What’s the worst lightning storm you’ve ever experienced?
Like the moments when you heard JFK had died or 9/11 was happening, you don’t forget those times when lightning came too close.
For me, the worst lightning storm occurred long before I was born or even my mother was born.
It is a story I have heard many times – the tale still comes up when relatives gather – but it is also a difficult story with many questions that will never be answered.
During this lightning storm, my grandmother’s family was changed and the events of the day affected many lives.
The storm happened on June 28, 1897, 121 years ago.
There is some discrepancy over what happened that day. Four siblings, Bertell, 15, Clara, 13, Emma (my grandmother), 12, and Melvin, 7, had either gone berry picking or were watching the cattle – or maybe they were doing both. Another young man, Roe, 16, was with them.
They were about two miles from home. My great-grandparents had built their farmstead on the eastern side of Coteau de Prairies, also known as Buffalo Ridge. The rangeland, with an elevation of about 1,400 feet, was good for raising cattle and some crops.
A storm came up.
From notes my mother and sister-in-law collected and copied in 1999, the thunderstorm was either a real soaker or just a small one with a lot of electricity.
Either way, the five children couldn't get home. They took shelter in a shack or a shanty.
I’ve always wondered what the shanty was like. One report says a rancher was making pancakes, and invited the children in.
Our story always tells of a large cattle dog laying near the door.
The rancher remembered that lightning follows dogs, so he opened the door to put the dog out.
Just then, lightning struck. The children and the rancher were knocked to the floor.
A cowboy was outside, and saw what had happened. He grabbed Melvin, the youngest boy, who was the only one who appeared alive. They rode to the neighbor’s farm for help, and Great-Uncle Melvin who we all met, said the riding was so hard, it really hurt him. Melvin also lost the sight of one eye from the lightning.
Bertell (name in county records), Clara and their friend, Roe, died that day.
Grandmother Emma lived, and I think the rancher must have lived as I couldn’t find his name in the county death records as having been struck by lightning. The reports my mother collected say that Great-Grandmother had lost twins the year before. Another child, Rhode, died of measles in 1902.
In all, Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother had 11 children. Six lived to be adults, which was quite common in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I’m sure that it was not easy dealing with so much grief.
I never met Emma as she died in 1935, but I know that she married Grandpa Sam whom I got to know before he died in the 1960s.
Sam and Emma had married in 1907 – 10 years after the terrible lightning storm. They settled just a half a mile away on the farm where my mother was raised. My cousin’s family farms and lives there now.
One thing I read about Emma is that in her younger years she liked to dance, so that is something that I have in common with her.
I like something my mother wrote about her family of origin, “It seemed to me that we had our share of good times around the house.”
Despite the lightning storm with unhappy consequences, life went on and was good, for the most part.