This year Fergus Falls commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1919 cyclone. The Otter Tail County Historical Society’s cyclone exhibit examines the timeline of the storm and maps out the path of destruction.
If the Fujita scale existed back then, it likely would have registered as an EF5 twister. It is the second deadliest tornado in Minnesota history and the loss of life is shocking. Modern early warning systems send us to shelter but the 60 residents of Fergus Falls who perished in 1919 really didn’t have a chance.
Photographers like W. T. Oxley captured the aftermath of the storm with shocking clarity. The few photographs we have of the cyclone victims are sobering as well. Thanks to the efforts of the historical society staff and dedicated volunteers like Steve Johnson, who grew up here and now lives in the Twin Cities, we can look into a few of the faces of deceased cyclone victims.
The tragedy echoes with stories of devastated families. F. Martin Johnson was himself a photographer with a studio on Lincoln Avenue and his business logo is visible on the photo he took of his infant son, Wilbur. The two of them along with wife Esther and 3-year-old daughter Mabel were all found on the lawn of their destroyed home at 730 N. Vine St. The studio downtown was lost as well.
Frank and Minnie Pennick also had a downtown hair salon and shoe shine shop. Frank had been instrumental in planning for the new African-American Central Baptist Church. In addition to their five children, a teenaged niece named Leona Strader from Aitken was at home on Stanton Avenue when the tornado struck. Minnie, Frank and toddler daughter Dona were hospitalized at St. Luke’s Hospital. Dona was among the youngest to perish from her injuries.
Like Dona, Jens Fossen made it to the hospital but succumbed to his injuries. His wife Kerstine was found in the debris of their home at 321 E. Vernon Ave. A photo of them in front of their porch is in the museum archives.
In post-World War I Fergus Falls families came home after church to eat a meal together and visit on a shady porch. Selma Kjono of Rothsay had likely come to Fergus Falls to visit her half sister, Emma Johnson, and nephew Eddie. Funeral services for the trio were held at Hedemarken Church.
Alma Haugberg, age 16, and her family lived on what is now called Seventh Avenue. She had shielded her younger brother from the impact of the falling timbers from their house. Her funeral and that of Marie Crogan and her 10-year-old son Lohrenz Crogan, were held at Bethlehem Lutheran Church.
August Palm had emigrated from Sweden in 1901 and began working as a foreman for John Lauritzen, the contractor of Fergus Falls landmarks such as the state hospital and post office. Amelia Palm was a stay-at-home mom, keeping house along Lake Alice at 724 Lakeside Drive. The couple and their daughter Mabel also age 16 all died that day.
Although space does not allow for all the names of the victims to be printed here, a monument on Lake Alice lists the departed. On June 22, 2019 a memorial service was scheduled to remember the cyclone dead. All the church bells in Fergus Falls tolled to mark the hour 100 years ago when Fergus Falls lost so much.
*from the prayer given by Rev. Zentz at the community memorial service on Sun., June 29, 1919.