Still etched in memory

The deadly Tracy tornado plows northeastward from town on the evening of June 13, 1968., at about 7:05 p.m. The view is from Elm St., with the Tracy pool in the foreground. (Photo courtesy Alan Hubbard)

Saturday events will recall Tracy’s epic tornado 50 years ago

By Seth Schmidt

Dean Salmon was in his late 20s, working with his father as the parts manager at Salmon Chevrolet, when a colossal F-5 tornado blasted through Tracy on the evening of June 13, 1968
Fifty years later, Salmon still has a desk at the family’s car business. But the founder of the business, Guy Salmon, has passed away, and a white-haired Dean has turned the helm of Salmon Automotive to his son, Jeff, who was a toddler when the twister struck.
Has a half-century really passed since the Tracy Tornado wreaked its havoc?
Dean Salmon pauses a moment.
“It seems like an awful long time ago,” he says.
And yet, the longtime businessman agrees, the events of that night are so etched into memory, it’s as if the epic tornado had happened yesterday.
This Saturday, June 9, a series of events are planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Tracy Tornado, and the town’s subsequent effort in clearing away storm rubble and rebuilding. “Never Forget” is the theme of the remembrance.
“It’s important for the younger generation to know about the tornado, and the number of lives that were affected,” comments Scott Thoma, a 1977 Tracy Area High School graduate, who has done most of the groundwork for “Never Forget.”
Nine years old when the tornado struck, Thoma watched his father, Laurie, pull victims from the debris of wrecked houses in his neighborhood.
“I’d like the nine people who lost their lives in the tornado to not be forgotten,” adds Thoma, who is now a free-lance writer from Willmar.
Those killed by the 1968 tornado were: Nancy Vlahos, 2; Barbara Holbrook, 50; Walter Swanson, 47; Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harden, 75; Ellen Morgan, 75; Otelia Werner, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; and Paul Swanson, 60. All “Never Forget” proceeds are earmarked for nine TAHS senior scholarships, to be given in memory of each victim.
Saturday events will be held at four locations: Central Park, The Caboose, the Tornado Tree Memorial, and Tracy Lutheran Church. Outdoor & indoor concerts, a memorial balloon launch, silent auction, medallion hunt, community lunch, storm chaser display, and a program by a TV meteorologist are among the activities planned.
The 50th anniversary events were planned for, Saturday, rather than the actual 50th anniversary date on Wednesday, June 13, in hopes that attendance would be greater on the weekend.

Central Park
Registrations for a medallion hunt begin at 10 a.m. near the park bandshell.
The Tracy Community Band will present a concert that will begin at about 10:15 a.m. Clint Peterson, Tracy High School’s band instructor in 1968, will direct the group.
At noon, nine black helium balloons will be released in memory of the nine tornado victims.
The Gospel/blue grass group “Roots of Oak,” will perform at 12:30 p.m.
A “storm chaser” will be on hand to answer questions and display equipment.
A CD recording of “The Ballad of the Tracy Tornado” by Dennis Morgan, will be on-sale at the park for $10, with all proceeds going to benefit the Tracy Fire Dept. and Tracy Ambulance Service.

The Caboose
More than 100 items will be on display at The Caboose from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Items include two pairs of tickets to the Chanhassen dinner theatre, a regulation-sized bat autographed by former Twin Torii Hunter, toys, indoor and outdoor home décor items, a $100 book about severe weather, and numerous gift cards. All proceeds will go toward the senior scholarships.
Jonathan Yuhas, meteorologist with KSTP-TV, will give a presentation about severe summer weather, beginning at 1 p.m.
Uncle Ron’s Accordian Band will perform beginning at 11 a.m.
A tornado “memory wall” and photos will also be set up.
Lunch is available.

Tracy Lutheran Church
A community lunch will be served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Tracy Lutheran Church. Barbecues, beans, chips, and coleslaw will be served. There’s no charge, but donations will be accepted for the 2019 TAHS scholarships.
A quilt raffle and bake sale is also planned at the church, with money also designated for the scholarships. Community members who’d like to contribute to the event are invited to drop off homemade baked goods.

Tornado Tree Memorial
A storyboard about the tornado is available at the Tornado Tree Memorial, along with other information about “Never Forget” activities.

Tornado clock
Fearing a hailstorm, Dean Salmon had just finished parking most of the dealership’s cars indoors with his dad, when they looked to the southwest at about 7 p.m., and saw the tornado headed directly toward their business. The men rushed home, where they huddled in basements with their families to survive the tornado’s nearby destruction.
After being assured that his wife and four children were safe, and seeing that their house on the edge of the tornado’s path had escaped with relatively minor damage, Dean drove past the Salmon dealership on Fourth St. A warehouse had been leveled, and the west wall of the dealership garage had collapsed. Airborne glass and debris had damaged many of the cars that had been parked indoors minutes earlier. But Salmon didn’t stop, his first responsibility was to join other Tracy firemen for search and rescue operations.
Yes, Salmon agrees, memories of that night remain vivid.
“Everyone just did what had to be done.”
One physical artifact of the June 13, 1968 destruction at Salmon Chevrolet remains.
The dealership’s wooden time clock was found in the rubble of the collapsed garage wall. The clock’s hands were stopped at 7:08, about the time the tornado knocked out power to the town.
The Salmon clock is today on display at the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum.