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Valerie Lee Vierk

In the Grasp of a Cyclone

            It was May 29, 1906, about 3:00 p.m.  The temperature was about fifty degrees.   It had been a strange week—weather wise.  Temperatures had been unseasonably cold, even for the great variety of weather that can occur in Nebraska.  The thermometer had hovered just above freezing for several days, but then on May 28 the temperature had risen to what was “normal” for this time of year.  It was perfect weather to spawn a tornado.
            On May 29, thirteen-year-old John Pesek was home alone in his family’s farm house located twelve miles south of Ravenna, Nebraska, in Buffalo County, Schneider Township.  John was the fifth child of Martin and Anna (Ruzicka) Pesek, who were both immigrants from Bohemia.  They had bought the land from the Union Pacific Railroad in 1886. Now they were both forty-one.  John had an older sister, Anastasie, called Daisy, who was twenty-two, married to Lois Bachkora, and living a few miles away.  John’s two older brothers, Frank and Albert, were twenty and seventeen respectively.  Emma was fourteen, and the twins, Hubert and Charlie, were ten.
            This author, John’s granddaughter, does not know why John was home alone that afternoon, so will only offer speculation.  Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well.  John’s father and older brother, Albert, were probably out working the fields that afternoon.  (Frank had already left home.)  John’s mother, sister, Emma, and the twins may have gone to visit Daisy.  It was the day before “Decoration Day” as it was called before it was re-named Memorial Day. 
            Suddenly the sky started to grow dark.  The chickens scurried for their coop even though it was still mid-day.  For unknown reasons, John did not take cover in the cellar as the wind picked up.  (I am assuming there was a storm cellar on the place as this was a common safety precaution in those days.) He was standing in the kitchen when he heard a roaring sound approaching and then suddenly he saw his mother’s large cook stove being sucked up through the roof!  In the next moments John felt himself being lifted up too!  Terror overwhelmed him as he was tossed around in the terrible grasp of the cyclone, and then hurled back to earth a ways from his home.  He may have lost consciousness, but when he gathered his senses, he saw he was bleeding, but no bones seemed to be broken.  Was he really alive?
            He lay there for a while, then he heard voices calling him, and then John saw his father running toward him, with his mother sobbing, close behind.  Martin picked up his son and carried him back to what used to be their home, and then John saw that his family home was totally destroyed, as were all the buildings in the farmstead.  It was a strange and terrible sight to see.
            Daisy and her husband certainly would have come to offer assistance as soon as word reached them.  (There were few telephones in the rural areas then.) Anna had siblings in the area too, a sister and three brothers, living north of Ravenna, and they too, no doubt arrived to offer aid as soon they could.  Later in the day the Pesek family went out into the neighboring fields to retrieve their belongs—pillows and whatever was useable. 
            The traumatized family assumably spent the night with various relatives. If their barn had been left standing, they probably would have slept there. One can only imagine the anguish of the family, especially Martin, who carried no insurance on the property.
            A couple days after the storm, someone took a photo of the destroyed farm house.  (The photo survived the years, but I have not seen it.)
                  Three days after the storm, the June 1, 1906, edition of the Ravenna News carried the account of the damage.  On the front page the words Cyclone appeared in large, bold letters.  The sub-title read “A Devastating Tornado Sweeps Through Schneider Township.”  The paper stated that the path of the cyclone was a quarter of a mile wide and several miles long, and it followed a northeasterly direction.  (The words tornado and cyclone were used interchangeably in the account.)  The account said the storm came after a week of unseasonably cold and “unsettled” weather.
                  The account mentioned all farms affected by the owner or renter’s name.  In neighboring Valley township to the south of Schneider , the tornado struck Henry Fleigel’s place.  A new barn measuring forty feet by forty feet  was completely demolished, and other buildings badly damaged.  Ed Keashall’s house was completely destroyed, as was a granary measuring thirty by thirty-six feet.
                  Another neighbor, Joseph A. Blaschko, saw the cyclone approaching while it was 80 rods away, and he could plainly see the black funnel-shaped cloud.  (Eighty rods equal s one-quarter mile.) Blaschko and his family took shelter in a cave [storm cellar] on the place, and well they did, because the house and all the out building were “swept off their foundations and crushed like egg shells” as the newspaper recorded.  The wreckage was strewn over an area about a quarter mile wide.  Later, some of the family’s furniture was found three-fourths of a mile away.
             On the Miller place, eight rows of fine Lombardy popular trees that surrounded the orchard on two sides were “uprooted like weeds.”  Also , several of the large out buildings were completely demolished.  A tin roof from one of the buildings was found lying in a field more than a half mile away.
            The Bachman place also sustained damage.  The buildings were moved off their foundations and twisted out of shape.  The News stated, “A pile of brick which had been provided for some contemplated improvements were scattered about like feathers.”
            The Hunsberger place didn’t fare any better.  The buildings, many of them new, were badly wrecked.  A new barn and cattle shed were uprooted.  Also, an iron truck wagon was carried thirty rods and the running gears were twisted out of shape.
                  The Ravenna News also stated, “The wreck at Martin Pesek’s farm was the worst of all.”  The News told of the story-and-a-half house and all out buildings being totally demolished.  The account also mentioned my grandfather, although not by name.  It stated, “A son of the Pesek family, who was in the house when the cyclone stuck, was carried a considerable distance, and though badly skinned and bruised, was not seriously injured.  The boy was the only person, so far as we have been able to learn, who was hurt or injured in the storm.”
                  “Windmills were destroyed by wholesale, even outside the direct path of the storm,” the News continued.  “Dealers in Ravenna took orders for twelve to fifteen new windmills as early as Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday.”  (In those days before electricity for back-up pumping of water, the windmills had to be immediately put back to work.)
                  The newspaper also stated that as far as had been determined, very little tornado insurance had been in place for those affected, and their property was a complete loss.
                  The local newspapers ended the account by stating that a light hail storm and heavy rain was general over the area the afternoon of the cyclone, but the hail did no damage.  Also, the News stated that the storm seemed to restore normal weather conditions, because Wednesday was balmy and sunny. What a bitter irony.
                  The June 7, 1906, edition of the Gibbon Reporter also published an account of the tornado.  (The Pesek home was ten miles north of Gibbon; about equal distance between Ravenna and Gibbon.) The headline read: Storm – Visited by a Tornado.  The newspaper reported that the tornado started near the poor farm [north of Kearney]and traveled northeast.  The area most severely affected was south and southeast of Ravenna.  The newspaper mentioned all the farms as listed in the Ravenna News as well as that of John being picked up by the tornado. 
Unfortunately, I did not interview my grandfather about this extraordinary incident before he died in March 1978, and thus smaller details of great interest to me are missing from this account.  So, I will rely on accounts from John’s children, my aunts and uncles, for what details they remember him telling them.
            Also, I have tried to put myself in the place of my relatives back in 1906.  Certainly, there would be great relief that all family members were alive.  Was a doctor called for the injuries of young John?  I don’t know, but I would speculate probably not.  The Ravenna newspaper does not make note of it that I could find.  It seems it would have been mentioned if a doctor did make a call, as this was common practice in the newspaper during this time period.  However, in those days, doctors usually weren’t called unless of severe medical conditions.  I am amazed that my grandfather survived.
                  How long did it take the people to re-build their houses and barns? Could they afford lumber to rebuild?  Were livestock hurt in the cyclone?  It seems highly likely that some were, but that wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper.  Since it wasn’t winter, most likely the barns did not have any or many animals housed in them.  The animals, of course, would have sensed the approaching storm, and if unrestrained in a pasture, may have tried to flee the storm.
                  Buy there is another chapter to the story of the terrible tornado. Two weeks after the storm, after intense labor to clear the wreckage of his farm, Martin Pesek hitched up his team and started for Ravenna to buy lumber to rebuild.  Ravenna lay twelve miles to the north, and there were a lot of hills along the way.  Martin made it to Ravenna, loaded the lumber and started home in the late afternoon. How fast could he travel with a wagon filled with lumber?  Sources familiar with horses tell me about three miles per hour.  At that time of year, sunset came at about 8:00 p.m.  because there wasn’t daylight savings time then.  It was approaching sunset when tragedy befell my great grandfather. 
            The June 15, 1906, edition of the Ravenna News carried the death notice of Martin Pesek. The News stated that he departed Ravenna about 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. that day with his wagon piled high with lumber.  At little after 9:00 p.m. that night, a neighbor, Frank Jelinek, found Martin lying by the roadside, dead, about a quarter mile from his home.   The News also stated that Martin was one of the victims of the recent cyclone, and he had been working very hard since then clearing up the wreckage and hauling lumber.  Editor, C. B. Cass wrote, “It is believed that he became drowsy on the long drive and falling asleep lost his balance and fell under the wheels of the wagon.”
            The June 14, 1906, edition of The Gibbon Reporter published a somewhat different version of Martin’s death.  “It was quite late when he got started for home and was going through the hills after dark.  As there was no one who saw the unfortunate accident it is not known just how it happened but the supposition is that while crossing a grade in a draw his wagon slid off the embankment, tipping over and throwing him off with the lumber on top . . .”  The newspaper also stated that when Fred Jelinek found Martin, the load of lumber was lying across his chest.  Martin was dead and it was assumed he probably died instantaneously.  The newspaper continued by saying the accident happened within a half mile of Martin’s home, and that his wife, Anna, had heard a sound, and thought it was probably her husband coming home.  When he didn’t arrive, she thought she had been mistaken.  Martin was stated to be a prosperous farmer about fifty years of age, and left several children besides his wife.
                  Our oral family history agrees more closely with the account in the Gibbon Reporter.    It has also been told that the rescuers could see evidence in the sand that Martin had strained, desperately trying to free himself from the great weight upon him.  Martin had been known for his great strength, but in his hour of need it wasn’t enough to save him.  Our history relates that the heavy wagon may have become mired in the sand, the load shifted, and Martin got off the wagon to try to secure it.  I was not able to determine from the accounts if the horses ran off or not.  Tragic too, that the family dog, who liked to follow the kids as they went to town, didn’t sense the tragedy and come to give the alarm.
                  Martin was buried in a nearby Bohemian cemetery, St. Wenceslaus.  My family has a photo of him in his coffin, and I did not see that until my cousin, Geoff Pesek, started researching the family in 1992.
                  Now Martin’s widow, Anna, was left with five children to try to support.   My family has a formal photo of the family, with all the children, presumably taken on the day of Martin’s funeral, because they are all dressed in Sunday best, and one of the twins looks as though he has been crying.  (See photo attached.)  John is in the back row on the far left.
                  Martin was a member of the fraternal organization, Woodmen of the World, who believed in preserving nature.  Members carried life insurance, and fortunately, Anna received about $700 after Martin’s death.  Presumably, this is what Anna used to re-build the house and some of the outbuildings.  The certificate listed Martin’s cause of death as a broken neck, which some believe meant he died almost instantly.  Others believe he did struggle under the weight until the lumber upon his chest crushed his lungs.
                  Even with a little insurance money, it was a hard life for the family, with the man of the house gone.  The boys and young men had to take responsibility for working the farm.  Their hard work paid off, however, as Anna was able to acquire more land after Martin’s death.  This too, was evidence of her business sense.
                  But even though life was harsh, the people managed to have some fun. In those days when the threshing crews assembled, impromptu wrestling matches often sprang up during the lunch hours.  Young John took part in these, and showed incredible agility and strength for his age.
                  By 1916 he was creating a name for himself around Ravenna and the surrounding counties.  By 1919 he was well-known in the state, and often wrestled men much larger than himself.  On February 14, 1921, he married nineteen-year-old Myrl Mahoney, of neighboring Poole.  Eventually seven children were born to the couple.  They lived on a farm southwest of Ravenna .  John’s wrestling career mushroomed into him becoming very famous nationwide, and in 1937 he was declared world champion.  I can safely say he feared no man, and few beasts, but he did fear storms, and justifiably so. 
                  John and Myrl’s  house was a two-story, and some of the seven children slept upstairs. When they were smaller, and storms struck, their father insisted they go to the cellar adjacent to the house.  As the kids got older, they were reluctant to go to the cellar that harbored spiders, salamanders, and snakes.   Additionally, Jack, the oldest son, thought since the cellar was only seven feet from the house, that pieces of the house might fall on the cellar and trap them down there.
            When storms were brewing, my aunts and uncles remembered their father coming to the foot of the stairs and calling, “Kids, come down and go to the cellar.”  When they became early teens, they didn’t obey, and just would call down to their dad, “We’re tired.  We’ll be all right.  You go on to the cellar.”  They’d rather take their chances with the storm that the inhabitants of the cellar!
                  The sixth child, Catherine, also remembers a day when the family was boating on a small lake John had created on school land about a mile from the home place.  (John frequently rowed as training for his wrestling career.) It had been a peaceful, enjoyable afternoon on the lake, and then suddenly the sky began to darken and everyone knew a storm was brewing.  John hurriedly rowed to the shore, got the family in the car, and drove home quickly.  That time they all went to the cellar.
                    My aunt Mary Lee Pesek, remembers her father telling her about the incident several times when the cook stove was sucked up through the roof.
                  The old storm cellar on my grandparents’ farm was still extant when I was a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s.  It was the classic design with the domed top made of concrete.  I know I went partway down the steps, but I don’t think I went clear down to the cave.  I didn’t like the thought of the inhabitants any better than my aunts and uncles.
            The word “cyclone” has fallen out of use, but tornadoes are still very much with us in Nebraska.  And I’ve noticed they seem to be drawn to certain areas.  About twenty-five years ago a tornado hit in the area of my grandparents’ old farmstead.  The next day I went out and took photos of the ravaged cottonwood trees.  The white wood of the trees that was exposed was twisted and rather exotic looking.  About twelve years ago a tornado hit in the same area.   I was at work in Kearney and heard the tornado warnings, but decided to come home anyway.  Later, I learned  that I had passed through the area a few minutes after the tornado crossed the road on which I was driving.  The next day I saw strips of tin lying along the roadside and caught in some trees not far from the road.  Some of the tin is still there as a grim reminder of tornado season that occurs every year in Nebraska.
             On May 29, 2008, Kearney experienced several tornadoes.  (Coincidentally on the same day as the 1906 tornado.)We had warning, and I decided to “make a run for it.”  I didn’t want to get trapped in Kearney and have to spend the night.  I also thought it would be safer  at my home in Ravenna.  That proved to be the case.  Still, I should be more cautious, as was my grandfather. . .


The photo below, is of the Martin Pesek family. The subject of the essay, John, is standing far left, the smaller boy. He is Valerie Lee Vierk's grandfather.



Special thanks to my relatives who provided information for this essay:  Mary Lee Pesek, Steve Pesek, Kevin Pesek, Catherine Van Herreweghe, and Geoffrey Pesek, who also provided the photo of the Martin Pesek  family.