Wells tornado: Aug. 17, 1946, Recalling a devastating anniversary

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 17, 2006

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

WELLS &045; As this community prepares to celebrate Kernel Days this weekend, many Faribault County residents with memories of the past may be recalling one of the most significant events in the history of Wells. It took place 60 years ago when a tornado went through this community on a busy Saturday evening.

The tornado that devastated Wells and injured several people on Aug. 17, 1946, was part of a storm system that caused death and destruction near Mankato and damaged farms in Faribault and Freeborn counties.

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The first of what may have been twin tornadoes spawned by the same storm system crossed the Minnesota River about three miles southwest of Mankato at 6:45 p.m.

This twister struck the Green Gables Cabins, next to U.S. Highway 169 between Mankato and Minneopa State Park. Every one of the 22 cabins in the tourist park was destroyed.

It was in this area and in overturned vehicles on the highway where nine people were killed and 75 injured.

The Tribune reported, &8220;When reports of the devastation reached Mankato, all available vehicles were dispatched to Green Gables. Hearses, taxicabs, trucks, and even a bread truck were used to carry the many injured to hospitals.&8221;

State guardsmen and police moved into the area to prevent looting and possible injuries from storm debris and downed electric power lines.

There is some conjecture that this tornado funnel then lifted off the ground, proceeded on to the southeast and touched down again near Wells.

There are people who feel the funnel that ripped through Wells was a new tornado created by the same storm system.

Wells was what was then called a &8220;Saturday night town.&8221;

Area farm families were in town to do their shopping, visiting their town-dwelling friends and relatives and maybe even watching a western film at the State Theater.

&8220;Stores were open and there were crowds in the streets,&8221; according to the Tribune.

Just before 8 p.m. a severe hail and rain storm forced people off the streets and sidewalks. They took shelter in the stores.

This may have been a factor that prevented more injuries and even death for the people about to endure the short, swift fury of a tornado.

About 50 people were in St. Casimir’s Catholic Church for a confessional service. Everyone went into the basement. When the storm passed, they discovered that several sections of the roof were missing and the interior of the church was devastated. Also damaged was the nearby parish house and parochial school.

In the path of the funnel were several residential areas and the heart of the community’s business district. Homes and garages were tom apart, store windows were blown out, cars overturned, trees shattered, and glass and debris of all types filled the streets.

The largest group of people were in the State Theater watching a film. The Tribune reported, &8220;It was here that Patrolman Gordon Danks and William Heath, theater manager, succeeded in keeping the crowd calm when the roof over the stage suddenly lifted and vanished. The two men prevented theater patrons from rushing into the street, which was then filled with flying debris.&8221;

One of the enduring myths created by this storm is based on the film, &8220;Gone With the Wind,&8221; which was supposedly being shown at the State Theater in Wells when the tornado arrived.

Former Wells City Councilman Jim Stoen, now an Albert Lea resident, and others have done extensive research into this subject.

The famous Civil War epic may have been on the program at a Mankato theater that evening, but they have been told it was a tradition back in those days to show western films at the State Theater on Saturday nights. (This theater now has the name of Flame.)

Another factor that may have prevented fires and possible injuries came when the two men on duty at the local power plant turned off the electrical service for the community.

Dr. Barr of Wells treated 25 to 30 people for minor injuries. He used a gasoline lantern to provide illumination.

Dr. Buturf of Freeborn helped to treat several of the injured. Six people were brought to Naeve Hospital in Albert Lea for treatment of their injuries.

Help for the community quickly came from nearby localities. The Fairmont Electric Co. sent all its equipment to help replace utility poles and to restore power lines.

Faribault County and the city of Blue Earth sent all their road and street equipment, plus men, to help with the cleanup operations.

Area farmers also came with their tractors and other equipment to help remove the extensive debris and to demolish weakened walls.

Albert Lea Fire Chief Alex Larson and several of his men went to Wells to provide assistance.

A headline in the Aug. 19, 1946, issue of the Tribune listed damages for the Wells tornado at an estimated $2 million. This would be at least $20 million by using present values.

When news of the tornado was confirmed in Albert Lea, Capt. Clarence 0. Wilde, commanding officer of the local Minnesota State Guard unit, and 15 volunteers went to Wells.

By midnight, martial law had been declared for Wells and the remainder of the local company went to the community to provide security and prevent looting. Other state Guard companies from Austin, Fairmont and Jackson were also activated and ordered to serve in Wells.

Equipment for the guardsmen was brought from Camp Ripley, and the units established their headquarters and temporary living facilities in the high school building, which wasn’t damaged by the tornado.

Capt. and Mrs. Bailey of the Albert Lea unit of the Salvation Army set up a temporary canteen in Wells to serve coffee and cookies to the guardsmen and other workers.

Martial law in Wells ended on Monday afternoon, Aug. 19, 1946, and the last of the state guardsmen returned to Albert Lea on Aug. 21.

The Army National Guard units in Minnesota were being reorganized after their active duty during World War II and thus weren’t available for duty in Mankato and Wells.