By Ivan Raconteur
A devastating tornado that roared through the area on the evening of May 6, 1965 damaged 40 farms and wiped out St. Peter Lutheran church and school in rural Lester Prairie.
The church, which was later rebuilt in the City of Lester Prairie, is planning a commemoration service Sunday, May 2 in recognition of the events of that day.
Past and present members are invited to come together to reflect on the historic day, beginning with a church service at 9 a.m. at the church’s present location at 77 South Second Avenue.
After the service, weather permitting, participants will drive to the site of the original church, at the St. Peter cemetery, west of Lester Prairie.
There will be a brief program, led by past members of the church.
The group will then return to the church for a potluck meal.
The public is invited to attend and share recollections and photos of May 6 and the days that followed, and to listen to the stories of others.
Anyone who is unable to attend, but has memories to share, is invited to contact Rev. David Erbel at (320) 395-2811.
A look back at the tornado
The 1965 tornado changed many lives forever, and there is no shortage of stories about that fateful day.
Nathan Schmalz, co-chair of the St. Peter Commemoration Committee, shared his personal recollections of the day.
Schmalz was 10 years old in May 1965, and he was a student at the St. Peter Christian School.
We retraced the path of the tornado as he told his story.
The tornado first touched down south of Glencoe.
We began our journey near Glencoe and headed back toward Lester Prairie.
We passed the Maynard Wolter farm that was heavily damaged by the tornado.
After that, Schmalz pointed out three power transmission towers on the west side of McLeod County Road 1 that are different than the rest.
The original towers were destroyed by the tornado, and the replacement towers do not match the others in the area.
Further north, the tornado crossed from the west to the east side of County Road 1.
Here, Schmalz pointed out a farm site that is now just plowed fields. All that remains of the original farmstead is a driveway apron. The rest was flattened by the tornado.
We continued on our way, passing numerous farm fields. Schmalz said the fields were covered by debris in the wake of the tornado.
Turning east on 165th Street, we headed north again on Cable Avenue.
The path of the tornado followed the west side of Cable Avenue.
One of the farms that was damaged was the Albert Wolter farm.
Schmalz said Wolter and his friend, Ted Kuhlman, both members of St. Peter, were working in the dairy barn when the tornado hit, bringing the barn down on top of them.
Continuing north, the tornado crossed the Crow River and damaged the Ray Dietel farm.
After crossing County Road 1, the tornado leveled the St. Peter Church and school.
Looking out over the site of the former church, and the cemetery beyond, Schmalz reminisced about the events of May 6.
He pointed out where the original “log cabin” church was built in 1874.
The congregation grew rapidly, and a new church was built in 1879. When it was only five years old, it was struck by lightning, and the congregation built a new church.
This church was dedicated Oct. 18, 1893. This structure was remodeled and enlarged in 1929.
According to the May 13, 1965 issue of the Lester Prairie News, the first pipe organ in McLeod County was installed in this church in 1900.
The school was built in 1890.
These were the two structures on the site at the time of the tornado.
Schmalz explained that the school had two rooms on the main floor, and a full basement.
Grades 1-4 met in the west side of the building. The teacher was Carol Klaustermeier.
Grades 5-8 met in the east side of the building, and were taught by the principal/second teacher, Paul Muehl.
About 40 students attended the school that year.
Schmalz was in the fourth grade at the time.
He said it had been a cold, wet, late spring, and very little farm work had been done yet.
May 6, in contrast, was unusually hot and humid.
Schmalz left school about 4 p.m., knowing that his father would have chores waiting for him on the family dairy and hog farm.
He was excited because there was a tractor-driving job waiting for him that day, which was a treat for a 10-year-old.
The Schmalz farm is about 1.5 miles north of the St. Peter church and school site.
Schmalz was out on an old tractor, cultivating a field, when it began to hail.
“It was very odd, because there was golf ball-sized hail, but no rain,” Schmalz said.
He decided to continue cultivating until he got hit in the head by the hail. This happened fairly soon, so he shut off the tractor and sat under it for protection until his dad came out in the old farm truck to rescue him.
Meanwhile, the ladies aid society, which was a very popular group at the time, was meeting in the school basement. Between members and guests, Schmalz estimated that there must have been more than 50 women in the basement at that time.
Schmalz said an hour or so later, he and his four siblings and their parents were sitting around the table having a late supper.
He said his father must have heard something, because he got up and went to the front door and looked out.
He quickly came back and ordered everyone to the basement.
When they came up, they looked outside and surveyed the minor wind damage.
The tornado had passed over their farm.
His father looked toward the south, and could see that something was wrong, but they could get no closer than half a mile from the church because of downed power lines.
Schmalz said about that same time, Rev. Wolfgang Webern was coming out of the parsonage across the street from the church. Other than some broken windows, the house was OK, but he noticed that the garage had been blown off of its foundation.
Then, he looked across the street, and realized that the church and school were completely gone.
Webern, who had recently come to the US from Germany, told the Glencoe Enterprise that he had seen many churches destroyed in Germany at the hands of man, but this was the first time he had seen a church destroyed at the hands of nature.
All that was left was the front steps of the church, located near where the cemetery sign is today.
In the hours and days that followed, the congregation surveyed the damage.
The remains of what had once been the church was a mass of rubble in the school basement.
The church bell was also found in the basement.
The smaller school bell was found a few hundred yards away at the Elmer Bahrke farm site, which was also demolished.
Not much was salvageable except some books and school chairs.
The brass altar cross was found twisted and bent. Congregation member Dave Kern straightened it, and it is on display in the new church.
Schmalz remembers digging through the trash in the school basement, looking for his school desk.
He found it, and was able to recover a few personal belongings, including his dad’s army-issue New Testament Bible, which was canvas-bound and zippered. Like most of the items in the basement, it was water- damaged by rains that followed the tornado.
Schmalz said the tornado spelled the end of school for that year.
After the church was destroyed, the congregation was allowed to conduct services at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie.
The following year, St. Peter school was allowed to meet in the St. Paul’s school building.
The St. Peter congregation decided to rebuild their church in the city, rather than on the site of the old church.
The old church bell was incorporated into the bell tower at the new church. The old school bell is mounted on a post outside the new church. A chip out of the rim may be evidence of the violence of the tornado.
By 1967, construction of the new church was far enough along to allow the school to meet in the new church basement.
The parsonage was built about a year later, Schmalz said. The new pastor, Harold Bode, and his wife lived in the church basement until the parsonage was complete.
“That’s all the closer I want to be to a tornado,” Schmalz said, reflecting on the 1965 event.
“It is not a celebration,” he said of the upcoming event. It is a commemoration. It (the tornado) altered lives, it changed our congregation, and it affected our community.”
“When you have faith, you realize that these events are in God’s hands,” he added. “We are thankful that there wasn’t a loss of life.”
The May 13, 1965 issue of the Lester Prairie News said the tornado hit the Lester Prairie area at 6:54 p.m. May 6. If it had struck a couple hours earlier when the ladies’ aid group was meeting in the school basement, or earlier in the day when the school was full of students, the result could have been much worse, Schmalz said.
The Lester Prairie tornado was one of six that passed through the area that day, causing damage from Glencoe to Chanhassen, and moving into the west metro area, causing an estimated $52 million in damage to 2,500 homes and farms, according to the May 13, 1965 issue of the Lester Prairie Journal.
The Glencoe Enterprise issue of May 13, 1965 reported that tornadoes were responsible for 17 deaths across the state on May 6. The nearest was Raymond Perbix of rural Hamburg, a nationally-known Holstein breeder who was found dead in his field.
Schmalz said the tornado brought the community together.
Lester Prairie and Glencoe High School students were excused from school to help with the cleanup. The Lester Prairie students started in Lester Prairie, and the Glencoe students started in Glencoe, and they followed the path of the tornado, cleaning as they went, until they met in the middle.
Schmalz said Klaustermeier, who was the teacher at the time of the tornado, was invited to participate in the commemoration event.
The committee also contacted Webern, who was living in Illinois. He was unable to attend due to failing health, but sent a letter of his memories of the tornado, which will be shared at the event. Webern died two weeks after mailing the letter, Schmalz said.