 Baldwin Drive in Jenison. We had just finished eating supper and I went into the living room and looked out the window that faced west. I saw black smoke in the distance and hollered to my dad that there was a big fire. We then jumped into my first car (a 1950 Ford) that I had purchased and we drove west on Baldwin toward 28th Street which went into Hudsonville. As we went past 20th Avenue, we noticed that the smoke seemed to move to the north and as we got a little further my dad said, “Turn around, it’s a tornado!” I immediately pulled into a driveway and turned around. As we started to travel back east toward home, items started to fall around us, but we were able to drive off without any damage.
I don’t recall hearing any tornado warnings in our area. Since I had no knowledge or experience with a tornado in my lifetime, I really didn’t know what it was.
Our school (Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville) was closed for a time and many of us went to help clean-up damages on the various farms. One of our teachers, Mr. William Oostendorp and his young son were killed in the storm. At that time I really didn’t understand how much it hurt so many people in so many ways.
My husband and I remember distinctly that first tornado we ever witnessed, or had ever heard of except in "The Wizard of Oz". Shortly before 7 PM we were in our small trailer-home on the family farm, located at the Kent-Ottawa County line on Leonard Street, NW, a few miles from Standale. My husband was shaving, in preparation for attending a church service in downtown Grand Rapids, when the electricity went out. We went up to the main house to find out why, and as the family gazed southward out the kitchen window we could see rubbish whirling above the family's orchard. My father-in-law finally said, "I wonder if that's a tornado?" Meanwhile, one of my husband's brothers stepped out of the bathroom with only a towel wrapped around him, and commented rather dryly, "I think I'd better get my shoes on!" I was 5 months pregnant with our first child, and became very nervous about the enormity of the idea of such a wondrous event.
After it seemed to quiet down (the tornado obviously having moved on) we attempted to drive down Leonard Street toward Grand Rapids, only to find huge trees which had been standing along the street fallen into the road, making travel virtually impossible. Returning back home, we spent the night in the farmhouse with no electricity, and the weather turning very cold during the night and continuing the next few days.
We prayed for our safety and that of our child, which was our only consolation, and for days afterward heard many stories from friends and acquaintances that lived in or near Standale. One friend told how his father had parked his large pickup truck in front of the Stanton's General Store in Standale, and had lain down under the truck when he saw the twister approaching. The wind picked the truck up, leaving him lying there on the ground, and the store gone! We heard many similar stories for some time after.
Lincoln Dairy Bar, a part of Lincoln Park Dairy, was built in 1954. It opened the summer of that year. The business made its own ice cream. They sold hamburgers and other dairy products. On April 3, two employees, Lilly Hart and Pat Howerzyl, were working in the store. They looked out the west windows and saw flying debris. Lilly and Pat lay down on the floor (most of the buildings in the area were not built over a basement). Fortunately, neither of the women was seriously injured. The front plate glass windows were gone. The steel fabricated roof landed in one piece fifty feet away at the rear of the lot. Equipment was damaged and not repairable. During the rebuilding, a new kitchen was added. Seating capacity was also increased at that time. We had great support from the builder and materials suppliers. The Dairy Bar closed in the mid 1960s. A cell phone distributor is currently occupying the building.
I was seven at the time of the tornado. That day there was a funny color to the sky. Kind of green and orange mixed together. I remember commenting on the color as the neighbor and I were playing on the front porch at his house. We lived in Standale on Kinney Rd. My parents had a grocery store, Stanton’s General Store on the corner of Lake Michigan Dr. and Kinney Road. Our house was right behind the two stores on Kinney. It was around 6:30 and we were all getting ready to have a card party at the grocery store for the help when on the TV Frank Slaymaker the weatherman at the time broke into the program and announced that there was a tornado coming towards Standale and everyone should take shelter immediately. We looked out the window and saw the funnel cloud coming towards us. Our house had no basement so we ran to the grocery store and up to the front of the store which fronted Lake Michigan Dr. We could see the funnel cloud coming straight towards us. The tail was moving back and forth and everything in its path was being sucked up into it. The tail never left the ground and we could see buildings exploding into debris. Electrical lines were sparking as the tornado took them.
There was no basement in the grocery store either so we all decided to run to my grandpa’s general store as it had a basement. As we were crossing the parking lot the stores across the street were being sucked into the tornado. We ran into the store and down in the basement just as the tornado hit. The sound was deafening like several diesel trains going over us. The tornado ripped the store off the foundation leaving the floor above us. It sounded eerie as the nails were being ripped away. Then the tornado was past us. There was no air to breathe for a few minutes as it had been sucked away with the tornado. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. There were 21 of us in the basement and we all made it ok. We were covered with mud and water as the tornado had sucked up Fennessy Lake and deposited it on Standale. We crawled out of the basement pushing away rubble as we went up the stairs. We were all in shock as we came out of the basement. Not a building was left standing. The two stores and our house were all gone. All of Standale was gone. All we could do is look around in silence and survey what had happened.
I remember after a while my brother and I walked up Kinney to my aunts house which hadn’t been damaged by the tornado. We walked over downed trees and debris the whole way. Later we realized that all the downed power lines could have been active and we could have been electrocuted. I stayed there for the night and my parents started the process of seeing if there was anything to salvage. The next day I went to Camp O’Malley which they had opened to children victims of the tornado. My parents spent that time cleaning up and salvaging anything they could.
The Red Cross was there to help and we were given clothing and food till we could find a place to live while we were rebuilding.
The tornado so affected me that the next time there was a tornado alert at school I got up out of my chair and ran home as fast as I could. No one was going to stop me. I still get a funny feeling when a tornado alert is in effect after all there years.
The experience to me will never be forgotten.
I was 17 in 1956 when the tornado came through the Standale area. I was in a car with my father heading west on Leonard when the tornado passed close across the road in front of us. We could see the debris flying around us. The car's speedometer said 65 miles per hour but the car wasn't moving. The wind was that strong. I was holding some groceries and squeezed the bag so hard the bread was almost mush. I think it was a police officer who said we couldn't go any farther west on Leonard but my father said we lived on Maplerow and he intended to get there. When we did arrive home we were spared any damage. That is as close to a tornado that I ever want to be.
My family lived at 846 Maynard N.W. Standale. My Mother and I stood on our front porch and watched it come over the fields from Standale until a neighbor yelled at my mother and said "get to the basement, Virginia that's a g---d---tornado!!!! We knew it was bad because this particular neighbor was very religious and wouldn't swear under any circumstances. Houses two doors down from us were completely destroyed, ours was much luckier, we lost several apple trees and most of our roof, but still had a home, thank God.
I remember it being a nice warm day for the 3rd of April. We lived at 1100 Rosalie N.W. My Dad had just come back from the doctor in Grandville. My Grandma and sister living on the northwest side of Grand Rapids called to tell us that a tornado was headed our way. My folks had moved all the furniture out of the living room because the painters were coming the next day. Upon getting the phone call my Dad made my sister (age 5) and me (age 13) go down the basement. My Mother said don't get so excited as she headed outside to see what was going on. She came running back in the house and just got to the bottom of the basement steps when it sounded like a freight train went overhead. All of a sudden it became eerie quiet. My Dad went up stairs to see what happened. He just yelled and couldn't believe what he saw. The rest of us followed. At first we thought we were the only ones alive. But a few minutes later everyone started to come outside. There were live wires all over so we had to be very careful. Looking down a few houses we could see some of the houses were totally gone, others were partly gone. Our house had been damaged but it stood pretty much in one piece. What we think helped us was we had a enclosed back porch and my Mother had been out there and had left the door from the dinning room to the porch open so the porch was blown apart. The plaster in the dinning room ceiling was all loose. We had a 2x4 stuck in our solid front door. There were clothes from Standale Department Store in our back yard. Also we had shingles stuck in our siding. One of our cars was hit by a sign. But we were very thankful we were okay.
My Dad and I hitched a ride into town to see if my sister and grandma were okay. My Mother and sister stayed at a friend’s house on the street behind us. My sister and her family and my Grandma were okay. My dad went to the Silver Cloud Bar and got a ride back out to get my Mother and sister. The next morning I went with my Dad Back out to our house. I worked all day with friends to help other people clean up and fine anything that they could. I remember the house on the corner was completely gone. And as the people combed their yard for any belongings they would put them on the foundation, as they turned around to look for more things someone would steal what they had found. I think we did not have school the rest of the week, or at least I did not go. We could not stay in our house for a few days because we didn't have electric and water. My Dad was a manager at Capital Lumber and Wrecking so he had the resources to get our house back in order. My brother-in-law was in the National Guard at the time and spent a lot of time patrolling the areas.
It was a time that I will never forget. It left us very aware of what can happen so fast. My younger sister had a very rough time sleeping after that. And every time there was a tornado alert she became very afraid. To this day she does not like storms. We also built a tornado shelter in our basement.
I was 11 years old on April 3, 1956, when my 16 year old brother, Richard, came running in from the garage. “Dad, there is a big black cloud coming this way.” It had been raining hard for a while and the sky was dark as night. The storm was the worst one I could remember in my eleven years. Dad said to turn on the TV. The Channel 8 weatherman said to go to the basement NOW. Having just put on addition to the house, we had a small room on the east side with one cement wall and one cinder block wall. Dad said to go there. So my three brothers, one sister, mother, dad and a friend of Dick’s all went in there. Dad stayed up in the kitchen until he saw it coming through the woods about a half mile away. He ran down the stairs and said to sit on the floor and cover our heads. My sister Karen was on the cinder block wall and I was on the cement wall across from her. I put my head in her lap and she leaned over me. A noise came that was indescribable. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and could not hear myself. It was over very quickly. We were all sitting two by two, across from each other. It felt like we were cemented into place. Dad had to pull each of us out of the dirt. The walls had fallen down and the cement wall landed on me.
Our seven foot ceiling was now a three to four foot ceiling. We had to bend way over to get out. Dad ran to turn off the gas line and directed s to the northwest corner of the basement to get out. We had to climb on the septic pipe to get out. There was no ceiling over half the basement. The sun was shining. The air was cold.
My brother Dave’s head was bleeding and my back was hurting terribly. Don, who was seven, was all wet from the hot water pipes that had been broken. Our house was crushed and our cars were all smashed. The rabbits we raised were running all over the yard. Someone’s car was in the front of the house, blocking the drive. The two houses across the street were completely gone. We lost most everything. One box of photos that was in the attic fell into a closet in the boy’s bedroom. The bedroom was mostly gone, only the closet with no ceiling was left.
Suddenly, there were cars coming up the road and blocking it almost shut. We needed to go to the hospital and had no car. Someone backed into our neighbor’s drive and we all got in, my mother, Karen, Dave, Don and me. Dad and Richard stayed to see if there was anything they could do to keep the people out. It was a long ride, because we could not find a safe road to go down. We went way around and down Richmond Road, and ended up at Butterworth Hospital. Dave had a lot of stitches put in his head and we both had x-rays. He was OK, but my back was broken. We were in a waiting room forever. Mom put two chairs together like a bed and I laid down on them with my feet on the top of the back. The nurse came in and put a tag on my toe. It said I could not get up or move. My feet went to sleep and my Mom had to rub them, they hurt so bad.
I was eleven years old and they put me in a hospital by myself. I was terrified. They took my pants from me! I was put on my back and told not to move off it. We were supposed to sleep, but I do not think I did. Soapy Williams, the governor, stopped in and talked to me and all the other kids. The Payne family came in the same room as they got out of surgery. Ardith had a broken leg and arm and was in traction. Someone had to feed me and wash me. I had to use a bedpan! I was in the hospital for about two weeks while they made a back brace for me. I wore the brace for about six months while I was out of bed. It was itchy in the summer time.
I did not see the clean up or all the rest of the destruction. I do remember coming home and living in a trailer someone lent us. My older brothers and sisters were living other places so they could go to school. It was unseasonably cold and we had snow in May. Friends were going away for the summer and lent us their house until our house was ready to live in. My parents rebuilt our house with the help of relatives and friends. All the neighbor’s homes were rebuilt or fixed. We lost trees, but after a couple years it looked like home again. It takes time and a lot of hard work from everyone to recover from disasters like this.
I was living at 2155 Lake Michigan Drive at the time of the tornado. This is right across from Holy Spirit Church on Lake Michigan Drive on top of tall hill on north side of road as you head toward Standale. It was late afternoon and I was outside and noticed the following. The sky was a greenish color and ALSO it 'appeared' like a bunch of glassy marbles on plate glass window were being pushed across sky as seen from below. I had never seen anything like this before or since. There was no rain, thunder or lightning at all. If the far southwest I saw a very small (about 1 inch to me) spout appear. I went to my dad working in the garden on back of the house and had him come look. He said it was nothing and not to worry. Also, we had a dog and he was no where to be found. The quietness was eerie. There were no birds singing, which there usually were. In fact there were no sounds from any animals at all. The spout kept getting bigger and bigger. Again I went to my dad and said come look, this may be a tornado. He looked and again told me not to worry.
Now my younger brother and mother we were watching it and it was mammoth. I was looking straight up at the tornado. The base seemed like it was almost over our house but it was really over Standale. It appeared to be about 1/2 mile wide or more at base in the sky. I could also see from our high vantage point that the bottom seemed to be jumping on the ground. Now my dad came to see at my mothers request and he was worried. We usually went to devotion at Saint James church (having lived on Straight Street and belonging to that parish,) on this night. So my dad decided we were going to devotion. Through all of this I never saw any lightning, thunder or rain at our house. The tornado was totally clear and visible. After the devotion we could not get home. There was a blockade at the intersection of Lake Michigan Drive, Covell Road and Bridge Street. They finally let us go home after my dad showed them his driver’s license and they saw the address as 2155 Lake Michigan Drive which was just beyond the blockade. The police told my dad the next day to get a pass to get through from now on. He did and got a yellow pass to get through the blockade. My dad had a friend that worked with him at the furniture company he worked at. He lived next to Lincoln Lawns golf course and had a red pass to get through second blockade at Lake Michigan Drive and Colindale road. A couple of days later he came over to our house and took us through what was Standale. I saw nothing left. What amazed me is there was a brand new company called O’Dell Industries just at east end of town, and it was all gone to a concrete floor except one steel bean in the center was left standing. I could not believe that this new brick building was totally gone. I then realized that the pieces of paper and wood I saw in the tornado were sides of buildings and roofs and still could not believe that the things were up to one third of the way from top of the tornado base in sky. I also saw what appeared to be a straw imbedded in a telephone pole about halfway in just as perfect as could be. We drove through and then went back home.
The tornado hit on 4/3/56 at approximately 7:05 pm. My parents Rose and George Schwaiger had just gotten back from Standale doing grocery shopping. Approximately 10-15 minutes before the tornado hit my mother had me put pork chops in the frying pan on the stove. They placed three bags of groceries on the kitchen table. I was in the living room looking out of the picture window when I noticed a single hail stone the size of a golf ball fall in the front yard. I showed it to my father, and he said “The dark cloud in the sky is the kind that takes a home.” He then said “Let’s run to the basement.” Just about a half minute later, my mother, father, sister, Judianne and I got to the basement and ran to the fruit cellar which was made out of cinder blocks. The wind then blew glass fragments past my face, and then the roof was gone. All the windows were gone. Our home was of brick construction, which was probably one of the best built homes in 1956. My older brother had just gotten into building a few homes at the time. The cloud bee-lined right through our home. There was a horse farm next door and the wind took straw from there and embedded it in the bricks of the house. One of the horses was found in our back half acre. The wind did some very amazing things. It took the pan of pork chops, opened the oven, and put the pork chops into the oven and closed it. If it wasn’t for the Red Cross bringing us each a bowl of chili, we would not have had any dinner. Also, a friend took us to the Salvation Army to get clothing because everything was gone, mud damaged, broken, or just blown away. We had nothing left except our lives. Also, there we heard no tornado warning and we did not get any other help to put our home back. However, my older brother and dad picked up debris in a wheel barrow and carried broken bricks in baskets. We moved back in about 3 months with some friends who offered to clean bricks, etc. My father died on Thanksgiving Day of 1959 at the age of 67. He lived just long enough to work and pay for the rebuilding at discount costs, as he was a mill worker who worked hard for the small wages he made back then.
At the time of the April 3, 1956 tornado, I was in the Army, stationed in Grand Rapids, my home town. My job involved conducting background investigations for security clearances for Army and National Guard personnel. I was allowed to wear civilian clothing, but carried a badge and credential. I remember the unusually warm, sultry weather that afternoon, because I wished I could shed my suit coat while conducting interviews. That evening, I was helping out my uncle (since my aunt was in the hospital), taking care of their 4 young boys while he went to the hospital to visit. Their house was at 1316 Arianna, NW. I was reading a bedtime story, when I noticed an eerie orange glow outside, so we went out to investigate. We saw the black tornado cloud to the west of us, with much debris swirling around, so I herded the boys into the basement. All through the night there were sirens going off.
The next morning I took photos of several areas, including Leonard Street, Remembrance Road, and Walker Avenue. I saw clothing hanging from the trees on Kusterer Avenue, probably from the Standale Department store. My uncle’s house lost a garage, but the pickup truck that was inside was not damaged. On the north side of the house, gravel from the driveway was embedded in the wood siding, having been blown in that direction as the tornado passed south and east of the house.
I was 9 years old back then. We lived at 605 Oakleigh NW at the time and recall the storm. We were alerted by my brother who was in the restroom and was looking out the window to the west and saw the funnel cloud. He did not know what it was but told my dad "Look at the funny cloud". My dad was in the kitchen and went out on our breezeway and looked out the window....by then we were all on the breezeway and could see things flying in the air: electrical wires and all sorts of debris from the Standale area. My dad immediately knew it was a tornado as had seen many when he was stationed in the Philippines in World War 2.
When it looked like it was heading our way he sent us all to the basement. I remember huddling together in our laundry room next to the washer in the southwest corner of the basement. Shortly thereafter he called us back upstairs as the tornado turned to the northwest and we were out of danger. I remember going outside and the sky was an eerie pink color and we saw the backside of the tornado cloud. It had turned much colder than it was prior to going in the basement.
When they started cleaning up the Standale area they dumped a lot of the debris at then end of our street, Oakleigh and Lake Michigan Drive. There was an area there (where 3 houses stand now) that was a fill area. I remember my sister and I going down their and digging up treasures such as ashtrays and kitchen items. I remember calling the ashtray our tornado ashtray. Of course we never kept the items when we got older but still recall them.
My aunt lived on Westview NW which was about 5 blocks west of us. They had some damage in their neighborhood such as TV antenna's blown down and garbage cans blown away but that was about it. So we came pretty close to it. It's funny how you remember all those little things when you are a kid.
On the day of the April 3rd tornado I was home at 1530 Colorado St., S.E. I was a junior at Ottawa Hills. Upon hearing that there was a tornado across town, I climbed out of my bedroom window and scrambled up to the peak of our roof. (I wasn't wrapped too tight in those days) From there I could see the massive dark cloud that moved slowly across the skyline. I couldn't see any detail and I don't recall hearing any of the roar of the wind from my vantage point. But I'll never forget seeing that big black funnel. I'm sure I couldn't see much of the bottom of the funnel from there, but what I could see looked like it was miles wide.
We were driving my car to the body shop when my brother saw the tornado. We turned around real quick and drove away from it. Later I worked on the cleanup crew and saw all the destruction it caused in Hudsonville. One of the things that I remember was seeing a piece of straw from the fields sticking into a telephone pole. There was so much destruction there and I felt sorry for the poor people that went through it.
In 1956 I lived in Wyoming at the corner of Lee and Havana. On the evening of April 3rd I was at father and son banquet when we heard there was a tornado. We went outside and saw ugly green and yellow sky. My father was in the Civil Defense and I remember that he was gone for two days after that.
This tornado is my first memory. I was 18 months old, and while that may seem young to remember an event, I truly do.
I recall my mother looking out the kitchen window of our house on the northeast side of Grand Rapids. Despite the distance from Hudsonville/Standale the sky must have been very threatening for my parents weren't ones to take cover during storms. But the next thing I recall is sitting on the floor of our basement rec room leaning against the wall. My mom was reading me a story from a cloth baby book by candlelight. My dad was looking up the stairs. In later years my mother affirmed that this did indeed happen. It's a brief but vivid memory and ever since I've been fascinated by storms, especially tornados.
I was eight or nine, my father worked at the GM diesel equipment plant on Burton Street. We had recently moved into a new subdivision at Byron Center and 44th Street in what later would become part of the City of Wyoming. Our little three bedroom house was the third from the end of the dead end street, Eden Street, it sat on the south side of this street. Eden ran east and west from Byron Center and parallel with 44th St. to the south. At the end of our street was a HUGE wooded area, now Ramblewood apartments. These woods had some to the best "climbing" trees in the county back then. Anyway, it was hot and I remember all the windows were open that evening (no AC then). I believe my dad was working midnight shift and we were sitting down to dinner in the kitchen. Per the norm my dad commanded me to get the newspaper off the front porch. I crossed the kitchen and living room and opened the front screen door. I remember it being dark and the air heavy and smelling like rain. I picked up the folded paper and as I turned to go back to the kitchen, noticed the woods were on fire! Now this was important to an eight year old whose "camps" and favorite climbing trees could be in peril. I watched for a full second as the "smoke" swirled upward from this huge black cloud and met the sky. “Dad, come quick I yelled, the woods are on fire!” He reluctantly came to the front door where I stood frozen, looking out the screen door.
I recall him yelling loudly to my mother, Jenny, get to the basement! We did. Huddled under the steps for I can't remember how long. Later I remember Dad telling us that it was a tornado, a bad one, that killed a lot of people just up the way from us. This of course didn't register with an eight year old, let alone my younger siblings. In the course of the next few days however the destruction did as my father drove through the Standale area and we saw the damage. Some things I remember were a coffee can lid stuck into a tree trunk and straw stuck into the side of a wooden building like porcupine quills and wreckage everywhere and no leaves on trees
Sometime later I recall my dad negotiating with a man whose brick house was wrecked in the tornado. He bought some bricks that were the guy’s house once. We knocked out the old mortar and built a brick flowerbox for my mother along the front of the house on Eden with those bricks.
I have told my kids this story several times over the years, it has been one of those "where were you when" memories, and now I share it again. By the way the house on Eden is still there, and the flowerbed, too!
In April of 1956 I was teaching a second semester freshman engineering course at Calvin College. In those days Calvin held classes on Saturday mornings and one of the two sections devoted to this course was on the Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule. Due to some schedule anomalies (like a Glory Day for basketball triumphs) this section was ahead of it's counterpart a lecture or two, so as class began about 8 AM on the Saturday morning after the tornado I proposed to the class that we accept the call for tornado-cleanup volunteers and catch the volunteer's bus to Standale.
I was gratified by the response and shortly we found ourselves amid the devastation that was now Standale. We were given a dump truck and, until about noon, we regularly filled the truck with the all-over-the-place litter that is native to a tornado's aftermath. Every half hour or so I would take the truck to the improvised dumping site and get get rid of my load.
After lunch at the local fire station, with most of the area cleared, we were asked to relocate to Comstock Park and those who could afford the additional time agreed. We soon were led to a trailer park where, once again, devastation reigned. My memory centers on a large house trailer which had been tilted on it's side by the high winds. We arranged about 40 people side-by-side and, coupled with a small crane lifting, by cable, on the underframe, attempted to gently lift the trailer back on its wheels. Imagine our dismay and disappointment when the whole side wall separated from the base and gave way as we tried, with the best of intentions, to salvage someone's home.
These are a few memories of a most unusual and unanticipated day spent expanding the education and experience of a young engineering instructor and some of his students. I hope most of it represents reasonable recall – it’s been a long time.
I remember that day clearly as the sky had taken on a pinkish tone and the air was very still. There were reports of a tornado in the horizon. Before we hit the basement, my dad, three brothers and I stood out in the backyard and watched with complete amazement the massive tornado whirling in Standale. We lived in the Northeast section of town between Fuller and Three Mile Road, so we had a pretty good view. We did not realize the strength of this tornado as we thought it was picking up boxes. The next day we were shocked to find out they were houses!
My father worked for Bell Telephone at the time and was quite busy with ten hour days. He had taken several pictures and movies to record the damage. It was so unbelievable, with dead cows, smashed cars, etc. It was a time I will never forget.
I was only 15 months old at that time but my mother Gert Wieringa told me the story of the day. My mom was taking care of me and the neighbor boy Randy Hart, when the weather turned bad Lil Hart (Randy's mom) came running to our house to get Randy. He was up stairs in a crib, Lil ran upstairs to get him but the pressure created from the tornado would not let her pick him up out of the crib. So she jumped in on top of him and road out the storm. They were both fine. My mom grabbed me and ran to the basement, with some of my siblings. We were all fine, too. The tornado took all the windows out of our house and took our barn. Many were not this fortunate.
My family was fortunate not to have been in the midst of the ’56 tornado, but we were right across the river in North Park. I was only in the first grade, but that night was indelibly etched in my memory. At that time, we didn’t know enough to go into the basement. I stood at a large window of our home on North Park Street, facing west, and watched the storm clouds. My dad, Rev. Paul Markham, who was the Pastor of the North Park Presbyterian Church, had been across the street at the church doing some work in his office that evening. He told us that he stepped out on the back porch of the church just in time to see the funnel cloud as it passed by. I remember people saying that the funnel had moved through Comstock Park toward the river, and then it followed the river instead of coming into North Park.
One man in the church whose name I don’t remember was badly injured, but survived. Upon waking up in the hospital, he said that the last thing he remembered was looking down and seeing the tops of telephone poles. A few days after the tornado, we took a ride through the area. I remember being awestruck by the devastation. There were piles of boards that had recently been homes, and bare foundations left behind. I was amazed to see so many items of clothing scattered far and wide, littering the ground and hanging from trees.
As I recall the 1956 tornado 17 people were killed in the greater Grand Rapids area and one farther north for a total of 18 deaths. Serving my first church in the small town of Atwood, MI (40 miles north of Traverse City) I recall changing my plans late in the week for preaching that next Sunday morning. I decided to direct the congregation’s attention to Luke 13:4, 5. The passage itself held the people’s attention.
I was 16 at the time. I always babysat for my sister's little 2 year old boy once a week while they went bowling. Before I left to drive to their home on Texas, northwest from our home in the north end, our next door neighbor came over and said there was a weather report indicating a tornado was likely. At 16 I had hardly heard much about tornadoes - but sure never heard of one in our area.
I drove to my sister's home sometime around 6:00 that evening. They had just built a new brick ranch home on Texas off Bristol. There were 12 new homes on Bristolwood and Texas. The house was so new that the yard was not yet in, so I pulled up into the front yard in front of the house. My brother-in-law had just left for his bowling time and my sister was preparing to leave. We heard the wind start to really blow harder and harder. She said I think we better go to the basement, this doesn't look good. We ran downstairs with my nephew and sat on the floor down there. It got so loud with the roaring. As we could see out the basement windows, we could see debris blowing around. My nephew kept saying - "choo choo". That is exactly what it sounded like! When it stopped, we went upstairs and it was almost dark. We looked across the road and there was a huge tree - roots facing us that had lodged between two other trees. If it hadn't lodged there, it would was aiming directly at my sister's home. We didn't dare go outside, but as we tried to look down the street, we couldn't see the other homes.
My brother-in-law finally came running into the house an hour or so later. He had heard about the tornado and tried to get home. The closest he could get was on the corner of Pannell & Bristol near the railroad tracks. He ran up the hill on Bristol, through the debris of the trailer park that the tornado ripped through. As he turned the corner on Bristolwood he couldn't see his house and was in a panic. Of the 12 homes on that street, only three were left standing. As he ran closer he finally could see that his home was one of the three left standing. He told us of the destruction he saw on his way to get to us. We took my car (which fortunately had only a few scratches from the storm) and tried to get to a phone so we could call my mother to let her know we were all okay. It was a difficult drive to try and get down 3 Mile Rd. to Alpine, around trees, debris and downed wires.
To this day, I have a very healthy respect for tornado warnings! Never again did I take a weather report for granted. We were very, very fortunate that evening.
I was returning from Albion that evening and hit bad thunderstorm just east of Coates Grove in Barry County, where I watched tree fall in the road. A farmer pulled it out of the road with a tractor and I continued driving back. I ran into damage at 4 Mile road and M-37 and there were roadblocks set up there. A few days later I saw house just east of Northland Drive north of Rockford that had the curtains blown out along with all the windows, but the people there said the tax return envelope was left undisturbed on the piano.
In 1956 I had a Christmas tree farm up near Trufant. After the tornado I found some clothing items up there. I remember finding a little girl’s dress hanging from one of the trees.
I was eleven in 1956. Our family and the neighbors (eleven of us) were huddled in our basement. Watched house lift off foundation. It used the front cement porch as a plow point, digging a trench 4-6 feet wide and several feet deep. The trench extended for 30 feet as the porch ran into embankment of road which sat a foot or two above foundation level. Two houses across the street were leveled. A 1949 Olds was found 200 yards away and quite flat. Our Willys jeep had a telephone pole sticking through the back on it.
I lived on Burton Street in Grand Rapids in 1956. I was out raking leaves that afternoon and it was a balmy and windy day. Later on towards evening I was listening to the radio and they mentioned a tornado had hit Port Sheldon Road in Hudsonville. I went outside and saw the big funnel and it looked like it was heading towards me, so I was ready to go to the basement. I was very worried because there was a furniture store next to me and I thought the tornado would fling the furniture towards my house. But then I saw that it was heading north of me towards Standale.
I was driving down to Bridge Street from Cedar Springs for a meeting. It was raining so hard that cars were pulling off the road. I kept on and when I got to 7 Mile road then rain stopped and it got real quiet. My son noticed the funnel. I didn’t see it until we got to 6 Mile road and as we drove south I could see it was going to cross in front of us. I pulled off the road and watched it cross. The power lines were whipping up and down and finally snapped with a big bunch of sparks. I watched the shingles and then the roof lift off a building up ahead, at the corner of Alpine and 4 Mile road. I also saw a narrow funnel move off the side of the tornado and go right over us as the tornado crossed about one quarter mile south of us. After it passed, I started driving south. The road was filled with pieces of debris that I drove around, and a power line hit my windshield, but I made it through there. I saw a tractor that had been blown onto a golf course and a house that had the windows blown out and the curtains hanging out. I stopped the car and ran over to see if anyone in the house was hurt. I yelled in the open window and then noticed that the house was off the foundation. I went behind it and saw people climbing out of their basement. They were very shaken, but not injured. I drove to the meeting at Bridge Street but I kept hearing all the sirens. On the way back I had to convince the policeman at the roadblock to let me through. The next day we noticed that there was a lot of debris scattered all over our farm. I found a pair of knit gloves with the price tag still on them from a store in Standale. The trees around my house were decorated like Christmas and it took a long time for all the debris to fall off. We had to pass over the farm collecting the nails and pieces of debris before we could plow the fields that year.
The second house on Vinecroft was owned by the Appleby family. It was completely destroyed. Everyone got out alive with only cuts. The third house was also destroyed. The train tracks ran behind the houses and before the storm hit, the kid in the bath houses was outside playing. All of a sudden, it got dark and the tornado was coming. It was big and black and it rumbled like a train. Everyone went running for home. In minutes it was over.
I was working in the evening on the floor of the Worzburg’s building when the lights flickered and the air vents on the roof started making noises. I went to a room where I looked out the window. The sky had an orange color to it. I spotted the tornado in the western sky. The back end of the thunderstorm looked like an old fashioned tub with a drain pipe but no legs. The tornado was a solid black mass as it had picked up lots of dirt from the plowed fields it went through. I went out to the area after I got out of work. I saw a mobile home park that only had pieces of metal left. Several cars were sitting in trees. There were only a few cinder blocks left where a house and garage stood. I also noticed that the grass had been sucked up by the tornado. It wasn’t until about 30 years later that I found out that an F4 or F5 tornado could do that. I can see these things in my mind as though it had happened recently.
I remember the event quite clearly. I was in my last semester at Junior College and in the process of applying for transfer to Georgetown in D.C. I’d just turned 20. We (my parents and I) lived in an upstairs apartment in Wyoming and were in the process of starting dinner. My mom saw a reflection of a strange looking cloud in the window. I got up and looked out and saw it in the west and we immediately evacuated to the basement. Another family downstairs did also. We were not nearly as close to the tornado as the photographs, thank god. Anyway, I went out in the yard to watch it. I saw that it was a fair distance away and traveling north, not coming towards us. When we returned upstairs and turned on WOOD TV, there was nothing. Apparently the twister had knocked out their tower in the Rockford area? Warnings weren’t as sophisticated back then and I noticed later that the death toll dropped further north the tornado went as people knew about it or saw it. This was a good lesson. Don’t depend on the electric power grid to warn you – have a portable radio – and hopefully the radio stations aren’t powerless too.
I was in Butterworth hospital that evening as had my baby daughter that day at 1:30 pm. Back then you stayed in the hospital a week before you went home after having a baby. For several hours that night the sirens of the ambulances were heard bringing the injured into Butterworth. I also recall the nurses taking all the extra blankets from the rooms for the injured people that were arriving.
On Tuesday April 3, 1956, I remember the weather as unseasonably warm… I believe it was around 72 degrees. I was eating dinner at Chickee Drive-in on South Division. I heard on the radio that a tornado was striking the Hudsonville area. I quickly jumped in my car and drove the couple blocks North on Division Ave until I came to 28th street. Once on 28th street, I proceeded west toward Grandville. When I got to the viaduct over the train tracks, between Buchanan Ave and Clyde Park Ave, which was elevated, I could see the tornado to the west. The tornado was huge and very black in the classic tornado shape. I continued to drive west toward Grandville, and as I did, the tornado continued to the northeast. Once I arrived at Wilson Ave and 28th street, just before the Grand River, the police had the road blocked so nobody could drive on Wilson Ave toward Standale. Later, I found out why, because there was tremendous damage done in the Standale area. I will never forget what I saw that warm Tuesday evening fifty years ago.
A couple of other incidents come to mind as it related to the ’56 tornado. My six children remember just before I herded them into the protection of the deep basement that I told them to go to their rooms and take two items with them to the cellar. They came back with dolls, crayons, toys, Tonka trucks, games, etc., but the oldest brought here Bible and diary. Interesting. My neighbor asked if he could join us and we willingly obliged. He came with a camp stool and a black fishing box with his earthly possessions. He had no basement in his house. He joined us on all subsequent tornado warnings. After the tornado had crossed Leonard Street and ripped the porch off the Elks Club and knocked down the water tower, which was across the road, a friend and I came out of our basement and decided to assess the damage of our property and the neighbors. It was dark and we had flash lights. We would stop at each destroyed house on Leonard St and shout, “Did anybody need help!” By this time the police, firemen, and emergency vehicles were dodging trees and downed power lines, trying to reach those that needed help. We came upon a house on the corner of Brownwood and Leonard and helped an 80 year old lady out of her basement to safety. Her home was leveled. One National Guardsman kept yelling “Don’t smoke, don’t light a match, there are many ruptured gas lines in this area.” We all paid attention.
The April 1956 tornado was the first in our area that I could remember. It took our home. It was very heartbreaking for all of us, especially for my father and my husband as they worked so hard and long hours to get it finished, and then in just a matter of seconds it was all gone. I had bought the property when my husband was in the Service; we always lived on the west side and decided to build here. I lived on Pannell St, just a half mile from where we build the house with my father and mother. When my husband got out of the Service, my father said he would build us a home. With my husband’s help, they worked long hours, every night and weekends. We had two children at the time, a girl and a boy and expecting a third in January, so we had to build our own home. The night of the tornado, my father was working at the house with another man. There was no phone connected at this time, so we could not tell him what was happening. The man hadn’t eaten his dinner yet, so my father took him home, going down Leonard St. Everyone was looking up in the sky. He had no radio in the car. We when he got home, he asked my mother and I what was going on. I told him the operator called and said there was a tornado, go to your basement. I put the phone down and told my mother. We looked out the kitchen window and saw the black clouds and a loud noise.
After the storm was over, we drove up to Bristol from Pannell, but couldn’t go any farther by car, so we had to walk up the hill passing the trailer park and all the damage there, to our street Bristolwood Dr. When my dad got to the corner he just said, “It’s all gone.” We all felt so bad, because they had worked so hard to save us money to have our own home. It was insured, but we couldn’t get a loan because we had built it with money we had saved. They found our frame of the house as far as Sparta as we had stained it red to preserve it. The back wall of the basement caved in and part of the front section of the basement. The furnace blew right out. A neighbor told us and he called the gas company. His name was Howard Growe. He lived at the end of the street. Everyone said we were lucky not to have been in the house or we probably wouldn’t be here. My sister-in-law wrote to Jerry Ford and told him the circumstances, and we had a loan the next day from Small Business in Standale. We had to have a builder rebuild the house, as we were expecting our third child.
We built in the same place, the same house and have since added an extra bedroom and family room, as we now have seven children and nineteen grandchildren and one great grandchild. My husband passed away in 1995. We felt we were fortunate to have come through the terrible tornado and nobody was hurt here; others were not so fortunate. It was a time I will never forget and hope no one has to go through such an experience. Every time I see one on television, I can relate to their feelings of loss. One other house by us was also leveled. The people were in the basement, but the beam fell on her back. She was hurt bad. They were the Biggs. Two other houses were just damaged, roof and siding; the Strains and Boleks.
My father, Alfred D. Payne, died in the tornado of April 3, 1956. He was married to my mother Marion Bessie Hammer in 1930 and had eight children. He was employed at Farmer Peet’s Packing and Slaughter House on Bristol Road at the time of his death. He always worked in the meat processing business, except during WWII when he worked at King Seeley Defense Plant on Cottage Grove and Division Avenue. He was an avid fisherman and liked fishing for bluegill, perch, pike and bullheads. He loved children and was always helping them with whatever they needed.
On the evening of April 3rd my mother was at work at Hekman Biscuit Company. She worked the 3 PM to 11 PM shift. I am told by the older kids at the time that dad noticed the tornado out the west dining room window and told the kids to hit the floor. My sister Ardith and brother Tom asked why and my brother Alfred (Sonny) said “Don’t ask questions. When dad says something, do it!” He then grabbed them and hit the floor with them in his arms. The force of the tornado was so strong it pulled them out of his arms. My brother Ronald jumped behind dad’s big overstuffed chair and wrapped his arms around it. He said that is the way he flew in the air and when the chair landed across the street from our house, it flipped him over on the seat of the chair and it disappeared and he was then sitting on the cushion.
The floor of the house landed up the hill and Kenneth was found on it. Alfred’s (Sonny’s) Studebaker was sitting in the front of the house outside the fence. It was found across the street on top of a house trailer and the big chokecherry tree was on top of both.
Kenneth’s suit jacket was sent back to us from Gladwin, Michigan. It had his Sunday School paper in the pocket. The people that found it sent it back to St. James Lutheran Church where my parents and brothers and sisters went to church. I went to Fairview Reform Church.
I was storing a wedding dress in the basement of the house of the owners of the Oakwood Heights Trailer Park, which was across the street. All the clothes hanging in clothing bags were gone but the dress was still there without a spot on it. When I went down stairs of the house I noticed a long strand of dried grass through the beam above the doorway. Our family Bible was found out in the yard without a drop of water or dirt on it.
The April 3rd tornado is very bright in my memory. We lived in Grandville. My husband Bob and I were having dinner with our 3 children before he went back to work in his law office. The weather was weird and seemed ominous. We kept looking at the clouds outside the south window. The phone rang. It was my parents, who lived along Cottonwood in Jenison. They could see a tornado coming and called to say they were going down to their basement. We immediately went to our basement. We pulled a table into the southwest corner and crawled under it. Debby aged 6 and Cathy aged 3 were on the floor while I lay on top of our 1 year son David. We heard the roar of the storm and cowered under the table. It missed us. Bob began to look around the house and called from the door on the north side of the house. He wanted the children to see what he saw. They looked directly north (toward Standale). Debby said the cloud looked "like Texas in the sky". It was very dark and had a tip on the bottom like the map.
My parents called from the farm to say it had missed them. We later found it went over the fields north of the farmhouse, between 10th Avenue and the Grand River (now Wallinwood). Some fences and gates were bent out of shape but there was no other damage. Bob went to his office on State street in Grandville. Many ambulances, police cars and fire trucks raced down M21 toward Hudsonville. He realized the news might be bigger than local .He called his family in Pennsylvania to say we were all ok, in case they heard about the tornado. They said it came on their radio and they were glad they had been told. Soon after that the phone lines were so busy you could not make a long distance call. Our family was lucky, but we all remember the scare of that storm.
We were at a sport show at the old Civic Auditorium, and from the West windows on the mezzanine level, someone shouted they saw it. We went and looked, saw it, but could not believe it. About 15 minutes later, the auditorium went black. I remember the fellow who had a booth selling all kinds of flashlights and lanterns sold everything he had.
I lived in northwest Grand Rapids in 1956. We saw the tornado coming and we all went down into the basement, but fortunately it missed us. I am an electrician and after it passed, I went out to help restore power. The first place I went to was 4 Mile Road. The last person killed by the tornado was a lady in that area, her folded up and fell on her. From there, I went north to Rockford. There were 8 to 10 power lines that I helped clear off of Northland Avenue, one at a time. This allowed traffic to move through the area freely once again. I went to Standale after that, to the trailer park on Bristol Avenue. Everything was flattened there; nothing was taller than four or five feet high. It looked like a war zone. I was there until 2 AM providing emergency lighting for the search for survivors. The next day I went out with a crew to help hook up electricity to several farms, including Lyle Squires and Martin Buth. I remember seeing a truck with hardwood planks belonging to one of the Fisk brothers. The wind from the tornado had “feathered” the ends of the planks that were at the back of the truck. There were many other strange effects of the tornado like that. The Shaw house across the street from there had a garage blown away, but the tractor and other things in the garage weren’t touched. For several days after the storm there were roadblocks set up all across the area where I was working. I never had to get a pass to get through the roadblocks because I had a pick-up truck that said “Bell Electric” on the side and the police would just wave me through.
On April 3, 1956 I was sitting on Lookout Hill when I heard on my car radio that there was a twister heading northeast at about 35 to 40 mph. It was almost 7:30 when the tornado hit Comstock Park. I sat on the hill and watched sparks flying off all the transformers that were blowing up. After it quieted down I went out to the area that was hit. It was a disaster zone, with cars upside down and trees down. There were people outside when I got there, and lots of people were hurt. The next day I drove up to Rockford and saw where it crossed the road up there. I got out of the car and could see the path of where it went.
In 1956 I was living on the corner of First and Lexington on the west side. This was one block north of the intersection of Bridge, Lexington, and Stocking. I had the black and white TV on in the evening and hear that the tornado had just leveled Standale. I ran outside and looked at the western sky. I could see a large dark funnel cloud in the distance moving slowly north. It was about 2.5 to 3 miles away, probably in the area of Leonard Street and Collindale or Remembrance Road. I watched for a few minutes until I could no longer see it. A few more minutes passed and I started to hear cars coming east on Bridge Street with their horns blaring. It was people trying to get injured family members to Butterworth Hospital. Soon the TV went off the air. I tried to drive out toward Standale but ran into a traffic jam at Bridge and Covell. I had to bowl at 9 pm and did not want to get caught in a jam so I turned on Covell and drove to Leonard and back into town.
My family's home was hit (Allison Avenue at Leonard Heights) by this tornado when I was 13 years old and I remember it well. I have many memories as to how our family of seven had to be separated until we could get into another home.
My father's business, which was "Herrmann Bros. Oil Company" also had some destruction with some of the oil drums rolling onto Remembrance Road and my father having to retrieve them. With all of the stress, he lost his voice for about 3 months.
I don’t know if we knew that a tornado had hit in southern Michigan until my friend’s husband who was a police officer called to tell us. Her husband was called in to the post and because we both had small babies she was afraid to stay alone. I think her husband called from the post and told her it had touched down and she asked us to come and stay with her. We lived on Adolph Street a couple blocks behind the police post and she lived across town on 10 Mile Road, somewhere up from the cemetery. It was blowing out and after we got there and went to the basement there were pails and papers and a lot of things blowing around outside. Her husband called from the post (he had not been dispatched anywhere as yet) and told her it had hit Comstock Park and was headed toward Rockford. We watched from her basement windows as the cloud traveled and then a tail formed and traveled downward, and back up and down again. We saw it go back up and down several times (sometimes kind of forming but not coming all the way down). We saw it go up and swerve and come back down again. As the cloud approached the wind stopped blowing and there was an eerie complete silence and you couldn’t hear a sound. It was like a vacuum and a feeling I still can feel today. As the cloud passed overhead it was a thunderous rushing sound (some say it is like the sound of a train). The tail was not like in some pictures you see (or at least we didn’t see it that way) that comes down and swirls. It was like a big dark cloud and then you could see it gathering and form a tail downward that went up and down. It seemed to go back up into the cloud and then go up and down several times.
I still watch the clouds and head for the basement. I hope I never feel that eerie vacuum again.
Fifty years ago I lived on 4 Mile Road in Comstock Park with my parents, sister and brother. I was six years old. We lived in an old two story farmhouse. My parents just had the kitchen and bath remodeled. On that day my mother had purchased new shoes for me. I was playing outside on a swing set in our backyard thinking about how hot I was. To this day I have not been as hot feeling as I was on that day. Soon after going into the house from swinging, our neighbor Glenn Kelsey came over. My sister was watching him for a few hours. The next thing I remember is my mother and brother yelling to get down in the basement. My sister was holding me and pulling Glenn down the steps. I was so scared, I did not hear the terrible roar that the wind was making. I did not hear anything. My mom and brother just made it down. They thought crows were flying about, but it was debris, probably from Standale. My mother laid over us. We were lined up alongside a big old coal furnace next to the wall. What I remember next is looking up and seeing the most beautiful clear blue sky with a little fleecy white cloud. There was no floor, no furnace, no coal, no nothing – just us, left in a hole in the ground.
My mom had wood slivers all along her arms and back and the back of her head. She also was hit with some broken pipes. She protected us by laying over us. My brother got out of the basement. Even the steps were gone. Our garage was gone and so was our chicken coop. Some of the chickens were dead, others were running about. There were wires down on the road and yard. After getting out of the basement we all went up the street to Glenn’s house that was still standing. A big tree was across the garage and we could hardly get into the front door. It was getting dark. The neighbor said we could stay there. My father, John Wagenborg, worked on the C and O railroad and was on the road and did not get home until the next day. I can still see him from across the street from where our house used to be, up in a tree getting some of our clothing. There was nothing left of our house. All we had was the clothes on our backs. My new shoes were blown away. I was barefoot. Norm Seigel, who was in the next house down the street, bought me new saddle shoes from Lamerauxs store the next day.
Our house and everything we owned was gone, but we were all OK. The lady one house away from ours was killed. It makes me very upset when the weather forecasters cut in giving updates during bad weather because all the feelings of that day in 1956 come back. But I pay close attention to what they have to say.
Oh, one more thing; the neighbor boy Glenn said he never wanted to go to the Wagenborgs again!
The time after the storm was hard on my parents, however they rebuilt, we were all safe, we survived! The Kelsey’s moved back to Detroit and they let us stay in their house until our new house was built.
The tornado completely destroyed my parent’s home at 254 4 Mile Road, NW Comstock Park. We did not have the TV or radio on that night so we were not aware of any warnings.
My mother and brother noticed boards and things flying in the air as they looked out our kitchen windows. My mother told me to take my sister, who was 6 years old and the neighbor boy, who was over to play with my sister, down in the basement because she thought a tornado was coming. I carried my sister and dragged the 6 year old neighbor boy down our basement steps. A few seconds later my mother and 16 year old brother were in the basement also. We heard a terrible wooshing noise, like the sound of a freight train. I remember hearing all my mothers canning jars, hundreds of them, exploding and all the windows breaking. Our huge furnace was sucked right out of the basement. The house was gone; we looked up and saw the blue sky. We were all in a state of shock. We all managed to climb out of the big hole in the ground that had been our basement. The only thing left was our television. It must have been lifted up and set right back down because it was in the same exact place it always had been in our living room, but it was sitting on a dirt floor, with no carpeting at all. Somebody came during the night and stole our television.
We never found any pieces of our heavy appliances, washer, dryer, refrigerator, stove, sink, or bathtub. However, we did locate our mattresses with the bedding still on them. Our car was completely destroyed, blown over several times like a feather.
Our neighbor, two doors east of us was killed. Our neighbor west of us had very little damage. They allowed us to stay in their home while my parents had a new home built at 296 4 Mile Road, on property they owned.
My mother received a cut on her forehead from a broken pipe, but no medial attention was needed. The rest of us had no injuries. My father was out of town working when the tornado hit.
A few days after the storm I received an envelope with my driver’s license and my senior picture from somebody that had found them in their backyard in Sand Lake. I was a senior at Comstock Park High School when this happened.
We lost all our possessions, but the Lord spared our lives. This was something I will never forget.
On April 3rd 1956 I lived on a farm at 6177 Samrick Ave. We had over 100 head of cattle. I remember that the power went out and then it got deathly quiet and still. I went upstairs to get the radio when I saw the tornado coming through the woods. I ran to the basement. My family and I huddled in the basement and the house blew away. The only bit of floor left was right above our heads with a freezer teetering on it. We had horses and one of them came back with a foot long, inch wide piece of wood stuck into its skull. My father gingerly removed it and the horse healed well. In fact, that horse lived another twenty years. One of our neighbors was visiting to show off a new Chevrolet when the tornado hit. We couldn’t find where that car landed after the tornado. A few days later someone noticed it was up in a tree. No one had thought to look up for it. Another interesting fact was that our farm was hit again by the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado. We had moved into another house away from the farm but my father built a pole barn there after the 1956 tornado. That barn was blown down by the 1965 tornado. My father decided not to rebuild it again.
In 1956 I was Chief of Staff at Blodgett Hospital. It was the day after my birthday and I was called in on an emergency. I drove through to the front door and entered a lobby full of excited people in a crowd of confusion and terror, then hurried out to the Armory on Michigan Street to see the entire floor covered with the injured where they had been gathered. Along with other doctors, I used what I had learned in the Boy Scouts to evaluate and treat, or to evaluate and send to Butterworth Hospital for care of wounds, fractures and dislocations.
The everlasting memory was one of confusion and total lack of organization. This inspired me to activate and promote a Disaster Committee of which I assumed Chairmanship, contributing to the agenda and promotion. There had been no antecedent plan, so we produced a Plan for Hospital Evacuation and Triage, including a description of the functions of doctors, nurses, and all other hospital personnel. I went to the board of Blodgett Hospital and was given enthusiastic support. The plan was put into print and the book distributed throughout the country. It was highly acclaimed and drew exceptional praise over the following years.
The patients were graded in the daily nurse notes as to their capacity or incapacity, so that immediate evacuation of the least impaired could free up beds for those with greater needs. Personnel practices for the entire hospital were tested in real time. A holiday later that year was the occasion of a fire with a very successful trial of the plan.
I will never forget the evening of April 3, 1956. I’d never experienced anything like that in my civilian practice. The only thing I could compare it to at the time was from my four years of service with the Navy Medical Corps and the 1st Marine Division in the Southwest Pacific battles of WWII. It was however, very gratifying to feel the full support and acceptance of leadership by the hospital staff. Everyone remotely involved gave their full time duty with spirit and enthusiasm. I was so proud of the Hospital and its support and of the 70 Active and 140 Medical Doctors.
I was home alone on Rogue Lane in Belmont with my almost two year old daughter Bonnie and when the radio announced the tornado was heading toward the Rockford area, we immediately went down to the basement. When the tornado passed through, my little girl said, “Mommie, too-too train” and that is exactly what it sounded like. I could see debris flying around through my window in the basement family room and it was spinning like a top. Several trees in our yard were knocked down, including some fir trees in front of my house and a pear tree that was split in half. My garage was pushed a few inches off the foundation. We had no electricity for about two weeks after the storm, so nothing was working in our house. We connected garden hoses to our neighbor’s outdoor faucet and put the hose through our kitchen window so we could have water.
On June 9, 1963, Belmont was hit again by a tornado, which was far worse near where I lived.
I was almost 16 on April 3, 1956 and lived just south of Grand Haven on 168th and Robbins Road. It was a beautiful and warm evening and I, along with my family and some friends were outside enjoying it. We were really impressed by the sky in the east. Large billowing clouds of pink, purple and white were the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Little did I know how ugly they were on the other side. We didn’t find out until later in the evening when we heard what had happened.
My parents fished a lot and my mother always kept an eye on the barometer. She said it was the lowest she had ever seen it that day.
I remember standing in our yard, which was on a hill, and watching the tornado pick up barns, etc. on the west side of the Rogue River in Rockford. It was an amazing phenomenon! My father owned a car dealership and the windows in the cars were shattered.
I lived in Rockford in 1956 and had just turned 4 years old. April 2nd was my birthday. I remember going to see a farm that sat where the Rockford radio station is located on 10 Mile, just west of town. The house and most of the small barn was gone. In the 1970's, when the radio station was being built, the foundation of the house and a tall pile of cement from the house was still there. Our power was out for days. We went to my Uncles who lived in Rockford and brought water home in a big old milk can. They rode out the storm in the basement at our house on Jericho Road. I remember it well, my aunt accidentally sat on and broke my new glasses.
April 3, 1956 was supposed to be a very special day. It was my mother’s birthday and we planned on surprising her with a beautifully decorated birthday cake made by Grandma Dunn. On our way to pick the cake up from grandma, we met mom at the corner of 13 Mile Road and Courtland Drive. My parents chatted a bit there about the unusually hot and humid day we were having and spoke of the tornado watch.
I was nine years old at the time and wasn’t very familiar with what a tornado was, but that was soon to change. After picking up the cake we arrived back home and proceeded with dinner. It was about 6:50 pm and while we ate, my mother kept going outside to look at the sky. The sky was an ugly greenish purple color and there was an unusually eerie stillness in the air. It was unnerving to all of us and suddenly at about 7:10 pm, while we were eating cake and ice cream, there was a deafening sound coming from the southwest. It sounded like many trains approaching our house. My oldest sister said “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am going to the basement.” My mother quickly responded, “I think we all better go.”
By the time we reached the basement we were met by glass, dirt, and other debris flying in the broken windows. I was so terrified that I thought we would all be killed and then I worried about where we would live. That terrific sound left as quickly as it came and we proceeded up the stairs.
Fortunately for us, my uncle and cousins lived south of us on Courtland Drive and they came down as soon as it was over. They helped us out of the basement because the door had been jammed so we couldn’t open it.
By now it was pitch black outside. We found our way to some candles and flashlights by using matches to light our way. We carefully walked through the house to examine the damage. Our house was ruined and unlivable but at least we still had most of our possessions in it. In our bedroom there was a twig about 3 inches long lodged into the wall. It was driven in there by the wind without cracking the wall or the twig. That was amazing to me. We walked into one room on the north side of the house and there was no wall. Then it lightened up outside and we could see out very clearly. We noticed that the barns were all gone.
At that time my father and uncle left to go see if our milking cows were all right. Thank God, about a year earlier they had raised the barn up so that the cows were safe. However, the young calves were not as fortunate. We lost 8 or 9 calves, two of which were my sister’s new 4H calves that had just been purchased. That special day wasn’t so special anymore. That night and the next nine months we lived with my grandmother. We spent the summer building a barn, tearing down the house and rebuilding it, and watching the sky. Every time there was a tornado watch I was so frightened that I couldn’t eat or sleep until it was over. To this day, I am still terribly uneasy whenever we have severe weather or high winds. I guess it’s something you never get over.
The Frank Fisk family lived on 12 Mile Road and their whole house was swept away. All that was left was a stove and refrigerator in their yard. There was no sign of anything else.
“Out of the Silence”
Hurling himself up the cement steps leading from the dank basement, he reached out for the nearest doorknob to the outside and pulled. When the door refused to yield to his desperate tug, he lifted the cotton curtain covering a nearby window to pear into the eerie stillness. Recalling the roar that had forced him from his supper, one bleak look into the early evening light confirmed his fears. Reading my father’s ashen face as waves of shock and dismay moved across it, I knew without asking that something terrible had happened.
Speechless in his despair he turned again from the window to the door and with renewed determination gave the knob a yank. Suddenly, a concerned voice cut through the door. “Are you okay?”
It was a familiar voice of his neighbor and brother, Russell, who with a quick shoulder slam forced the stubborn door open. Like a cat let out of the bag, my father bolted, silently pushing past his brother who immediately turned on his heels to follow. I missed my father as soon as he was gone, but I was not to see him again that night.
Left in the care of our shocked mother, we girls followed her into the kitchen from which we had just fled. Our fearful eyes scanned the room, falling first upon the shards of glass sticking up from the cake left on the table in the middle of the kitchen. The family collie came to greet us from behind the refrigerator where she had sought refuge. Her tail wagged happily but her sad, scared eyes mirrored ours. The clock on the wall above the sink had stopped at 7:10. Working our way into the living room, gingerly placing each foot to avoid the glass scattered underfoot, we continued expectantly. The room, wet with the pelting rain that had swept through the shattered windows, offered little comfort as we proceeded to the bedrooms. Opening a door, we saw the branches of a tree from outside what had been the wall of my parent’s bedroom. The wall, sucked from its place by the force of the tornado, now lay twenty feet away, leaving a gaping hole to the night sky. Tin from the roof of the bedroom above now hung twisted on the branches like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Realizing that we could not stay there for the night, we numbly set about gathering things to put into bags as Mother directed. With daylight giving way to darkness, we picked our way through the tree and board-strewn yard, crossed the road into the safety of the unmarred fields, and trudged silently to toward the home of the Grandma we had so recently left. Mutely we went through the motions of greeting her, crying in the shock and sadness that we finally allowed ourselves to feel.
In the upstairs room of Grandma’s house that was to be my home for the next eight months, I tossed and turned waiting for sleep to come. So many unspoken questions rattled around inside my head. What are we going to do now? How will we get our things? Where is daddy? What is daddy doing? Mommy, what is going to happen to us? In the silence what came were not answers, but flashbacks, as I relived my Mother’s birthday, April 3, 1956, and the tornado that had spoiled our party.
It had been a typical day of school and as we had walked the mile and a half home in shirtsleeves, we rejoiced at the unexpected spring weather. We ate our snack of cookies and milk, changed our clothes, and headed out to the barn to do our nightly chores. While Mother and Dad milked the cows, my sisters and I fed and watered the calves and yearlings. As a ten year old I mixed the powdered milk with water in nipple pails for the baby calves, forked hay into the mangers, watered those locked in stalls and filled water tubs in the boxed stalls. In the haymow we frolicked a bit and then set to the task of hauling bales to the hole in the floor and pushing them down. Since the milk cows were to stay in the barn for the night, we spread straw under them and fed them the hay. We finished bedding the cows on one side of the barn, swept the floor behind us, and then crossed over to the other side to finish at about the same time that the last cow was milked. As we swept the floor behind us, Mother washed the milking machines and cleaned up the milkhouse so all would be ready for morning chores.
Leaving Mother to prepare our supper, Dad, my sisters and I had piled into the car for a quick trip to a nearby gas station. Chattering in anticipation of the ice cream we would purchase, we bounded happily along.
“Have you heard that there is a tornado watch?” Grandma asked as we pulled to a stop in her driveway.
“Yeah.” was Dad’s short reply. Taking the decorated cake from her he had ignored her concern.
“Thanks for the cake, Grandma” we sang out in chorus as Dad backed out, eager to get home to his supper.
Arriving home we hurried in, anxious to show Mother her birthday cake, oblivious to the storm clouds building. Mother was listening to the weather advisory on the radio. As we gathered for our meal the static sounds become so annoying that she rose to turn it off. Taking our first bites of cake and ice cream we suddenly became aware of how dark it was just as the hail began to pelt the metal roof above. Mother dashed outside and returned with a hailstone the size of a golf ball. While telling how dark the sky was she threw the hailstone into the sink and joined us. Within seconds the roar of several freight trains thundered into our quiet valley.
“Well, I am going to the basement,” Dad said matter-of-factly pushing his chair back. “Me too”, Sandra echoed.
With three girls and a wife at his heels he headed for the southwest corner of the basement as instructed in the weather reports of that time. Before we reached the bottom of the steps, breaking glass could be heard. As we huddled in the corner, my arms wrapped tightly around the leg of my father, my knees were literally knocking with fear.
Then as suddenly as it came, the sound ended in a spooky stillness. Pulling away from four clinging ladies had not been easy, but intent on seeing what damage we incurred, Dad had ascended the stairs.
The view from the window should have encompassed his newly remodeled dairy barn and milk house, a 50 foot silo, a small tractor shed, and a gas pump, but what his eyes beheld was instead a sharp contrast. The gas pump lay, its face staring upward, its cement base intact, yet holding nothing. With the tractor lending shape to the pile of boards above it, the shed rose like a ghostly mound of toothpicks pointing in all directions. Where the barn should have been, only the granary stood intact above the cement block basement floor. Its four sides standing bravely against the wind thanks to the grains stored within. The milk house roof had been lifted in its entirety and dropped to the ground some twenty yards away, leaving the milk tank exposed to the elements. The silo was clipped off at about the height of the basement wall and pieces of it lay scattered about in the barnyard.
Although my eyes could not see nor my ten-year-old mind comprehend what his had, I can now imagine the reason for his intense silence. The sheer force of shock and panic in seeing the fifteen years he had invested lying in a pile of rubble, must have been overwhelming. With his young family depending on him, he did the only thing his heart and mind would let him do. Without anger, bitterness, or blame but with desperate determination, he silently dug in to salvage what he could and go on.
When he discovered his dairy cows had been spared because of the newly constructed basement he must have felt a momentary elation. When family, friends and neighbors arrived to dig beneath the heavy timbers and boards to find dead animals, he must have felt their compassion. When that same community rebuilt the barn and it was again running smoothly, he must have experienced hope anew.
For months his silence haunted me as I longed for some comfort, some words that would reassure me that things would be all right. Perhaps he couldn’t say those words because at that time he questioned them himself. As an adult I now look at my father’s silence as a model in handling my own tough turns in life. By example, Dad showed me that when bad things happen, it takes extra hard work and hours of invested time, but good will come. With the help of a loving community, a non-grumbling attitude of surrender, and perseverance, life offers hope to all.
Romans 5:3-4 We also rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character, hope.
The afternoon of April 3, 1956 was unusually warm and humid. I was 8 years old and lived with my 16 year old sister and parents on Tefft Avenue between 13 Mile Road and M57 5 miles NE of Rockford, MI in Courtland Township, Kent County. My Dad had come home from work, finished milking our cow, and we all had supper. Around 6:30, Dad was getting ready to go to Grand Rapids to attend the Boat Show when a thunderstorm blew up. Conditions worsened quickly and Dad said we should get to the basement. About that time the phone rang, my brother called from Grand Rapids to tell us a tornado had gone through and we should take cover – Dad said “I know, I see it coming”, and hung up the phone.
We huddled in the SW corner of the basement as the roar of the tornado grew louder and louder. I can remember the sound of crashes, glass breaking, and pipes creaking. We were unharmed though as the storm passed and everything got very quiet. We went upstairs, with a flashlight to find a pretty bad mess in the kitchen area where doors to the south and east had blown off, but the house sustained no major structural damage. Dad checked on our one cow that he had left in her stall in the barn’s lower level. He said she was shook up but unharmed. The upper part of the barn was destroyed – a few of the hand hewn beams remained along with the grainery, but everything else was swept away. The cupola – a decorative ventilation housing from the center peak of the barn roof had been cleanly removed and gently placed down without a broken board in the raspberry patch about 50 feet north of the barn.
The house sustained a badly peeled back tin roof, a few broken windows and the loss of 2 chimneys. The tornado also left one brick chimney – an older one that was not in use. It was removed easily during repairs as a worker simply shoved it over with his shoulder. The way doors fit after the tornado – it was obvious the whole house had skewed a fraction of an inch on its foundation.
One oddity in the kitchen where the wind had blasted through was an oven packed with muddy straw. Apparently the oven door had gotten pulled open by the wind, filled, and blown shut!
There were also numerous pieces of straw driven into the wood door trim on the south side of the house.
We went to a neighbor’s house for a few hours that evening, then my parents and I returned and slept in the house. My sister was too frightened to return so she stayed with the neighbors.
I remember the next day turned cold and we had snow flurries. Neighbors and work crews came to help with the clean up and to restore power.
In addition to the loss of the barn, a small smokehouse was wrapped around a corner of our woodshed, and an outhouse totally disappeared. We lost several trees in the yard, but several were spared and are still there today. One amazing tree I remember was a big old hickory across the road. The tornado couldn’t uproot it, but the funnel must have hit it because the tree trunk was splintered as it spun a partial rotation and laid over to the north.
Next to the barn – an older shed containing a corn crib on top and chicken coop in the bottom, was undamaged.
It has been said that animals can sense such storms in advance – our dog was outside when the storm struck – he went to the neighbors a quarter mile down the road and returned after the tornado had passed.
I can remember lots of debris in the yard – in particular a wooden box from a company in Hudsonville, presumably carried aloft by the winds for around 20 miles.
Fortunately no one in our neighborhood was seriously injured, at least physically. However, lots of us still keep a sharp eye out when the skies darken.
I lived on a farm on Keller Avenue, east of Cedar Springs. The evening of April 3, 1956 I had to attend a meeting. It was storming so badly that I asked my mother if I should wait until the storm had passed. We looked out the window and noticed that the clouds had a yellowish look to them. She said go ahead and go. I left but it was raining so hard I could hardly see to drive. I went about a mile and saw a lot of metal in the road like I had on my barn. I asked my neighbor if they’d had a lot of wind and they said, “no, we haven’t had a breath of air here”. I was told a tornado had hit in Hudsonville so I turned around and went home, but couldn’t get through because of all the trees down in the road. When I got home my mother was standing in the door looking at all the devastation. She wanted to go and check to see if her 104 chickens were OK, but the chicken coop was gone. One hundred and three chickens were still sitting on the floor and at the feeders where the coop had been. They were in perfect shape. My neighbor helped me put the chickens in crates and put them in his barn. Two days later we saw the missing chicken coming back across the field. She was in bad shape. Two thirds of her feathers were gone and she was limping badly. She lived about two days, then died, but she had made it home!
The next morning Bud Benjamin came with his tractor and loader and moved all the debris from the driveway so the milk carrier could pick up our milk. We had a barn with straw in one end and the other end was empty. The end with the straw had the roof blown off, but the empty end had the floor blown right out but the roof left on. The debris from this barn went straight north. The cattle barn right next to it went mostly northeast. I found nails from the roofing embedded in the electric pole in the yard, almost all the way in. Three quarters of the cattle barn was gone, but the basement of the barn was still OK. We had to keep the hay dry so the neighbors came and pitched the loose hay into a baler and put it in their barn. A few days later it snowed and the melting snow dripped through the floor onto the cows backs, irritating them. They were switching their tails like they had flies all over them.
Thanks to the help and kindness of neighbors, friends and relatives, we got our barn back up. Russ Wolfe, a farmer near here, found a fur coat in a manure pile. He had it cleaned and from the tag on it he found the store it came from. The store didn’t have a record of who they sold it to, though. Warren Benjamin found a dress from a store in Standale. It was still on the hanger and had the price tag intact. He also had an envelope with the birth certificates of a family and only one was missing. They were returned to the family.
We found two envelopes from Hudsonville and two skirts still on the hangers and a five dollar bill in the horse tank.
I was on a farm southwest of Trufant on April 3rd, 1956 where the tornado came through at about 7:30 pm. Before the tornado arrived, the sky was a funny pink and yellow color and then it got really dark. My father said “listen to that noise”. It sounded like screaming jet engines when it passed by. I saw the tail pass right over a barn on a neighbor’s farm without doing any damage to it but it took half the house away. It just took half the house and left the other half standing. The farmer was outside and he was carried in the air, but landed in the manure pile and was not injured. His wife and kids were in the house and they were lucky to be in the half of the house that didn’t blow away. They were not injured. From there the tornado passed close to Trufant but didn’t do any serious damage in town. Some trees were blown down in the cemetery just west of town.
I lived on Briggs Road just north of Trufant. The tornado blew down two trees in front of my house and took the garage and outhouse but left everything else undamaged. My parents lived across the street and saw the trees come down. I believe that it lifted once it hit here, as there was no damage that I know of just north of here. Although after the storm I heard that there was some damage much further north, up near Lakeview.
I was a Michigan State Police trooper assigned to the Gaylord Post at the time. On April 3rd, I was assigned to a squad working the milk strike at Alma. Shortly after the tornado struck Hudsonville our squad was ordered to report to the Rockford Post ASAP. As we drove across from Alma to Howard City, I am convinced that we drove through the remnants of that storm. Driving conditions as I recall were the worst I have ever driven in. Upon our arrival in Rockford, we were immediately directed toward Hudsonville.
Our mission in Hudsonville was to find possible survivors or victims, to deter thievery and vandalism, and to control sightseers. The devastation had all appearances of a war zone. After daylight on April 4th, I picked up a clock amongst the debris that had stopped at the time the tornado had struck. Arthur Mauck, the Michigan State Police photographer took a photo of me holding that clock which later appeared in the Detroit Times newspaper.
I was in the fourth grade at Oakdale Elementary School in the city’s southeastern section. We lived on a very short street called Alto Avenue. Despite the size of our block, over 40 kids lived there, and we were a very active neighborhood. Much of the activity took place in a large field in back of our house. That field was a buffer between our neighborhood and the C&O Railroad tracks that ran north and south at the far side of the field. In our backyard, the view was due west, and on the other side of the tracks a few hundred yards away was another neighborhood.
My two brothers and I went to school that day like every other morning, although it was exceptionally hot for early April. Everything was normal until the school office announced that the Weather Bureau had issued a tornado watch and that we were going home early. I remember walking home about lunchtime in the sun and heat. We were all pointing at the sky laughing and saying, “There’s a tornado. No, there’s one.” To us, it was a free afternoon off.
My father came home from work a little after four, and he was talking about the coming storms. We used to have a coal furnace, so we had a small room in the basement in the southwest corner that used to be where we stored coal. It had been transformed into our air raid/storm shelter (a must for the 50s), and that’s where he wanted us to go when the storm came.
We went to the backyard, and I had my first sense of awe and wonderment. The sky was an eerie green color and the clouds looked like they were upside down. It was so quiet, and I was both frightened by it yet drawn to it. Then, the air raid sirens went off. These sirens usually only went off during drills. On top of every school, the howls of their warnings reverberated through neighborhood after neighborhood, as they went round and round and crossed each other’s sound paths in a terrifying signal that all was not well. Green sky. Stillness. Upside down clouds. Sirens.
My mother shuddered. "Get in the basement," my father ordered.
We all scrambled downstairs and turned on the radio. The tornado was west of us, moving to the northeast. My mother was scared, but I was drawn to the danger. I snuck out of the room and headed back upstairs. I looked out the kitchen window into the backyard, and there was my father, staring to the west. The sky was a very dark green, but bright sunlight was beginning to peer through the very horizon. I pushed the back door open and headed into the back yard.
What I saw is forever etched in my mind. The sky to the west was completely black. We were east-northeast of the storm, so it had the appearance of the whole sky lifting and revealing sunlight as it grew closer. The funnel appeared to be miles across when the sky first began “lifting,” but as it got closer, the wedge was clearly visible, and it moved across the horizon from left to right. We were miles away, but the thing was enormous. I was scared but mesmerized by the thing. Its magnetism froze me in place. Visions of The Wizard of Oz flashed through my mind, as I stood there paralyzed. It was pitch black and revolving with the sunlight beaming in from behind it, as if the curtain of dark clouds had sprung a leak, spilling its contents through this funnel. At that point, I learned later, it was destroying Standale, Michigan, and killing people along the way.
My father turned and saw me and yelled for me to get back to the basement. He was right behind me.
We huddled in the storm cellar, listened to reports on WOOD radio, and waited for the all-clear sirens. When it finally went back into the sky, the tornado had traveled 52 miles on the ground, killing 17 people.
I didn’t sleep very well that night, and a couple of days later, we drove through what used to be Standale. I don’t think much about that trip, for the destruction was too real, but that tornado — that Svengali-like monster — called to me every night for a very long time. The feelings of that day remain with me today. It created the door through which I passed en route to a lifetime in the news business — television news, where I spent many days and nights helping warn people about the very thing that haunted me.
And last week, while watching live video of the powerful twisters of April 27, 2011 as they destroyed everything in their paths, there were flashes of being 9-years old again and in the backyard with my father, participating in something I hope never to do again. Today’s curious 9-year olders can search YouTube. They can also find the real deal on shows about storm chasers and the like. But I’m not sure video can ever really capture what it’s like to go through one of those things, and I’m grateful for that.