Week 16: #52 Ancestors – Storms
By Eilene Lyon
Stella Gusso didn’t ordinarily let the farm dog in the house, but something didn’t feel right. The building clouds were ominous-looking. Stella’s husband and the other men of the family were not home that evening, so Stella brought the begging dog indoors. The noise of the wind continued to increase – Stella feared the worst – tornado!!
It came roaring from the southwest, tearing up the fields south of the house. The noise was deafening. Fifty-one-year-old Stella grabbed the knob to keep the door shut – as if the petite woman was a match for 100-plus-mph winds. But the door held as the twister reduced the granary and other outbuildings to matchsticks.
As the devastation proceeded through the tiny farming community of Florence, South Dakota (the Gusso farm sat at the southern edge of town), Stella still held on for dear life. Later, surveying the damage, she found that the porch had been torn from the house in which she stood.
The date was Saturday, June 17, 1944. The quarter-mile-wide tornado that passed through Florence had killed three people there, moved northeast to Wilmot, where seven died, then blew out in Beardsley, Minnesota. One of the dead in Florence was two-year-old Harvey Zirbel, my father’s 3rd cousin. Some reports put the death toll at 12 or 13, with as many as a hundred injured.
It wasn’t the deadliest tornado that month. A week later, a storm in Pennsylvania and West Virginia left more than 130 dead. But the Florence tornado had a major impact on my great-grandparents, Stella and Walter Gusso.
(The story about Stella and the dog was told to me by my great-aunt, Delores Gusso, who sadly passed away earlier this month at the age of 92.)
“The tornado, one of the most violent in Soueh [sic] Dakota’s history, apparently formed near Florence in northwestern Codington county at about 5:30 o’clock Saturday, swept through the southeastern part of town of Florence, and then, after lifting, struck across in the Marvin and Wilmot areas of Grant and Roberts before crossing Big Stone lake into Minnesota. The village of Bath near Aberdeen also was stuck. All of the storm deaths occurred in the Florence, Wilmot, and Bath areas. At Florence three person were killed and 15 injured…”
“The southeastern part of the town of Florence and many farms in the vicinity were totally destroyed by the powerful storm which struck with a terrifying suddenness. In Florence at least nine homes were totally destroyed and others were damaged. Two elevator buildings and several other business buildings were damaged and a bulk tank containing 2,000 gallons of gasoline was carired [sic] two miles into the country where it was not located until Sunday morning.” (Both quotes from Lead Daily Call)
Article on the death of Mrs. Jenny Larson: Florence Tornado Death
Rebuilding the Gusso granary
Repairing the Gusso house
The farm in 2012 (E. Lyon)
Due to a rising water table, what used to be the farm’s fields is now a lake. (E. Lyon) Even early day maps showed the property was part of a dry lake bed.
Feature image: Stella (Crandall) Gusso in the 1940s
“Tornadoes Kill 12 In South Dakota, Minnesota Storm” Independent Record Helena Montana, June 18, 1944. at http://www.gendisasters.com/south-dakota/11130/florence-wilmot-sd-tornado-damages-june-1944
“Tornado Kills 10, Injures More Than 100” The Morning Herald (Hagerstown, Maryland) · 19 Jun 1944, Mon · Page 3 at Newspapers.com
“Cyclone One of Worst in S. D. History” Lead Daily Call (Lead, South Dakota) · 19 Jun 1944, Mon · Page 1 at Newspapers.com
“130 Dead, 800 Hurt As Tornado Sweeps Through Two States” Lead Daily Call (Lead, South Dakota) · 19 Jun 1944, Mon · Page 1 at Newspapers.com