‘Oh, my goodness, something terrible has happened’
Georgia “Jo” Schultz has no difficulty recalling the evening a tornado hit the Green Gables cabin camp, skirted the Minneopa Golf Course and roared through a turkey farm near Mankato on Saturday, Aug. 17, 1946. The tornado killed 11 people, injured more than 100, and destroyed 26 cabins that had housed more than 50 people. (Although some written reports date the tornado one month later, Schultz correctly remembers the August date, which was verified by Blue Earth County Historical Society staff.)
“It was a terrible hot day,” Schultz said. “I was visiting a friend, Mary Lowe, in the early evening. We were sitting on the front steps of her home on Park Lane in Mankato, trying to cool off. We thought the sky was a funny color, but we sat there anyway. Then, Mary’s older brother, Dean, opened the screen door and said, ‘The radio says there’s a storm coming,’ but we stayed there.”
In his book Unique Mankato Stories, Vernon Center author Daniel J. Vance described the day of the tornado: “Ugly clouds had been forming since late afternoon, marking an unseasonably humid and hot Saturday. A fresh band of even uglier clouds rolled in about 6 p.m. Minutes later, golf ball-sized hail began falling, with some larger stones up to a half-pound in weight and nine inches in circumference.”
The Green Gables cabin camp, near the Minneopa Golf Club, “housed a number of passing tourists and also Mankato families unable to find post-war housing,” Vance wrote. “A number of children picked up the hail and began tossing it around for fun. Little did they know what was bearing down on them full force from the southwest . . . The twister flattened the tree-laden Minneopa hillside.”
It didn’t take Schultz and Lowe very long to learn that the “funny-colored sky” had signaled a catastrophe. Schultz said, “I don’t remember that it even rained in Mankato, but 10 or 15 minutes later we could hear a horn honking.” Soon they realized that the honking came from a bread truck that was being used as an ambulance.
“A lot of people saw the bread truck, which came down the street, horn honking, with its rear doors opening and closing,” Schultz said. “As it flew by us, we could see people in the back of the truck, working on somebody lying there. It wasn’t long before several more cars came flying by. An ambulance eventually went out there, to Green Gables camp, but people had been brought into town in other vehicles.”
The bread truck ambulance that Schultz and Lowe witnessed was driven by Hugo “Jiggs” Laven, a driver for the Mankato Bread Company. According to Vance, Laven was near Green Gables and watched the monster tornado barrel down. When survivors, bleeding and with clothing nearly torn off, made their way to where Laven had taken shelter, he immediately drove to the Green Gables camp. (Fire and police officials had not yet arrived.)
Vance wrote that some of the golfers and club guests who had weathered the tornado in the basement of the Minneopa Golf Club were among those who offered aid at the scene of the disaster. Laven and two other men loaded six injured people into the bread truck, putting them crossways on the shelves and on the bread racks. One volunteer stayed at the back end of the truck, holding onto the doors and watching the injured.
On a rare humorous note, Vance’s research turned up the story of a 10-year-old boy who had a broken arm and was placed in the front seat of the bread truck. Apparently unfazed by his experience in the tornado, the lad kept asking if he could blow the truck’s horn with his good hand.
When the bread truck-ambulance arrived at one of Mankato’s two hospitals, one man was dead and the others all were unconscious. Laven and his volunteers made a second ambulance run before they were able to turn over care of the injured to professional ambulance crews.
Schultz remembered that when she saw the bread truck coming in with people in the back, she said, “Oh, my goodness, something terrible has happened.” She added, “We didn’t know what it was until we heard it later on the radio. At the time, I didn’t know anybody who was injured or killed because it was tourist cabins.” She did recall that a boy who had lived in one of the cabins returned to school still using crutches a month or more after the tornado.
Like Schultz, Janet Oachs, who was 12 at the time, clearly remembered the evening of the tornado. The family lived in the second story of a duplex in LeHillier, immediately southwest of Mankato. Oachs said, “We were eating supper and heard a sound like a train. My dad went to the window, looked out and said we had to go downstairs. We were going to go into the basement, but from the yard we could see the tornado was splitting apart. It still sounded like a train, but I didn’t know to be afraid.”
Oachs’ sister, Joanne Thomas, recalled, “We saw debris going through the sky, including a rocking chair.” Oachs said their father, Ralph McGrew, and a neighbor, Frank Little, spent most of the night at the scene, helping survivors.
“I wanted to go,” Oachs said, “but my dad said, ‘no.’ A neighbor girl went to help–a little older than me–and came back sick from what she saw.”
The next day, Schultz saw the devastation. She said, “I remember driving out there, to Green Gables, with my parents, George and Ida Enfield. There were lines of cars. Everyone in the area went to look at the massive destruction. The camp was just flattened, so there wasn’t much to see.”
Schultz said that since that memorable disaster, she has seen three tornados in the distance over the years and has sought shelter in a basement perhaps 20 times. Having recently moved to an apartment in Mankato, she recalled the many times she hosted neighbors in the basement of her home on the east side of Madison Lake. She said, “When the tornado sirens went off, sometimes 15 neighbors would join me because I had the only basement in the area.” She has no hesitation about seeking shelter rather than watching a tornado spin its destruction.
(Dan Vance’s research of numerous newspaper accounts from 1946, as well as interviews he conducted, provided background information for this account of the tornado and its aftermath. Unique Mankato Stories: Forgotten Stories from Mankato’s First 100 Years was copyrighted and published in 2009 by the Blue Earth County Historical Society, Mankato, where it may be obtained.)