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The Beecher tornado was the strongest of many tornadoes which ripped across Lower Michigan, Ohio and Ontario on June 8th, 1953. 125 people were killed and 896 people were injured by the eight tornadoes in Lower Michigan alone. These tornadoes left a lasting impact on the people they affected, and many can vividly recall events of that night. Here are a few of their stories.

Many of these stories were received through the website. If you would like to tell your story, send a message to



Looking Back a Few Days


The following stories were originally printed in the Flint Journal on June 11th, 1953, three days after the Beecher Tornado.

Awful Tale

"That's all that's left," the man observed remorsefully as he picked up and dropped a sink lying half a block from the site of his former residence. He is Claudieus Hamm, who had lived at 1212 W. Kurtz Ave. with Mr. and Mrs. Winfred Vaughn and their three children. Hamm and Vaughn were working the second shift at Chevrolet Manufacturing Plant when the storm hit. How is the Vaughn family? "Three of them are at a funeral home," Hamm said. That was Mrs. Vaughn and two of the children, with the third child hospitalized. Hamm was looking over the site without expecting to find anything. Nearby a dead dog lay, unburied, and a roast chicken was on the ground. "That was in Muriel's (Mrs. Vaughn) icebox," Hamm said, when some one pointed out the chicken.

Dwelling Gone, Still Find Joy

A man and wife poked almost hopelessly through the shambles of their demolished home. "We might as well put a match to it," said Norman Smith, who lived at 1109 W. Kurtz Avenue before the tornado came. We could search for four days and not find $10 worth left. His wife, Beatrice, kept searching. Only scattered wreckage remained, but the Smiths didnt consider their lot entirely misfortune. For Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their four children, at home when the disaster struck, all survived. Six-year-old Michael is still hospitalized with a concussion, and Smith limps, while many near neighbors are dead. They have their lives spared when they dropped to the floor after hearing the storm approach. "Keep down on the floor, keep down," they had shouted to their children. They have their lives but nothing else. Their automobile was carried more than a block and dropped in a field north of Coldwater Rd. A 350-gallon oil tank hasn't been found. Married for 15 years, Mrs. Smith had just received a new sewing machine; three was no sign of it. It was almost a triumph when Mrs. Smith, expecting another child, found her sewing scissors. And this woman stepping through the wreckage was less pathetic as she picked up two garments, exclaiming these are Kathleens and Lindas new dresses. Then her face lit up. "Norman," she said happily, "here is Michael's picture." J.C. Smith, 301 E. Holbrook Ave., who had been salvaging cement blocks from nearby lots where he had houses under construction, came by to ask the Norman Smiths (they aren't related) to dinner. "I hope you don't mind seeing a messed-up house," he said. "No," they said, reflecting on what was left of theirs and thinking their namesake fortunate to have any.

Happy Break

It isn't very often you can be grateful because your six year old daughter broke her arm, but Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Weible surely are. It was this way: Ruth Ann, 6, broke her arm May 20. It didn't do quite so well as it should, so the doctor wanted to see her again. He made the date for Monday, June 8. That meant Mrs. Weible had to keep the car and drive her husband back to work on the late shift. She had the car, so she thought she'd go visiting and put Ruth Ann, Dale, 4, Michael. 2, and Jerry, 1, in the car and drive to the other side of town. The kids "got fussy" about 9:30, so she drove them back. "The first thing I knew about what happened was when I got to the area and tried to drive in," said Mrs. Weible. "You can see what happened here. The house isn't too bad compared to a lot of them, but I have baby chicks and ducks and when a storm comes up I usually go to the garage to be sure they are safe - the garage is just plain flat. I guess we can be glad Ruth Ann fell off that slide and broke her arm," she smiled.

Like Freights

Robert Blue, 715 Washington St., Lapeer, and his wife, Alice, picked Monday night to visit his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hilton Blue, 1352 E. Coldwater Rd., and Robert's sister, Mrs. Janet Dell, who lives with her parents. He and his dad went out to the garage. They heard the roar and saw the tornado coming. They ran into the house and told everybody to get into the basement. "They started to get into that corner," Blue said, pointing. (It was easy to point anywhere in the basement-the rest of the house was gone.) "You can see it's just covered with stuff. But I told them to get over here. My dad got hit on the back with this big beam, but wasn't hurt seriously. That's the only thing that landed there. "The noise sounded like two freight trains going over a trestle right over your head; it was an ugly roar. My wife said the noise when the house went was like a giant pencil sharpener working. Then Blue went on looking for the watch that had just disappeared from his wife's wrist.

Lucky Ones

Pearl Chapman, 1189 E. Coldwater Rd., had this story: "I had just pulled into the driveway: I got out of the car and saw it coming. The boy was in the garage and I yelled to him. We all got in the basement. It's hard to describe it. It sounded like 10 freight trains coming down Coldwater Rd. None of us will ever forget it." His frame house was among the few not demolished. It was lifted from the basement wall and moved about five feet, every window broken. "The house was twisted so bad I'm pretty sure it will have to be torn down," he said. Couldn't very well move it back onto the foundation. Not in the shape it's in With him in the house were his son, Lawrence; a daughter, Phyllis, and a nephew, Morris Chapman. None was injured seriously.

Not So Bad Off

"I'm not so bad off - nobody was hurt, I have most of my walls, my lawn's in, and, after all, it was just farm land when I started," said Cecil Schaaf, 2126 E. Coldwater Rd., as he looked up at the welded steel trusses that were once his roof and were now rolled up like a ball. "We didn't have more than a minute warning, because we didn't see it - just heard it. I grabbed Linda, she's five, and Pamela my wife grabbed Carol, 6. I was in one bedroom on top of Linda and my wife was in another on Carol. It just rained plaster, big hunks, but it didn't hurt any of us." "The trees are gone and my garage, but my car still runs. You can replace a house, but not a family." Mr. Schaaf lost not only a good share of his house, but his business, the Schaaf Precast Concrete Co., G-5522 N. Dort Hwy., was almost levelled. Trucks were tossed over a hill, solid steel trucking carts scattered like cards, and most of the building is gone.

Nothing Like It

At what had been 1067 W. Coldwater Rd., Mrs. Geraldine Winderman, who is a visitor from Miami Beach, Fla., looked over the ruins of the home of her brother, Leon Hartley. Attesting to the honesty of rescue workers was Mrs. Winderman's statement that her brother had returned from work to his wrecked home and found all his money in a desk standing in the yard. A china piggy bank was found broken, but with the money intact. No one was home when the storm struck. Mrs. Winderman also had an aunt next door, and although that house also was levelled, none of her relatives was killed. "I've been in hurricanes in Florida," said Mrs. Winderman, "but I've never seen any devastation like this." Clarence Hartley, 502 W. Pulaski Ave., a brother of Leon and Mrs. Winderman, told how he had just moved out of the disaster area in February. He formerly occupied 1068 W. Kurtz Ave., where Mrs. Helen Kilgore, 31, and three small children were killed.

Over the Hill

Alex Disberry, 1210 Lodge St., heard of the tornado while at work. "They told me in the shop that it hit Coldwater Rd. That's right by my house, so I came home. I came up over the hill and looked. The house wasn't there. I started digging around and finally found everybody. They're all right." He looked over what was left of his small frame house. I can't save much here, but I'll get those joists out and I can salvage those cement blocks. That siding is splintered and broken so bad I won't get hardly anything out of it. I don't know if it's even worth tearing apart. "It wrecked my garage, too. Most of it is here, but I can't find the roof. It just disappeared."

Peculiar Sound

Earl Johnson, 2343 E. Coldwater Rd., climbed down from the roof of his handsome two-story house to answer the reporter's questions-he was busy I with a crew replacing the roof which had been sheared off as though by a giant razor. "We were all at home-my wife, Hazel; Craig, 2, and Alan, 5. It was stormy and I was watching the sky. Suddenly it was dead still and I could see that finger of black coming down from the sky. Then there was a loud whistle and we dashed to the basement. About two minutes later it struck. "It was a peculiar sound when the air in the pipes in the basement was sucked out. We lost all three of our barns, but my brother, who lives next door, and my dad, who lives the next house down, and their families all escaped unhurt. There were about 100 head of purebred cattle in those three barns which were blown down. Ten of the cows were trapped all night-but we just lost one heifer and a bull we had to shoot. Don't know how those cattle lived through it."

Pitifully Small

Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur Franklin, 2246 W. Coldwater, and their three children were fortunate enough to live through the storm except for minor cuts and bruises. "I don't know what it sounded like," Franklin said. "I don't know if I even heard anything. My wife saw it coming through the window, and we hurried down the basement. We laid down against the west wall, the kids beneath us, me and my wife, and it hit." It struck their home directly, wiping it off its foundation, carrying the main frame several feet away and smashing it to pieces. Other sections of the building are strewn hundreds of feet away. Wires hang like giant strings of spaghetti in the Franklin yard, the telephone pole awry. Jagged tree trunks stand as mute evidence of the cruel amputation methods of a twister. What is the value of Franklin's salvage? "I don't know. I don't know why I'm even pickin' it up." Spread before him was a large blanket into which he dropped from time to time a personal article. The pile was pitifully small...

Sees Ball of Fire

"I looked out the door to find out what the roaring noise was because the kids were so curious," said Mrs. Nora Cook, 3057 E. Coldwater Rd. "I saw a big ball of fire, real bright, about the size of a big washtub, coming down the middle of the road. It was surrounded by the most awful black cloud - it looked like black smoke. I yelled at the children. We have two boys, David, 11, and Bobbie, 3, and a girl, Ardis, she's 10. We dashed for the basement and just go down when it struck. It just shook the house and sounded like a hundred freight cars going over your head. I glanced out of the basement window on the other side ot the house and saw that same ballot fire rolling down Coldwater Rd. We sure were lucky. Broke a lot ot windows and spilled dirt and debris, but didn't really damage much. The people next door got it awful bad, and they're all in the hospital and some of the kids are real critical."

So Many Dead

"So many people are dead," she said. Madeline McAinsh, 15-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd McAinsh, 1183 W. Kurtz Ave., spoke very quietly. Her manner was shocked and unbelieving. She sat on the steps of their home, only a ruined shell, while her parents and sister probed wreckage across the street. Almost reluctantly, she revealed that she was home with her mother and sister when the tornado struck. Her father was working at Buick. They had rushed to the basement and were saved, Madeline said. "After the Sarnia tornado, my father preached 'basement' in case of a storm," she said.

Terrible Walk

"I had to walk home from Dort Hwy., almost a mile, and I saw all those houses smashed on the way home. My husband and four children were in the house. The suspense was terrible; I never expected to find the house with all of them alive inside. The house was moved off the foundation and the refrigerator was in the basement of the house next door." That's how Mrs. Alfred Bennett, 1039 E. Coldwater Rd., found her family. She was luckier than many. No member of the family was injured seriously.

There it is

B. c. (Bud) Myers, 1081 E. Kurtz Ave., was half a block away when his house was demolished. His father-in-law, James Ballentine, 54, who lived with him, was killed. Myers's relatives were helping him clean up Wednesday. A mud spattered electric clock lay on the ground, its hands stopped at 8:29 P. M. "Here's your razor, Bud." a woman said, lifting the case from the rubble. "Yes, there it is. I had to borrow one this morning to shave. Put it over there with those other things." There was a sma1l pile of possessions that had been salvaged. They look pathetic against the piled rubble that had been a home.


Won't Go Back

Robert Zink, 1492 W. Coldwater Rd., his wife, with three of their children, was in Owosso celebrating their 18th wedding anniversary when the storm struck. It left their home standing, but took the roof off their garage and demolished the home of their next door neighbor. Across the street from the Zinks is the lot of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Lamb, Jr. The Lambs had only started to build their home so there was little to damage-except the trees on the property. "That was one of the reasons we bought here," Mrs. Lamb said, "because of the trees. They were beautiful-I'll bet that one there was a hundred years old," and she pointed to a giant uprooted oak. At one place along the highway, a car was smashed against four pines, its roof and sides impaled high in the trees. The home at the side was completely destroyed. The basement was a miscellaneous junk heap of coal, canned fruit and potatoes. An eight-foot piece of corrugated steel was bent hair-pin fashion around a giant pine which snapped off at the top. A lonely dog nosed through the debris. "I don't know," said Mrs. Lamb, "whether we'll stay here."



Looking Back 50 Years


The following are first-person narratives from people who lived through the numerous tornadoes on June 8th, 1953.
  • From Yvonne Herron

On June 8, 1953, I was seventeen and had graduated from Beecher High School the preceding week. I still remember vividly certain images from that day.

My father coming in from the front porch, describing clouds moving, seeming to stop, and reversing direcion, his saying we should go to the basement.

Looking out a west window and seeing the top of a good sized tree bent to the ground.

Coming up the stairs from the basement and there was nothing above ground but debris.. no house, no trees, no neighbors' houses.

Seeing an elderly neighbor still in her bed but her house was gone and the bed was in the middle of the street.

Going with some others into the next door basement to try to help the neighbor trapped by a beam.

Going to a collection center for lost property and finding my Polaroid camera with film in it and still operable but the case was covered in tiny stones imbedded in the leather.

Keeping my copy of Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel found in a field, paper slip cover still on it , all pages intact but pitted with small bits of debris.

Eventually learning that a close family friend had died when he simply went out to close his garage door.

Returning to Beecher HIgh in 1957 to teach and the emotions involved being there during weather warnings in the spring of 1958.

I have always thought it strange that my memory of events since June 8, 1953 has always been clear and generally precise but many personal events before that date are indistinct It is like a curtain closed that evening.

Even now, 50 years later, if there is a tornado watch or warning, I cannot stay in a building if I cannot see the sky. I need to watch the color of the clouds, feel the wind direction, the air pressure, and then decide if we need to go to the basement as we did in 1953.

  • From Michael Naruta

The lightning that evening was extremely intense. Our farmhouse had withstood many a thunder storm. As the storm progressed, the lights went out. Zena grabbed a flashlight. The roar of the storm grew louder. Windowpanes were cracking. Wind was blowing through out living room. Dishes, pots, and paper were flying from the kitchen. Plaster was crumbling away from the walls. My mother Zena, my brother Gordon, and myself were on the first floor of the farmhouse when the tornado hit us. The roar was like a freight train. As the walls collapsed around us, knocking us down, we happened to fall beside the dinning room table. It was an old, wooden farm table and it made a tiny space and barely held the walls from crushing us. My brother Tom was upstairs in his bedroom. He pulled the covers over his head. As the house collapsed, Tom's bed flew and he wound up way in the front yard.

Then it was dark and strangely quiet. It was difficult to breathe, with the three of us being pushed together in that confined space and all the dust. We heard Tom calling. Zena yelled back and remembered the flashlight, flashing it at the cracks so that Tom could see where we were. There was wonderful joy as we found we were all alive.

Tom worked at making an opening in the debris that was our home. It was a relief to smell the fresh air and glimpse a handful of stars. When the opening was large enough, Zena handed 2 1/2 year old Gordon through. It felt strange when Tom disappeared with Gordon. It seemed so long when he was away. Tom was searching for a place to shelter Gordon. The familiar farm buildings and even the trees were smashed and distorted. He spotted our International stake-bed truck. The tornado had spun it around in the opposite direction and a tree had fallen across the cab. Tom set Gordon inside.

Tom came back and enlarged the opening some more. This time I slide out and Tom guides me to the truck. He makes the opening larger and Zena is able to wriggle free. Fifteen-year-old Tom then goes to where the barn was. Some cows are still in their stanchions, mooing with fear. Tom, still bare-footed, frees them. Zena continues bleeding around the head and neck from the flying glass, splinters, and nails. She used her body to shield us. Our father Mike is at work and doesn't yet know anything is wrong. The neighbors were watching the storm from their front porch, a quarter of a mile away. When the lightning flashed and they couldn't see our house and buildings, they drove over to see what happened. They took us to the hospital where we were separated from our mother. Zena went into emergency and Tom got a Tetanus shot because of the punctures on his hands and feet from the nails and shattered wood. A room was found for that night for Tom and me in the South part of Port Huron.

While our house collapsed, our neighbor's farmhouse across the street was pulverized by the flying debris. Thankfully, no one was at home at the time. The next farmhouse in the tornado's path toward Lake Huron, was a half-mile away. That home was spun around on top of its foundation. The kitchen refridgerator and other heavy items were now in the basement.

In an instant we lost most of our belongings. Our home and farm buildings were destroyed. Our cows were injured, our chickens were blinded by flying grit. Our home and farm buildings were destroyed. Our brand-new combine was a total loss. We had no wind insurance, only fire. Trees were toppled. The landscape looked strange and unrecognizable. Our personal things were gone, perhaps into Lake Huron.

Later, lots of dad's co-workers came out and used wood salvaged from our old house to make us a one-room shack and an outhouse. Edison installed a temporary electrical drop to our pump so that we could get water. We spent the summer in the shack while we struggled with our future. We were tempted to leave St. Clair county, but we loved the area and the people. We found another small farm about five miles away and took on a second mortgage. Family and friends gave us furniture. It was fun to have a real mattress and bed again. It took decades to slowly pay off the mortgages and equipment debts. Sometimes we couldn't afford meat for the big meal of the day. Zena would sometimes lament that she never had anything new, everything was second-hand. Zena and Mike worked hard and eventually overcame the financial burden.

It was not only the physical and financial trauma, but the tornado changed us deeply. Zena was not quite the same person as before. Imagine suddenly having your home crumble around you. You're trapped with your children and one child missing. Zena later told us that while she was buried in all that wood, she kept thinking about how we were on top of the furnace. We were blessed that there was no fire.

In the shack that summer, every time there was a rain storm, Zena would make us crawl under the bed until it was over. Even a decade later, when there was a storm, Zena wanted us to go down to the basement until it had passed.

Mike was at work when he got the call from the sheriff that our farm had been destroyed by a tornado. They were unable to tell him our condition. He said it was the worst drive of his life.

Tom was 15 years old when he dug his mother and kid brothers out of the rubble that moments before had been our home. He still is our hero.

Gordon, while too young to comprehend what was happening, still understood our fear and felt our anguish.

And me, I don't like closed-in spaces. When elevator doors close, I get uncomfortable. I've studied tornados, been a volunteer firefighter, and participated in Skywarn. It's good to understand the phenomenon. It helps remove the fear. But I still respect the awesome force and I give thanks that we were survivors.

Mr. Naruta lived in St. Clair County and experienced the F4 tornado that redeveloped from the same storm system that has spawned the Beecher tornado.

From Harry A. Pendergrass

I can remember that we went into the house because the weather was getting bad. My sister was in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, I was trying to watch the new TV that we had gotten and my father was at the back door trying to keep it closed because the wind kept blowing it open. Mother was not home at the time, she was downtown shopping. My next memory was lying in a hospital bed asking my mother where my sister and father were and not believing her when she said they were gone. I was only four and a half at the time and just did not understand.

It must have been the most traumatic experience one could think of for my mother to come home and find her home and family gone. She was never the same afterwards. I know that she ran through the road block that had been set up and either hit a policeman or came close to it. It was something that she did not choose to talk about very often because the loss of her husband and daughter was too much for her to take. For a number of years she would have her yearly sad day on June 9th where she would talk about it.

I spent four months in the hospital (Hurley) and was in a cast for a month or so afterwards and I can remember rolling around in a wheel chair wherever I could in the hospital. The doctors gave me a squirt gun and told me to squirt the nurses. I lost more than one of them but do not remember getting yelled at by anyone except when I was caught by a doctor with a jaw breaker candy in my mouth and was still getting over a broken jaw. My mother said that I was miss-identified and that she claimed me after some argument with the people in charge. If you had known my mother, you would have figured out that she did not back down from anyone, ever.

My mother eventually got remarried and had another daughter and I recovered completely (they even took me in the Army) with a number of scars with which to cause curious small children to ask me what happened. The United Way (as it was called at the time) paid for my undergraduate degree from the monies it collected at the time from the community. I would like to thank everyone for that.

I do not like wind or heavy storms and have had a tornado skip over me while on the road once and had one just miss being called a tornado by the fact that it was not long enough. It is not wise to live near me in the summer.