Kevin Lee still remembers the day, nearly 40 years ago, that a tornado struck his hometown of Miltona. It was 7:02 p.m. July 18, a Saturday evening. “The fire siren went off,” said Lee, who now serves as Miltona’s City Clerk, and who lived a half block from the fire hall at the time. “It was 1970, back before pagers, so when the fire siren went off I went over to the fire hall to see what was going on.” What was going on was a tornado, Lee quickly learned, so he headed back home to his family’s house. “When I got back home Mom was closing the windows,” he said. “I remember helping to close windows and seeing stuff fly by.” Lee and his mother headed to the basement to ride out the storm which was over very quickly. “It happened so fast, by the time you worried about it, it was all over,” said Lee. He then came out and saw a town that had a different look to it. His family’s home was about a half block from the path of the tornado so as he got closer to downtown he saw what was close to total devastation. Trees were down, business buildings were flattened, many more were damaged. “The lumberyard was pretty much gone,” said Lee. The Soo Line Depot was also gone. “You would see strange things,” said Lee of his first venture out after the storm. “I saw a big stick stuck firmly right in the ground, and I heard later that a pillow was found a mile from town.” Believe it or not, there was a time before cell phones, and Lee remembers clearly what a difference that made back then, especially when the land telephone lines were down. “We had no communication,” said Lee. “My sister in the Twin Cities heard about the tornado on the news but couldn’t get through on the phone to find out if we were OK.” She ended up driving to Miltona, it was the only way she could find out about her family. Among the things he remembers was that a blockade was needed to keep gawkers and others out of town until they could figure out what the dangers were, if anyone was hurt or missing and to allow people room to start the cleanup. A resident of town was stationed at each blockade to identify local residents and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, Douglas County Civil Defense, fire departments from Carlos, Parkers Prairie and Leaf Valley and even the National Guard were on hand. “Then people came to help clean up,” said Lee. “People came from Carlos, Parkers Prairie, and the rest of the area.” The town’s restaurant was destroyed so his mother, who cooked at the school during the school year, and some others started cooking meals at the VFW so that people who were working on the cleanup had a place to eat. Judy Steidl was a mother of four living in a nearly new house. Her husband, Nick, was in the fire department and was in a fire truck on the street when the storm hit. “It was a fire siren so we always went to the door to see which way the trucks were going,” said Steidl, who lived about a block and a half from the fire hall. “I looked out the door and couldn’t see anything because of the debris.” She went to the basement with her children, twins Bonnie and Brian who were four, Vern, age three and Bobby, seven months, and the storm was over in minutes. When she came up she found a mess. “The storm tore the roof off of our house, damaged some walls and the double garage,” she said. And her husband rode out the storm in the cab of a fire truck on the main street downtown. “Of the houses that were rebuilt, I’m the only original resident,” said Steidl. She still had the plans from the house that was just constructed 18 months earlier. Work on her house started the Monday after the storm. What was left above ground was cut off by chain saws. Walls went up and Steidl said shingles went on the Thursday after the storm. But then progress slowed. It wasn’t until Christmas that the family moved into its rebuilt home. Snags, such as waiting five weeks for a taper to finish the sheetrock, slowed things down. In the meantime the Steidls lived in what had been an abandoned farm home without running water — quite a switch after being forced out of their 18-month old home. The least favorite job at the time was having to wash diapers in a five-gallon pail, she said. That was in the days when cloth diapers were still king. Steidl added that a woman who lived in a nearby mobile home, Louise Robbins, was headed to the Steidl house for safety when the storm hit. The woman never made it to the basement of the Steidl house but had huddled near Steidl’s car in the garage, which was as far as she got. She was not injured but her home was destroyed. Newspaper photographs show a North Star milk truck that had been lifted up from the Midland Coop station and dropped against the door of the blacksmith shop across the street. Ernie Salvog was mayor of Miltona in 1970 and lived about a block and a half from the path of the tornado. He and his wife headed to the basement along with some nearby neighbor kids when the storm struck. “It was quite an experience,” he said. “The first thing we needed to do was to check and see if people were hurt and we turned out to be lucky there.” “Then the sheriff’s department closed off the entrances to town and required permits for people to get into town and that worked pretty well,” said Salvog. His greatest memory is less of the damage and more of the help that arrived and watching a community pull together as the result of its tragedy. “People came from all over with chain saws,” said Salvog. “And we needed them, there were trees down all over the place. It was great to see all the help and it was great to see people work together. It made Miltona better, stronger.” Later, Salvog got a letter from a person in Rice, Minnesota. It contained part of an insurance policy that had Salvog’s name on it. It had blown from a destroyed building in Miltona to Rice! Rice is located just north of St. Cloud. Salvog and his wife had their own personal drama at the time. Two daughters had gone to dinner at Chet’s Lakeside. There was no electricity or telephone after the storm so there were some anxious moments until they discovered their girls were safe. “It was quite an experience,” said Salvog, who served the city for 23 years as mayor. “I don’t care to go through another one.” The storm struck the city dump on the west side of town and moved easterly damaging homes, the business district, homes on the east side of town and then farms farther east. The path was about a block and a half wide and nearly three miles long. All in all 14 businesses and 11 homes were damaged or destroyed and five people were injured, none seriously, although four went to hospitals in Parkers Prairie and Alexandria for treatment. Unlike some tornadoes, there was no rain following it, so cleanup could begin almost immediately after the storm moved through. The lack of rain also made it easier to do a house-to-house check of city residents to make sure everyone was OK. It was also early enough in the evening so there was some daylight left, which was nice since there was no electrical power. But aid was swift. Ottertail Power Company had restored 80 percent of the power by Sunday afternoon. By later Saturday night the phone company from Parkers Prairie had two telephone lines functioning. Alexandria Light and Power brought out a generator and Alexandria Telephone Company a trencher. A New Town Miltona today is not the same town heavily damaged by the 1970 tornado. Lee said that people can now joke that the storm caused “instant urban renewal.” The lumberyard and some other businesses have new structures. A few years ago, a new community center/city hall was constructed. And many new homes dot the landscape as one enters Miltona. A new development on the north side of town has over 25 new homes. New housing developments on the south side of the county road entering town from State Highway 29 also help house the 300 resident of Miltona, up from 160 to 170 at the time of the tornado. “We’re in the lakes area,” said Lee of the growth in new homes. “That helps a lot.” Tornado Days A year after surviving the tornado, which still stands as the most destructive storm to strike a Douglas County city in the past 40 years, or maybe much further back than that, Recovery Days started as a way to celebrate survival and the start of recovery. It was also a chance for all the folks who helped clean up and rebuild the town to get together. Later the name was changed to Tornado Days, a name that has stuck in spite of the feeling of some that it should be changed. This year’s event, the 40th anniversary of the tornado, will be held July 16, 17 and 18. The weekend begins with a pork chop feed at Faith Lutheran Church on Friday, July 16 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday there will be a parade at noon with KSAX weatherman Mark Anthony serving as grand marshal. The fire department will host water fights with neighboring departments at 1 p.m. and a street dance with the band Whiplash will be held at 8 p.m. Sunday the Miltona Lions Club will have a Belgian waffle breakfast starting at 8:30 am and there will be an ecumenical worship service a the ball park at 9:30 a.m. During the weekend there will also be a craft sale and bake sale at the community center, a kiddie tractor pull, old-timers baseball game, beer gardens, a VFW pork chop dinner downtown music, a variety of food stands and horse drawn wagon rides. Additional details are available at www.miltona.org.
A day of destruction in Miltona