The day the Douglas family held on for dear life

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ten-year-old Ellis Douglas huddled in the cellar with his parents the day the 1911 tornado smashed their farm west of Janesville.

Two of his sisters cowered in an upstairs corner of the farmhouse as the roof tore away. Another sister dashed outside as the twister whipped up a storm of deadly flying debris.

“Anything could have killed her,” says Margie Douglas Boylen of Janesville. “Yet she survived.”

Young Ellis was Boylen’s grandfather, who lived through the killer tornado that rampaged through Rock County a century ago Nov. 11. Newspaper accounts report nine deaths in the twister that cut a 34-mile path of destruction. The fury began near Brodhead, swept through the Hanover area, veered north at Janesville’s western boundaries and swung between Milton and Milton Junction.

Many were injured in the storm that dropped out of a sky so black a man reported not being able to see his hands as he held the reins of his spooked horse. One poor woman apparently died of a heart attack after her house was torn from its foundation and carried 60 feet to land in a tree. When the building crashed, she fell to the floor and was hit by a piece of falling plaster. Ironically, almost none of her dishes broke in the maelstrom.

All these years later, old photos speak loudest about the death and destruction in the wake of the Great Blue Norther. One of the most reproduced pictures shows two buggies on the Douglas farm wrapped around a tree like wooden ribbons. Others reveal lumber and household debris where farms once stood. A few quietly record astonished people sorting through battered remains.

Surprisingly, Boylen never heard a word about the storm growing up. She only learned of it as an adult when a photo of the Douglas farm was featured in a newspaper story on an anniversary of the tragedy.

“I wanted to know more, so I started researching it,” she said.

She began sharing information with her father, and he began remembering tidbits handed down through the family. Soon after the storm, the family found its bull, still alive and still tied to the barn stanchion, in the pasture and unhurt. The great storm picked up the barn and demolished it but left a hay pile intact on the ground.

Within a week of the tempest, the Douglas family found its cow, contentedly eating her way out from under the hay pile. At the end of winter, the family discovered a handful of chickens, also still alive under the hay.

Boylen is a retired library media specialist in the Janesville School District. She has researched the storm’s details, right down to accounting for all the reported deaths. She believes eight people, not nine, died in the tornado.

“I can find no record of the ninth person,” she says. “The roads were impassable after the storm. A lot of new immigrants spoke with accents. I think it was a mistake that there were nine reported.”

Four members of the Anton Schmid family died at their farm, which was just across Ellis Road from the Douglas home. Schmid’s name is spelled various ways, including Schmidt and Schmitt, in different newspaper accounts.

“The father was sucked out of the haymow head first,” Boylen says. “Two daughters were blown out of the house and buried in the ground. The barn fell on the boy. A tramp inside the barn was able to free himself from the rubble. When he stepped outside, he couldn’t get his bearings because there was so much debris.”

The tramp hurried to Hanover to get help. Eventually, neighbors pulled out the boy from under the barn rubble. He lay dying in a neighbor’s house, while his two sisters and father were prepared for funerals in adjacent rooms.

Another son, 16-year-old Sammy, was in Hanover at the time the tornado struck. He hurried home to find everything and everyone in his family gone.

“They called him “the Cyclone Orphan,’” Boylen says. “He was killed in World War I.”

The historic storm that blasted through the Midwest on 11-11-11 arrived on a Saturday afternoon, when children were home from school. Otherwise, the death toll certainly would have been higher in Rock County because the tornado demolished three one-room schoolhouses.

Within an hour of the catastrophe, Rock County residents were shivering in temperatures near zero. Earlier in the day, people had enjoyed record highs in the 70s. Meteorologists said the eerie conditions were caused by an extremely strong low-pressure system that separated warm and humid air from frigid Arctic air.

Nov. 11, 1911, is the only day in many midwestern cities when the record highs and lows were broken on the same day.

Near Milton, the tornado caused the death of a child, Helen Austin. In addition, newspaper reports said the Austin home, a new barn and garage were smashed to kindling. Also in the area, the Milton and Milton Junction gas plant was completely destroyed and carbide cans kept in the building were found miles away lying up against fences.

The suffering did not end with the storm.

With the onset of winter at their doorsteps, many tornado victims had no homes, barns or feed for their surviving livestock. But the citizens of Rock County responded quickly. Newspaper stories tell how a relief fund provided money to the needy. People also generously donated loads of clothing, bedding, shoes and food, which were rushed to hurting families.

Boylen realizes how close her relatives came to dying.

“It could have been my family among the victims,” she says. “My dad told me that whenever they plowed the fields near Hanover, they would bring up storm debris for years. It’s just a fascinating story.”

Last updated: 6:57 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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