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Our small town weathered the storm

A tornado hit without warning

Fran O'Leary, Wisconsin Agriculturist Senior Editor

June 3, 2016

6 Min Read

At 5:40 p.m. on Friday, May 27, the start of the Memorial Day Weekend, I was busy in the kitchen frosting cupcakes and about to start making brats for supper. My husband Neil had just gotten home and walked into the kitchen. As he started complaining about getting wet in the rain, I heard this loud, rumbling noise. I asked, "What is that noise?" He looked outside and said, "It sounds like a loud truck rumbling by." I said, "That's not a truck, it's too loud to be a truck." I asked again, "What is that noise?"


Just then the power went out and Neil and I and our 22 year old twin sons went outside on our covered front porch just in time to see our next door neighbor running across the street toward our house. He was hollering and pointing at the sky. He said he just saw a tornado over the house! We looked and saw nothing. How could there be a tornado I wondered? There had been no warning sirens or weather warnings on TV. And there wasn't a single blade of grass out of place for as far as I could see.

Our neighbor said, "I was just at Brandon Store (the convenience store/gas station a block east of our house) and two guys came running in the store and said there's a tornado right over us." That's when our neighbor ran home.

A couple minutes later, we could hear sirens coming from all directions as emergency vehicles of all kinds descended on our village of 879 people. We heard there was a downed transformer on Main Street which accounted for the power outage. Two police officers blocked off Main Street about a half block from our house.


By then the rain had let up and my husband and my son Nathan started walking downtown to investigate what was happening. They got to the end of the block by the feedmill and Gail, who rides horses at our friends Bob and Jane's house in town, came out of her house and said Jane had just called to tell her the roof was blown off their horse barn.

Neil and Nathan walked back home. I grabbed my camera and put on my work shoes. It was 5:55 p.m. when my husband and I and our sons Nathan and Matthew and Matthew's girlfriend Ashley, who drove through the storm, walked and drove over to Bob and Jane's about five blocks away.

My husband and I parked in front of the Methodist Church and walked the last block because the street was littered with trees, debris and downed powerlines. It looked like a war zone. That's when I realized our village really had been hit by a tornado and that loud rumbling noise I kept hearing was the tornado ripping through town!

I snapped pictures as I surveyed the damage at Newton's and their neighbors and tried to get my head around what had just happened. It didn't seem real. Newtons lost at least 18 trees. I couldn't help but notice three 20-foot tall spruce trees lying across the spot where we plant our garden with Bob and Jane. I was instantly grateful we had all been too busy to plant a garden this year because it would have been crushed. As I made my way out to their horse barn, I was relieved to learn all four horses were fine except for a few rattled nerves. I noticed their large horse trailer was flipped on its side next to the barn.

By 6:30 p.m., there were 17 volunteers helping clean up and cover the barn roof with tarps to protect the hay stored in the barn from getting rained on. Many of these volunteers were neighbors, but some I had never seen before. They were strangers who just decided to help. Some volunteers were picking up broken glass while others picked up downed branches and hauled them to the terraces (the area between the sidewalk and street). Others were using chain saws to begin cutting up downed trees and clear them away.

The lights came back on at our house at 9:30 p.m.  Newtons had electricity by 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning. I was grateful nobody had to worry about spoiled food in refrigerators and freezers.

We returned to help clean up the next morning. There were about 17 volunteers there by mid-morning getting a lot cleaned up. Rich, who used to go to our church until he moved to Neenah nine years ago, was watching the news and saw the damage to Newton's property. He grabbed his chain saw, hopped in his pickup truck and drove to Brandon to help cut up trees all morning. I left mid-morning to make lunch for everyone. While I was gone, the number of volunteers helping at Newton's doubled to 35. By the time I showed up with lunch at 12:30 p.m., only 15 people were still there and the work was done!

On my way home, I got my first chance to see the damage to other homes and businesses in the path of the storm. Brandon School, which is only3 1/2 blocks from our house, had the roof blown off two classrooms and several trees knocked down. The most astonishing thing I heard about the storm is the 8-foot by 5-foot wooden sign in front of Brandon School, where all four of our sons attended elementary school and middle school, was found on Sheldon Road about three miles north of town!

Several homes had damaged or missing roofs and lots of trees and powerlines were knocked down. A few homes and one business had windows blown out, but it could have been a whole lot worse. Nobody was hurt or killed. The weather service determined it had been an EF-1 tornado which meant the storm packed winds of up to 112 mph. The tornado cut a path three blocks wide and about two miles long through the heart of the village.

Bob and Jane were overwhelmed by the outpouring of help and support they received from friends, neighbors and strangers. Seeing everyone spontaneously help cleanup reminded me why my family and I have lived in this little community in western Fond du Lac County for the past 29 years. It's not a perfect place to live, but during a time of crisis it was uplifting to see everyone pitch in and help each other through the storm.

About the Author(s)

Fran O'Leary

Wisconsin Agriculturist Senior Editor, Farm Progress

Fran O’Leary lives in Brandon, Wis., and has been editor of Wisconsin Agriculturist since 2003. Even though O’Leary was born and raised on a farm in Illinois, she has spent most of her life in Wisconsin. She moved to the state when she was 18 years old and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

Before becoming editor of Wisconsin Agriculturist, O’Leary worked at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson as a writer and editor of farm business publications and at the Janesville Gazette in Janesville as farm editor and a feature writer. Later, she signed on as a public relations associate at Bader Rutter in Brookfield, and served as managing editor and farm editor at The Reporter, a daily newspaper in Fond du Lac.

She has been a member of American Agricultural Editors’ Association (now Agricultural Communicators Network) since 2003.

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