Harvesting the Wind
O'brien county, Iowa
Not only have the winds of O’Brien County turned snowstorms into blizzards but also turned thunderstorms into tornadoes (cyclones). One (or rather, two) of the most destructive occurred in June of 1882.
Two miles northwest of Paullina two twisters united and struck the ground a “few rods west of the M.E. church, shatter[ing] the church edifice and the residence of Williams Hastings.” Although Mr. Hastings’s family was safe in the cellar, he was caught out in the storm where he was “knocked insensible” though later recovered and crawled to a neighbor’s house. Among the most touching stories was that of Walter Scott who stood at the window of his home, holding his infant, watching the storm unfold. A significant timber from the church, or other structure, came through the window throwing Mr. Scott and the baby across the room. Though his child remained in his arms, the father suffered considerable brain damage and later faced a slow recovery.
“A lighter branch of the tornado took a more southerly course from Primghar going through the southeastern sections of Highland township” where 165 houses were reported lifted from their foundations and twisted within the vortex of the storm. In section 7 of Grant township the Fred Lemke home, with the family in it, “was rolled over and over, and finally taken into the air again, and then dashed to the ground in fragments.” One of the most horrifying stories was that of “Mrs. Jenkins [who] was caught between a hot stove and a barrel of lime. Her body was badly burned, her eyes burned [most of all].” Historians record these and other precise details of injuries from the June 1882 tornado: a broken collarbone, a nasty wound on a child’s cheek, a fractured scull, a broken hip, a fatal blow to the head, a crippled horse.
Suffering such effects of severe weather, O’Brien County readers of the O’Brien Democrat and The O’Brien County Bell may well have been particularly moved by the devastating effects of strong winds in severe weather events elsewhere that caused tremendous damage and loss of life: fires raging in the drought-parched woods of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in May of 1889 (the same summer that the famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood took 2500 lives and left another 7000 missing in that eastern US catastrophe), the September 1900 hurricane at Galveston that also took at least 2500 lives and maybe twice that many, a spring 1902 tornado in Texas reported to have killed scores of people, and another 1902 tornado closer to home—just west of St. Paul, Minnesota—that struck a train killing or seriously injuring a dozen people.
The wind’s power has been evident in O’Brien County even when it was not rotating in a dramatic cyclone. Even in its absence, the wind is powerful! Early historians propose that the grasshoppers (Rocky Mountain Locusts) were so particularly devastating to crops and their human caretakers in 1874 because there was no easterly wind to move them along. So they stayed and stayed. “These exiles rise and go with the wind,” historians wrote.
While in the nineteenth century, resourceful O’Brien County residents in need of fuel learned to harvest and burn slough grass, twenty-first century residents have been harvesting wind power as a source of energy. O’Brien County is a leader in harvesting the wind.
Sources: SHSI: D.A.W. Perkins, History of O’Brien County, Iowa, Sioux Falls, 1897; J.L.E. Peck, O.H. Montzheimer, and William J. Miller, Past and Present of O’Brien and Osceola Counties, Iowa, Indianapolis, 1914; O’Brien County Democrat, SHSI; O’Brien County Bell.