The early evening sky of June 8, l953, hung over us like a wet woolen blanket. The oppressive humidity made us walk slowly, stooped and shuffling like old people in dim light.
Mother had told us after supper to work in the garden while there was still light; the carrots needed thinning and the rest of the rows could use a good hoeing. But as the evening wore on and the air grew hot and heavy, we shuffled toward the back porch to plead for mercy and a cold drink. Mother came out and looked toward the southwest, one hand shading her eyes, the other smoothing her gingham apron. “Something doesn’t feel right,” she murmured to no one in particular as she walked down the steps and stood beside us. “I’ve never seen the sky that color before.” The tone of her voice made us suddenly afraid, as if someone were standing behind us and ready to grab us by the throats.
We watched as the sky in the distance darkened into navy tinged with green. Little tufts of white dotted the darker clouds like foam on a windy sea. An eerie yellow cast moving in from the horizon overspread the storm clouds, and they looked like old, angry bruises.
Suddenly the air became totally still. No leaf moved, no breeze made the willow by the creek sway. Our eyes were drawn by the southwestern sky that moved relentlessly across the horizon, sagging lower as it approached until we felt compelled to duck down and hide.
Then our ears strained to hear something from the horizon; it was a low rumble, more sensation than sound, a noise that grew louder until we clung to Mother’s skirt and hid behind her.
It was, by now, unnaturally dark, the early evening mimicking the last few moments of the day before darkness fell. The ominous storm continued to move from west to east, now beginning to churn and roll as flickers of light seemed to come from its center. “Is that heat lightning?” we asked Mother. “Should we go to the basement?
The rumbling grew and the flickers of light became bright flashes that looked like shards of lightning, broken off from the bolt and tumbled with the clouds, shooting out and up erratically. “Are those boxes above the clouds?” someone asked. We watched as small cubes were flung upward above the clouds to tumble and then to fall back down and disappear into the churning blackness. (We learned days later that the small cubes above the clouds were homes, many containing families settling in for the evening. The flashes of light came from power lines caught in the fury of the tornado.)
The minutes passed and we stood close to Mother, unable to look away from the monster that churned across the sky, feeling its power and our frailty. Mother’s lips moved without sound, and we knew she was praying for the people in the path of the storm.
We stood there as if in a dream. Time and space seemed altered, the world reduced to a small cluster of people who stood under the elm tree by the back porch, their eyes riveted on the western sky, the air still and hot, as if they were in an oven. And thirty miles away a storm of magnitude we had never seen before ground its way across the horizon, churning and tumbling and flinging bits of light and pieces of debris its motion generated.
The storm lasted half an hour. Then the western sky grew calmer and the clouds settled into gray. The deep rumble faded into silence, and we breathed easier as a light wind cooled our faces and the sound of evening song birds returned.
Later as we went to bed, Mother reminded us say our prayers, adding gently, “And pray for those poor people who were under the storm clouds.”
At about 8:30 pm, on Monday evening, June 8, 1953, a tornado touched down near the intersection of W. Coldwater and North Linden roads, just north of Flint. Before the storm left Genesee County, 116 people died in the Beecher district. A one-half mile wide track of destruction was left.
Most people living in the area were at home with the children in bed. By the time people heard the storm’s roar their houses were being torn apart.
The slow-moving tornado wrecked 340 houses, severely damaged many others and injured 844 persons. The major damage was concentrated between Clio Road & N. Dort Hwy. This area contained mostly small homes with some businesses and a high school.
The Beecher tornado was the last single tornado to cause over 100 deaths in the United States. It is ranked the 10th deadliest tornado in U. S. history.
The Flint Public Library
Photos Courtesy of Getty Images
Preserving Giant Trees
Participate in the National Register of Champion Trees campaign to help document and preserve nature’s arboreal wonders.
Happy, Happy, Happy Halloween
Halloween is a fun, happy time of year. Even if you are not a fan of the spooky season, there are tons of things to do this harvest-time. Originally published in October of 2018.
GRIT Newspaper 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic
Check out GRIT’s 1918 newspaper report on the Spanish Flu pandemic covering obituaries, hospitals, medical tent cities, and ads selling “proven” cures.