The northern Wisconsin tornado outbreak of September 1924
Several violent storms moved across northern Wisconsin about 2:30pm on Sunday afternoon, September 21, 1924. National Weather Service and State of Wisconsin records refer to that date as among the most deadly storm days of the entire 20th century of Wisconsin. There were probably families of tornadoes spawned by the same intense storm. There were at least six separate tornados reported across northern Wisconsin on that single day. Most tornado activity in Wisconsin is associated with spring time, but this was a rare, fall storm. Record keeping and damage assessment methods were inconsistent in the 1920s, but in a little over three hours, 34 people are believed to have lost their lives, and 115 people injured. Property losses totaled one million dollars. The deaths and damage occurred in mostly rural areas across the northern part of the state (see map). The following storms all occurred on this single day in September, 1924.
1. RICE LAKE. One tornado touched down about three miles southeast of Rice Lake and traveled northeast for 8 miles near the Village of Campia. One person was killed outright and a second may have died later from injuries. This tornado was rated F3.
2. CHETEK. A second tornado touched down about two miles north of Chetek where barns and several hundred trees were destroyed. The tornado (possibly one of several) moved north-northeast for 40 miles causing little serious damage until seven miles southwest of Couderay where two children were killed when their home was destroyed. This tornado was rated F2.
3. CLARK COUNTY / RESEBURG / WITHEE. A third tornado was almost certainly a family of tornadoes given the long track of 65 miles and the lack of alignment of damage along a single path in Clark County. The first funnel touched down two miles southeast of Augusta in Eau Claire County, and moved northeast through Clark County to 2 miles north of Chelsea in Taylor County. Near Rib Lake, 20 farms were destroyed and another thirty were heavily damaged. Newspaper reports from the Eau Claire Leader described the storm. Some of the newspaper accounts were confusing and contradictory. The tornado struck first at the Chester Poar farm south of Thorp, demolishing barns and scattering household goods and furniture about the yard. Up the road, John Frese and Ervin Biddle escaped without injury when the barn they were standing in was lifted and blown away right over their heads. Clinging to a tree, Richard Biddle, a Thorp farmer, watched the destruction of his neighbor's property. When Mrs. Biddle saw her husband outside, she ran to the door and screamed, "My God, Pa! Come inside! You're going to be killed!" Just then, a steel windmill near Biddle toppled over and a flying timber struck a glancing blow, knocking him unconscious. Risking her own life, Mrs. Biddle ran out into the storm and dragged her husband to safety. Other than a gash to the head, he was not seriously injured. All the buildings on their farm except for the house were destroyed. Mrs. Biddle also said she saw a man, high in the air, pass over their house, carried along by the wind. After it left the Biddle farm, the path of the twister changed and struck the John Graikowski farm. The family had just stepped onto the porch when the winds caused it to collapse upon them. Fifteen year-old Rose was killed instantly, the mother, father and two boys all seriously injured. Nothing was left standing here, not even the trees in the large groves that surrounded the house. Across the road, the tornado plucked Tom Hedler from the bed in which he was sleeping and hurled him against a water tank. Though his house was demolished, Tom suffered only a broken wrist. Mathew Kobylarczyk was killed while picking mushrooms near his home 4 miles south of Thorp. Residents believe a second tornado from this storm hit Withee about the same time. In addition to taking a large toll of life, it ripped and topple a steel railroad bridge across the Black River from its piers. A small boy was standing on the bridge at the time, fishing. His clothing was torn from his body but he was uninjured. He ran home in this nude condition to the home of his parents where he told them that "the big bridge just went out with me on it." Three-year-old Margaret Schmitfranz was killed when the car she was riding in was picked and carried 300 feet by the tornado. Margaret and her parents were on their way home to Thorp when they noticed the approaching storm. Mr Schmitfranz had just stopped the car and stepped out when the wind swept it away. He was not injured and there was no explanation how he avoided being swept away by the wind. Anton Larzinski, aged 9, was blown from the pasture where he was herding cattle and was found dead in a swamp about a mile away. Piles of debris from buildings had been blown past him and strewn all about the place where he was found. His family, father, mother, and seven children took refuge in the basement when the storm approached but could not reach the boy in the pasture. Thirteen people were injured at a Sunday school meeting in a local farm house. An entire wall of a farm home was reported to have been carried 14 miles. The storm was rated F4 and the National Weather Service reports that it may have been F5 near Withee. 18 people were killed (14 in Clark County and 4 in Taylor County), and 50 people were injured. The tornado path length was 65 miles with a path width of 400 yards.
4. BAYFIELD COUNTY. A fourth tornado struck in Bayfield County at 3:45 pm and moved northeast from near Lake Namekegon to the east of Sanborn. Rated F4. 7 people were killed and 20 people were injured.
5. ONEIDA COUNTY. A fifth tornado was brief, unroofing a hotel and destroying a barn in Oneida County. Rated F2. No injuries.
6. TOMAHAWK. A sixth official tornado of the day touched down five miles south of Tomahawk and moved northeast to Three Lakes 35 miles away. This too was probably a family of tornadoes. Five deaths occurred in Oneida County, three in one family in a home five miles west of Starks. A child was killed while running for shelter south of Tomahawk. Rated F3.
The "F" scale of ratings as referenced above is the "Fujita" scale as used by meteorologists. The scale uses a number of 1 to 5 to rate the severity of a tornado. Several factors are used, but it is largely based upon sustained wind speed. F1 is the least severe and F5 is the most severe. An F4 storm has winds of 207 to 260 miles per hour and causes "devastating" damage. Well-constructed houses are leveled and structures with weak foundations are blown away some distance. Cars are thrown and large missiles generated in an F4 storm.
Written by Allan L. Hodnett, February 25, 2004. Ahodnett@wi.rr.com
SOURCES: "Tornadoes of Wisconsin" web site and the US National Weather Service archives.
Photos of the destruction were contributed by the Thorp Area Historical Society.
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