Five tornadoes struck southeast Minnesota and neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin70 years ago on May 10, 1953. According to the National Weather Service’s website www.weather.gov/arx/may1053 those tornadoes stand out for their strength and the length of their tracks; four were F4 and one was an F3. An F4 tornado is a violent tornado with wind speeds up to 260 mph. One of the F4 tornadoes traveled 45 miles from five miles southwest of Chester, Iowa, to four miles northeast of Chatfield, Minn., damaging farms, and barns along the way. This tornado of May 10, 1953, was the worst tornado to hit the area. A later tornado that hit the Wykoff area on July 14, 1977, was classified as an F2.
The F4 tornado arrived at the Wykoff area at about 5:45 p.m. What follows is the story of the events on the Otto Jeche farm as shared by Lynn Jeche, son of Donald and grandson of Otto Jeche.
May 10, 1953 found the Otto and Metta Jeche family gathered at the family farm south of Wykoff to celebrate Mother’s Day. At 5;45 p.m., the men of the family, 70-year-old Otto, his son Donald, and his grandson Dennis Boettcher, were finishing up the milking. Donald had apparently gone to the far end of the barn to release the cattle to pasture when a powerful F4 tornado hit the barn.
According to Donald Jeche, there was so much straw, hay and debris in the air you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and the barn had been destroyed. Donald, uninjured, eventually was able to find Otto, still living, but trapped under one of the barn beams. Donald rushed to the house and told the women and children to stay in the house because power lines were down in the yard.
Neighbors came to help, and a wrecker from Thompson Motors in Wykoff was dispatched to help lift the beam from Otto. The Wykoff Fire Department had received the alarm and rushed to the scene as well. Unfortunately, they were too late to save Otto.
After 30 minutes, they were able to free six-year-old grandson Dennis, who had been crushed and trapped in the barn. Rescuers had to saw through heavy oak beams and planks to free him. He suffered critical injuries and was taken to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. While at first it was feared he would be permanently paralyzed, Dennis recovered after an extended hospitalization and rehabilitation.
The tornado took several other items on the farm – a hog barn, the windmill, the silo roof, the top of a hay dryer, and damaged the garage. Some of the cattle suffered broken backs and had to be destroyed. Donald later shared with his family how it was to hear the sound of the cattle bellowing in pain before they were put down.
The tornado continued northward and also hit the farm of Norman and Dorothy Meyer, son-in-law and daughter of Otto. All of the buildings on their farm were lost.
Further down the road, neighbor Vernon LeFevre was a baby in his cradle. With the tornado impending, his mother snatched him up from the cradle to head for safety. After the storm, his cradle was found high up in a nearby tree.
The Preston Republican newspaper, in its May 14 issue, reported that Charles Schumacher narrowly escaped death when his barn also collapsed in the tornado. An 18-inch diameter beam held the barn debris off his body and allowed Schumacher to drag himself from under the debris with only a bruised hip and foot.
The storm described as a “tumbling black cloud of enormous winds” wreaked havoc on homes and farms in its path. The Preston Republican reported that Fred Horstman was in his house when it was lifted from its foundation and crushed a nearby car. Horstman survived with head lacerations and chest injuries. Mrs. Lester Gatzke shared with the paper that she, her mother Harriet Dornink, and her son Stanley were sitting on a couch when they and the couch were lifted in the air gently and then came down softly. A suction took everything out of the room except the couch and a chest of drawers. Mrs. Dornink ended up suffering leg injuries as a result of the tornado.
Lester Gatzke and 7-year-old daughter Susan were in the chicken house when the tornado struck, blowing about 700 chickens into a pile. The chicken house was the only building on their farm not damaged; Gatzke and his daughter had huddled in a corner to ride out the tornado.
The Hall school house near Etna was demolished as well as the Bear Creek (District 83) brick schoolhouse. Many farms along the path of the tornado lost buildings and livestock. Hail the size of hens’ eggs was reported in Fountain.
Many area newspapers reported on the tornado including the Winona Republican Herald. In its May 16 issue, it reported that 40 Spring Valley business men, members of the VFW and its auxiliary, and Spring Valley high school students traveled to the Wykoff area to help clean up debris.
Lynn Jeche later even found an article about the tornadoes in the Herald and News May 11 issue published in Klamath Falls, Oreg.
The aftermath of the tornado affected all the Jeche family. Following the tornado, the Jeches had to milk their cows in a tin shed until a new barn could be built. The barn contractor reused the very long, 16” diameter beams from the old barn in the new construction.
Donald, missing advice and guidance of Otto, was lonely and asked his wife Mary to bring the new baby Lynn to visit him while he milked.
Otto, called a “prominent farmer” by the local paper, had had a fine herd of shorthorns; as an adult, he showed his cattle at the state fair. In addition, Otto sold eggs in Spring Valley. He farmed with horses and later with a prized Rumely Oil Pull tractor. He was a gentle man whose worst language was an occasional “Gracious!” According to Donald, his dad could discipline his children with a simple look over the top of his lowered paper.
Donald’s daughter, Diana Muller, remembers many tornado drills the rest of the school year that spring. The drills sent anxiety through the children who’d been so closely affected by the tornado.
Lynn Jeche remembers picking up nails from the driveway that would surface every spring until he left the farm in 1978.
Lynn shared that Donald would get quiet and talk about the tornado about once a year. May 10 and Mother’s Day have never been quite the same for the Jeche family ever since the tornado of 1953.