It was June 1968, eerily a stormy time in U.S. history. Protests against the Vietnam War raged across the country. Matin Luther Kind had been cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in April. Two months later Robert Kennedy would be slain in Los Angeles. Later that summer the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was marked by violent protests and bloodshed.
But another idyllic summer was in bloom in Okoboji, locals and visitors alike trying to put the woes of the country aside, if only for awhile. And then, on the 13th day, calamity struck swiftly and deftly at the hands of Mother Nature Lest the facade of peacefulness be broken, citizens of the Iowa Great Lakes and beyond survived the wrath of a tornado that would change their lives, the path of destruction it left behind a solemn reminder that tragedy is an indiscriminate intruder.
Even with today’s sophisticated, computerized weather analysis and forecasting, tornados can be swift and lethal forces that leave death and destruction in their wakes. That’s why it is so implausible that such a tempest that raged through northwest Iowa a half-century ago claimed nary a life. The devastation of property and psyches, however, was cruel and still lives in the memories of many today.
It all began in the early evening hours of June 13 when the Des Moines Weather Bureau issued a severe weather notice for northwest Iowa at 6:19 p.m. The first twister was then sighted near Sibley at 6:37 Two minutes later a funnel cloud was seen dipping in that area, followed by another twister sighting just a minute later.
KICD radio station in SPencer, which had a prearranged weather warning system developed between government agencies and communications facilities, began broadcasting live reports of the storm system’s eastward movement. The Des Moines Weather Bureau then issued its first official tornado waring for Osceola, Dickinson and Emmet Counties.
Three Dickinson County Sheriff’s vehicles were situated at high election sites in the southwest section of the county to get a good view of the approaching storm. One of the deputies sighted a tornado at 7:33 and issued an order to sound the alert in Spirit Lake, Milford, Arnolds Park, Okoboji, and throughout the Iowa Great Lakes region.
Town sirens began to blare. Arnolds Park Mayor Ben Saunders and Police Chief Tom Ritzer used loud speakers and drove through town wanting residents of the storm about ten minutes before it struck.
In Spirit Lake, firemen augmented the town siren with the emergency unit siren, driving up and down the city streets and into the surrounding area, warning of impending storm.
Dickinson County Sheriff Robert M. Baker watched the storm move in from the west and drove 25mph to stay ahead of it. Baker and other witnesses said four to five fingers of twisters were visible at once, dipping down to the landscape and then disappearing back into mass of dark clouds.
The devastation that ensued in the next 20 minutes was almost unthinkable. The storm cut a three-mile swath across farmland from the Osceola County line through Excelsior and Lakeville townships in southwest Dickinson County and into the Iowa Great Lakes resort areas. About 350 farmsteads lost at least one building and many were totally destroyed. A hailstorm that followed- which was even m ore widespread than the tornado- flattened emerging corn and soybean crops throughout the region.
The raging tornado then slammed into the lakes area resort communities from Milford on the south to Okoboji on the north. The route of destruction began in the Emerson Bay area northeasterly to Pocahontas Point and on a broad front on the east shore of West Lake Okoboji. From Terrace Park the tempest moved into Maywood and Sunset Bay on the south, across Pillsbury Point, the town of Arnolds Park, Arnolds Park Amusement Park and north to Smith’s Trailer Court in Okoboji.
Most eyewitnesses to the tornado spoke of the deafening roar of the storm and then, just as swiftly, it grew silent, and assessing the destruction became a jaw-dropping experience. They Holiday Villa and Emerson Bay resorts suffered collapsed roofs, shattered windows and battered exteriors. The Terrace Park beach was in shambles and Boys Town suffered heavy damage. At Pocahontas Point a new roof on Vern & Coila’s nightclub was destroyed.
Police Chief Ritzer of Arnolds Park remembers hustling people away from the state pier area. “You could see a black wall of clouds coming from the west,” Ritzer recalled, “and the roar was like being user a railroad bridge when the train came over.” Ritzer, with trees crashing down around him, made his way up onto Broadway Street, yelling at people to take cover. He and others took refuge in the basement of City Hall as the eye of the storm hit.
The amusement park took a direct hit. The big rides in the Midway behind the Roof Garden were buried in debris. The small weeknight park crowd hid out of harm’s way in a pit beneath the Roof Garden, while above destruction raged. Robert Burrows, captain of the excursion boat The Empress watched the roof of the Roof Garden literally get blown away. “The top just exploded,” he would later testify. Burrows rode out the storm in the wheelhouse atop the big steel boat that suffered only superficial wounds. The Queen excursion boat, moored across the bay at Gipner’s Point, suffered a worse fate and was heavily damaged.
Five second-floor units at the Park View Motel next to the amusement park were demolished, with debris crushing vehicles in the parking lot
At Fillenwarth Beach resort in Smith’s Bay, six of seven lakeside cabins were leveled and 14 other units bore carious degrees of damage. Guests escaped harm by hunkering in a boathouse and a terrace room, but viewing the ensuing destruction was frightening. “It looked like a bulldozer had mowed down almost an entire row of cabins, and debris was strung all the way up to the highway,” remembers Ken Fillenwarth, who at the time helped his father A.T. run the resort.
But a resilient Iowa Great Lakes community joined forced and immediately set forth cleanup efforts. Emergency squads from the fire departments of Spirit Lake, Arnolds Park, Milford and Spencer were brought in. Heavy equipment arrived from all surrounding municipalities. In Arnolds Park alone more than 200 volunteers were reported working by Mayor Ben Saunders. More than 50 Highway Patrol officers were summoned into the area to aid in the relief effort, and outsides assistance came from as far away as Cherokee.
By the 4th of July visitors to the Iowa Great Lakes were hard pressed to even know such a horrendous storm had struck the area. In the heart of those who survived the wrath of the twister, hover, the experience will live forever.