Neighbors: Memories of Fargo's 1957 tornado stick around

Clara Wittman was groggy when she opened her eyes in St. John's Hospital in Fargo, right after she'd given birth to her daughter Jan. And what she saw made her fearful. It was a group of nurses surrounding her bed praying.
Children play outside June 20, 1957, as a deadly funnel cloud looms in the background. Alf T. Olsen / Forum file photo

Clara Wittman was groggy when she opened her eyes in St. John's Hospital in Fargo, right after she'd given birth to her daughter Jan. And what she saw made her fearful. It was a group of nurses surrounding her bed praying.

Clara's only thought was that something had happened to her baby. But actually, the nurses were praying for protection for Clara from the terrible storm which was ripping through north Fargo.

It was June 20,1957, 61 years ago next week, and the storm was the tornado which wound up taking 12 lives and creating much destruction.

But people in south Fargo escaped the storm's ravages. Among them were Clara and her baby Jan.

Jan grew up to become the wife of Dennis Richardson, living first in Gackle, N.D., and, since 2005, in what Dennis calls "Tornado Alley" in Oklahoma.

"On two occasions," Dennis writes, "we have listened to what sounded like a jet engine as tornados passed overhead." But they came through it just fine.

Jan has been a special education teacher for 39 years.

Another tornado baby

Jan wasn't the only baby born in St. John's on the day the 1957 tornado hit. So was Julie Holgate, Moorhead.

Julie writes that she was born at 7:20 a.m. that day.

"I grew up and went to grade school with a nursery-mate of mine from later that day," she says. "We still try get together in Fargo every year around our birthday."

Julie says she'd like to get in touch with any other people who were born on that tornado day. If you're one of them, let Neighbors know.

Alf's picture

A photo of the 1957 tornado, shown here, was taken by Alf Olson, who was a Forum reporter and photographer. He went on to become The Forum's business and farm editor. He died at age 50 in 1970.

His son, Michael Olson, Fargo, writes that his dad was a "super guy."

Michael was away from Fargo for 14 years, then was recruited by Doug Burgum to head corporate communications at Great Plains. Doug now is North Dakota's governor.

Thanks to Doug bringing him back, he says, "I was able to be here for the last five years of my mother's life and to raise my kids in a wonderful town."

'Gotta quit smoking'

Now, Steve Olson, Comstock, Minn., writes he "had the awesome experience of seeing the 1957 tornado from a basement window of my parents' home at 1617 10th St. N. in Fargo.

"The sky raged black with debris of every kind. Just three blocks away, swaths of neighborhoods were destroyed.

"My dad Skip was fishing at a nearby lake when he heard on his transistor radio that north Fargo had been hit by a tornado," Steve writes. "He speeded back to town and he was by Ben Franklin Junior High when he ran over boards with nails and got three flat tires.

"He ran the last couple of blocks and I was in the backyard when he came zooming in. He put his hands on his knees and said, 'I gotta quit smoking; I gotta quit smoking.'

"Huffing and puffing, he asked me if everybody was OK. I said we were, but the house got dinged up a bit.

"Anyway, my parents were so happy with their outcome that my sister Valerie was born nine months to the day from the tornado. More amazing than that was that it had been 10 years since their last child. Of my three sisters, she is still a tornado that keeps us all stirred up."

View from the fair

And here's Jan Gira, Fargo, who writes, "When the 1957 tornado struck, I was 13 years old. The fair was going on in Fargo. My family, from Wadena, Minn., showed Guernsey cattle there.

"A family from North Dakota State University took my mother and two young children to their home and to their basement. My dad and I stayed with the cattle in that big building at the fairground; North High School is now there.

"I watched that tornado over the Madison section of Fargo. I don't know what I would have done if it had come to the fairground.

"My dad drove me over to see where it hit a couple of days later. It was a mess. It made me respect tornado warnings later in life."

In coming days, Neighbors will be carrying more stories out of the 1957 tornado.