Dickinson County Courthouse, Spirit Lake, Iowa

The Tornado of 1968

First published in June 2018 for the 50th anniversary of the event.

On Thursday, June 13, 1968, a storm system containing tornadoes, large hail, and strong winds moved from Osceola County into Dickinson County. The storms caused great damage throughout the county to homes, businesses, and crops. Damages at that time were estimated at $8 million which is over $58 million in 2018 dollars and that doesn't take into account the huge increase in development that has occurred in the Lakes Area since then.

Below are articles that appeared in the Spirit Lake Beacon, Milford Mail, and Lake Park News the following week on June 20, 1968.

Wind leaned the ferris wheel into a nearby tree.

Photo from the June 20, 1968, Spirit Lake Beacon

DAMAGE AT $8,000,000

Tornado Leaves Three-Mile-Wide Path of Destruction

Giant Cleanup, Reconstruction Move in Storm Stricken Area

Printed in the June 20, 1968 issue of the Spirit Lake Beacon

Damage estimates of last Thursday's tornado, revised upwards in view of widespread losses in the rural areas, are reaching near the $8,000,000 mark in Dickinson County.

The disastrous tornado system cut a swath across Dickinson County from the west at 7:30p.m. nearly three miles wide, ravaging rich farmlands from the Osceola county line eastwards, and plunged through the heart of the heavily populated resort region.

Latest reports from agricultural officials indicate that at least 350 farms were damaged, either directly by the twisters in southwestern Dickinson County, or from the ensuing hail that covered much wider areas of the county.

Neal Hill, a fieldman of the U.S. Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service from Des Moines, said losses, including crop damage and damage to farm buildings on 150 farms in Dickinson County, would hit a minimum of $5,000,000.

Mayor Ben Saunders of Arnolds Park, and Civil Defense Director Bill Conner who have played key roles in directing recovery operations, have estimated damage at from $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 in the Arnolds Park and surrounding resort area.

The storm system dropped from four to five twisters at a time in a swath that struck a broad front across the Iowa Great Lakes vacation center.

"The top of the Roof Garden just exploded," was how the skipper of the excursion boat "Empress" explained what happened when the tornado ripped through the Arnolds Park lakefront Thursday evening.

The big craft was jammed into her dock but received only superficial damage. Robert Buhrows, her skipper, rode out the storm in her wheel house atop the huge steel craft, watching the tornado take the Roof Garden apart.

Miraculously, there were no deaths and injuries were limited to a very few persons who received minor cuts from flying glass and debris.

Destroyed or heavily damaged in the storm were such vacation centers as Fillenwarth's Beach Cottages, the Parkview Motel, and the Roof Garden, a landmark on the Arnolds Park lakefront. All were caught in the path of the twisters that roared through the park at about 7:45 p.m.

Destruction in Arnolds Park and the surrounding areas was almost unbelievable. Hundreds, or perhaps thousands of trees, or large branches, were down all over the area. Boats were picked up with their lifts and dropped in a mass of sunken wreckage.

Electrical and phone lines went down under the deluge of trees and branches and utility workers are still working to restore service to many users.

Damage throughout the Arnolds Park business district, the resort district and in residential neighborhoods was heavy. Many cars were caught in the deluge, some literally smashed into the ground.

Warnings of the impending storm came early enough, over the weather watch station KICD and from town fire sirens and emergency vehicles, that people were able to seek shelter and escape the wrath of the tornado.

Fortunately, crowds at the Amusement Park during the midweek late afternoon were small and those on the grounds took shelter in a small pit beneath the Roof Garden. Vacationers at Fillenwarths went into the lower level of the main lodge building and escaped the devastation that demolished at least seven upper units of the big resort.

On Pocahontas Point on West Okoboji Lake to the west and south of Arnolds Park, part of the roof of Vern and Coila's Club, a popular lakes eating spot just recently remodeled and enlarged, was blown off.

At Terrace Park to the east of Coila's, the beach was a shambles and damage to Boys Town facilities was heavy. A new house in West Okoboji was literally flattened and parts scattered over the neighborhood.

One of the greatest losses to the entire region is the destruction of so many of the huge, beautiful trees which have meant so much to the appearance of the entire area. They went down by the thousands and many park areas are bared of shade and cover which was so characteristic of the lakes region.

The Amusement Park was in the center of the tornado and took heavy losses. The roof of the Roof Garden was blown completely off, while the businesses on the first floor luckily escaped heavy damage.

The venerable old "Queen" lost her upper deck.

The famed excursion boat "Queen," docked across the bay at Gipners Point, was heavily damaged. Her top canopy was blown off and the wheel house wrecked.

The storm ripped through Sunset Bay south of Arnolds Park, inflicting heavy losses there and at Maywood.

The big rides in the midway behind the Roof were showered with debris and damage hopefully is not as heavy as at first believed.

Five upper units of the Parkview Motel just north of the amusement park were destroyed, the debris falling into the area back of the building, crushing at least one automobile.

At the Lakeland Drive-in Theatre at highways 32 (now highway 86) and 71 north of Milford, the wind promptly took the screen down and picked the roof off the box office. Manager Darryl Steen said the theatre will be back in business Friday with a new and larger 30 by 72 foot steel supported screen.

At the Spirit Lake Municipal Airport at Okoboji, a door on the new north hangar was ripped off and Operator Harold Lady found it later several blocks away near Helen Barr's Gift Shop to the south. There was no damage to a number of planes tied down outside of the hangars.

The tornado apparently touched down across the lake in the Emerson Bay area, causing heavy damage to the Holiday Villa and Emerson Bay resorts, overturning a big mobile trailer home and blowing over a number of huge trees, some falling on vacation units at the resorts on the west side.

Twisters were sighted throughout the region, as far north as Center Lake just south of the City of spirit Lake. There was no damage at all in Spirit Lake, although residents spent a nervous half-hour in basements as the storm system came through Milford received considerable wind damage and one new home was collapsed.

The picture of destruction in three-mile wide strip of rural farmland from Hi Point west to the county line was equally as bad or more so, as in Arnolds Park.

Extension Director Doyle Gorden and U.S. Conservationist Walter Thoreson counted at least 50 farms in this strip which had suffered severe losses to farm buildings and farm homes. They said damage at these farms ranged from the destruction of from one to all buildings.

The Merlin Wuebker farm in Excelsior Township was completely wiped out, as was the Hi Trebbin farmstead, the Calvin Riewerts farm and numerous others in that township and in Lakeville Township.

Crop damage to newly-emerging soybean and corn plants, was extremely heavy and agricultural observers say farmers are forced to replant much of the beans and some corn. Much of this work already is underway as they attempt to stay within the planting season. Damage estimates will hinge a great deal on the maturity of the crops when the first frost comes in the fall.

Assistance to the stricken communities was quick in coming. Emergency squads from Fire Departments at Spirit Lake, Milford and Spencer were dispatched and joined the Arnolds Park unit. Heavy equipment moved in almost immediately and began the hurculean task of removing the debris left by the storm.

Mayor Saunders estimated at one time that over 200 volunteers were laboring in the Arnolds Park area, clearing streets and the highway. The entire area was sealed off from an inquisitive public, to permit clean-up operations to proceed without interference.

Assistance was slower going into the rural area, primarily because the extent of the damage received there was not fully realized as quickly. However, officials have continued their efforts to provide assistance there too even prisoners in the County Jail volunteered and worked diligently in the farm community to clear debris.

All telephone and electrical lines went down into a jumbled mess as the storm system swept through. The Arnolds Park water supply was dangerously low and residents had to boil water for drinking.

Civil Defense Director Bill Conner and law enforcement agencies reacted promtly [sic] under pre-arranged plans and set up a control center at the Arnolds Park Town Hall. About 50 Highway Patrol officers were dispatched into the area, and other assistance came from as far away as Cherokee.

With the tremendous efforts going into the cleanup and reconstruction, the resort center will probably return to near-normal this coming weekend, although some facilities will be on a limited basis. The Roof Garden had to cancel a featured appearance of the "Buckinghams," but plan to resume dances there shortly.

Those officials who went through the ordeal cannot say enough in appreciation to the many volunteers, young and old, who worked tirelessly during the emergency. The disaster was the worst in the history of the Lakes Region from a property damage standpoint.

Losses by both the agricultural and resort economies will be felt severely in Dickinson County.

The most serious injury occurred after the storm during cleanup operations near White Oaks.

J. B. Williams, 30, a Spirit Lake carpenter, received a severe back injury while working to remove a tree from the roof of the Don Sullivan home. He was thrown off the roof when the tree suddenly righted itself.

Williams is the son of Mr. and Mrs. John Williams of Orleans. His wife is the former Kathi Rosenberg. He is expected to be confined at the Spencer Hospital for at least another 10 days. His room number is 209.

Four breaks in major transmission lines of the Iowa Electric Light and Power Company blacked out the Arnolds Park area Thursday night. Over 100 additional workmen were moved in from central Iowa to assist the local district crews.

Major breaks were in 34,500 volt lines both in and out of Arnolds Park; in the 69,000 volt line from Cornbelt south of Montgomery; and also the new transmission line serving the Terril area.

Service was restored at 4:30 a.m. Friday on the Terril line; at 9:30a.m. Friday on the other primary lines, although many individual services were not restored until tree removal had been completed.

Del Block, district manager at Spirit Lake, estimated damage to his company's lines in the storm area at from $75,000 to $100,000. He also noted that the 161,000 volt line from Spencer to Windom, owned jointly by Iowa Electric and Iowa Public Service Company, was also damaged.


A Miracle -- No Lives Lost

The date of June 13, 1968 will be long remembered in the Iowa Great Lakes Region and in a wide strip of farm territory extending to the west clear to Ocheyedan.

For it was then, early in the evening, that a system of tornadoes, at times dropping up to five twisters in a writhing two-mile-wide swath, ravaged the farm land and swept into the heart of the Iowa Great Region resort area.

Then it lifted, but not before putting a few last touches in the Terril area.

The ordeal lasted only a short time, but to some it was an eternity. The storm ended as quickly as it arrived and when people emerged from shelter, they could only stare in stunned disbelief at the picture of destruction and desolation.

There was a miracle on that day, however. Despite widespread and complete destruction through over many square miles, not one person died. Indeed, there were only a few people who received minor injuries, mostly from flying glass.

The significant reason that loss of life had been averted is directly attributable to a pre-arranged warning system developed between governmental agencies and communications facilities, namely radio station KICD at Spencer.

People actually had over an hours warning, starting with a severe weather notice from the Des Moines Weather Bureau at 6:19 p.m. The first tornado sighting came near Sibley at 6:37 p.m., followed by a report two minutes later of a "cloud dipping" in that area. Another report of a tornado cloud came in at 6:40 p.m.

Reports about the storm system were being broadcast continually over KICD. Law enforcement agencies, including the Communications Center at Spirit Lake, were receiving a steady flow of reports about its progress from the west. This information was relayed immediately throughout the county.

It was at 6:58 p.m. that the actual "tornado warning" was issued by the Des Moines Weather Bureau, covering Osceola, Dickinson and Emmet Counties.

Three Dickinson County Sheriff's cars were then spotted on high locations across the southwest part of the county, to give officers a good view of the approaching storm system.

The sighting of the tornadoes in Dickinson County was relayed from these patrols at 7:33 p.m., with orders to sound a "Tornado Alert" in Spirit Lake, Milford, Arnolds Park and Okoboji, throughout the Lakes Region and County.

Town sirens wailed the warning to take shelter. Mayor Ben Saunders and his police chief, Tom Ritzer, using loud speakers, went through their town to warn residents about 10 minutes before the storm hit. In Spirit Lake, firemen augmented the town siren with their emergency unit siren, driving up and down the streets and into the surrounding area.

KICD's warnings to take shelter played a critically-important role at this point with the continuing broadcasts keeping the general public informed about progress of the storm. Telephone and electrical lines went down in the storm area and people then were fully dependent on their battery-powered radio.

The combined effort of the warning system was obviously effective. People had plenty of time and the lack of fatalities indicates everyone heard the warnings and took appropriate action. The system was worked out primarily through the Civil Defense organization in cooperation with all municipalities, the radio station and the state warning network originating with the Weather Bureau.

Sheriff Robert M. Baker watched the slowly-moving tornado front move in from the west and reported driving from 20 to 25 miles an hour to keep ahead of it. He, along with many others who watched the cloud, said fingers would dip down out of it, then disappear back into the cloud, with four to five visible at times.

The damage was done in the ensuing 20 minutes. At least 50 farms in the two mile swath through Excelsior and Lakeville Townships in the southwest part of the county were caught in the grinder, with almost all losing from one to all farm buildings. Ensuing hail beat emerging bean plants right into the ground. Corn suffered about the same fate.

The line of destruction generally was west from Hi Point into Osceola County.

Farm officials have estimated damages of at least three quarters of a million dollars to crops and buildings in the rural area alone, with each farmstead averaging over $10,000 damage each.

The tornadoes then slammed into the heavily populated resort area, sweeping a path that ranged to Milford on the south to Okoboji on the north.

The route of destruction, starting in the Emerson Bay area, carried northeasterly over Pocahontas Point and struck on a broad front on the east shore of West Okoboji. Lake from Terrace Park, Maywood and Sunset Bay on the south across Pillsbury Point, the town or Arnolds Park, the Amusement Park and north to Smith's Trailer Court in Okoboji.

Severe Damage to Milford Rural Area

Tornadoes, Winds Damage Property

Printed in the June 20, 1968 issue of the Milford Mail

Milford and Dickinson County survived one of the worst storms in 32 years last Thursday evening, June 13, when a storm system moved over the northern port of the county creating tornadoes and twisters that wreaked havoc on approximately 50 farms In the area.

The system, according to reports, formed in the Melvin area in Osceola County and moved northeasterly from the county line on a course directly to the lakes area. Numerous funnel clouds, up to five at a time, dipped from the system creating the damage.

Milford rural area, Pocahontas Point, Terrace Park, Sunset Beach, and the town of Arnolds Park, suffered the most severe damage with estimates just short of the $8,000,000 mark.

The funnels, covering an area approximately two miles wide, swept through Excelsior and Lakeville Townships.

The Merlin Wuebker farm northwest of Milford lost every building including the house. The family survived by seeking underground shelter.

The Hi Trebbien farm, located just east of the Wuebker place, was destroyed except for the house, which was true of most of the farms in that area.

County Conservation officers estimated that of the farms surveyed, one-third of the farm houses received extensive damage. The area's soybean crop was hurt and may have to be replanted.

Mayor Ben Sounders of Arnolds Park estimated property damage around $2,000,000.

The tornado whipped through the area about 7:45 Thursday evening, severely damaging the Arnolds Park amusement area and the Roof Garden Ballroom, as well as other businesses, homes, cottages and boats and uprooting trees, Fillenwarth Beach cottages were virtually blown away.

Fifteen persons were treated for minor injuries, mostly from flying glass.

One witness said "the top of the Roof Garden just exploded" as the tornado struck the huge building.

The Arnolds Park Amusement Park and Use adjacent Benit's Park were hard hit. Many rides were heavily damaged, the ferris wheel was lifted off its base and tipped part way over and the roller coaster was smashed.

Smith's Trafler Court at Okoboji sustained extensive damage. A large mobile home Sipped over on its top in the center of the road. Several trailers were ripped apart and overturned.

The town of Milford was considered fortunate, suffering damage mostly to trees and utility lines. The Dale Vandenburgh home under construction in the north part of town was demolished by high winds, which also upset a well digging rig next to the house.

The towns of Graettinger, Sanbom, and Spencer sent a total of nine men and two trucks into Milford last Friday to help with the clean-up of the city streets, which were covered with debris from downed trees.

Note: The "Terril Record" section of this "Milford Mail" issue was unreadable and therefore, we are unable to reproduce any articles that detail any damages in and around the Terril area. Anyone with any information regarding damages anywhere on the eastern side of the county as a result of this storm, please e-mail mike@dcem.us.


Hail Strips Crops; Estimate $8Million in Damages

Six Funnel Clouds Merge in Osceola

Printed in the June 20, 1968 issue of the Lake Park News

A huge tornado, cutting a swath two to three miles wide, ripped through southern Osceola and Dickinson counties last Thursday evening, leaving in its path of destruction damages estimated near the $8,000,000 mark in in Dickinson county alone.

Hardest hit in the Lake Park area was Excelsior township where the disastrous tornado ground its way through an estimated 50 farms in the county. Latest estimates of damage to the rural areas alone is expected to be a minimum of $5,000,000.

The storm system, which developed southwest of Dickinson and Osceola counties, started to reach its peak in the Melvin-Ocheyedan area where six funnel clouds were spotted in the air at one time.

According to observers, the twisters merged into a single funnel east of Ocheyedan and began making its way in a straight easterly path traveling along a 69,000-volt power line. In the aftermath, the power line, which services Lake Park and the surrounding area, was a twisted mass of broken poles and tangled lines.

In Excelsior township, virtually no farm located in the twister's path escaped damage of some nature. The northern edge of the tornado's swath was the Excelsior School, and the southern edge ended just south of the Curt Kuehl farm.

Hardest hit in the township were the Merlin Wuebker farm, the Hi Tressin farmstead and Calvin Riewerts farm.

At the Wuebker farm, a portion of the house was lifted off its foundation and "carefully" set back on the ground about ten feet south of its original location. No one was in the house at the time the tornado hit, however. The section of the house that was moved does not appear to have much damage.

On the same farm place; a machine shed was destroyed and a barn, not to mention numerous other items. Wuebker had started building a new home about four feet north of the one that was damaged, however there was only minor damage to the foundation and sub flooring of the new home.

At the Don Schroeder farm, the twister wiped out a new barn that was constructed last year. The new barn was built after it had also been destroyed by a tornado that struck about the same time last year.

The Melvin Godfrey farm on the western edge of the township received extensive damage also. Only the house and one or two other buildings remain in good condition.

In Osceola County south of Harris, a farm operation belonging to Spencer Packing Co. was virtually wiped out. The only structure on the place that was not severely damaged was the house.

Many persons believe that the twister, when it cut its path, was aloft about three or four feet after observing the damage. Nearly all trees that were damaged and toppled were bent over three or four feet from the ground, indicating that the funnel may have been aloft.

In addition to the twister that struck, crop damage to young corn and soybean plants was extensive. Most of the farmers in the region hardest hit by the golf ball size hail stones have already started replanting operations. Observers believe that alot of the corn will survive, but most of the bean land will have to be re-seeded.

Torrential rains in the immediate area south of Lake Park and north to the Minnesota line turned fields into lakes and streams as the heavy rain water washed off of the hillsides.

Clean-up operations were a little slower in the rural areas, as compared with the Arnolds Park area. This was due, primarily because the extent of the damage received there was not fully realized as quickly. However, the Dickinson County Extension Service organized clean-up crews and worked diligently to get things in an orderly manner temporarily.

Lake Park residents living along the shores of Silver Lake reported what they believed to be a smaller funnel cloud that traveled across the lake creating a waterspout. Evidence to this effect was pointed out by several downed trees near Blair-Emerson Summer Place and a sailboat that was toppled from its boat lift.

Only one minor injury was reported in the Lake Park area. Bob Eliasson was attempting to shut the front door of his farm home when flying glass was driven into his skull. However, medical aid was rendered and he was released.


Note: If anyone has photos from this event from anywhere in Dickinson County and you would be willing to share them, please e-mail them to mike@dcem.us or call the Emergency Management Office at 712-336-3987.

Newspaper archives can be found at dickinson.advantage-preservation.com