55747 County Road 10, Albany, Minnesota 56307
On Friday, May 15, 1998, the members of the Stearns County Pioneer Club of Albany, Minnesota, were busy getting their show grounds ready for their annual toy show and swap meet. About 20 swappers had already arrived and were busy setting up their table. The day had been quite sultry and some thunderheads were starting to form. At 4:30 on this afternoon, the local radio station announced a severe thunderstorm warning for the entire county.
I knew that there were a lot of people set-up at our show grounds already, and living right next door, I decided that the visitors should know of the warning. I took a quick drive through the area and alerted everyone to the warning and suggested they keep their eyes to the sky and be ready to take shelter in the church basement on the grounds if the weather started to threaten. As I finished the trip around the grounds the rain and lightning started, so I headed back to my house just up the hill. As a number of us stood in my garage and watched the hard rain, suddenly we heard this strange roar and looked out the back door to see big tree limbs being carried high into the air. We rushed down into the basement, and as quick as it had appeared, it was gone. My husband came across our backyard and frantically yelled that a tornado had touched down in front of our shop and headed straight down through the show grounds.
We quickly checked our buildings and decided that the damage was not too great, and we headed for the show grounds immediately. Our route to the grounds was obstructed by downed trees, so we quickly went the highway route and a minute later, as we arrived at the grounds, our worst fears were quickly confirmed. I cannot describe the sight!!! It looked like a war zone! Buildings were blown apart, trailers were totally destroyed, campers were reduced to piles of rubble, with people trapped underneath those piles many seriously injured. The next two hours are kind of a blur in our minds, as we frantically worked with local rescue squads to free the trapped people and help the injured. Only after the last injured were treated and transported to area hospitals and the body of the fatally inured person was taken away, could we try to grasp the magnitude of the disaster that had just befallen our club.
A quick assessment of our grounds showed that we had one big 120 x 42 ft. building entirely gone, and another 120 x 42 ft. building with three sides completely destroyed. (This building houses the big Corliss steam engine and precious rope making machine). Parts of this building were found in farm fields 15 miles to the north. Our registration building, one of our souvenir buildings, the brat-wurst stand and beer garden, the pump house, the wooden windmill tower, and one of the ticket booths were all completely destroyed, along with about 15 to 20 campers. Our big beautiful church lost all the stained glass windows along the east side, and the whole structure was twisted by the force of the tornado. Another dozen buildings had roofs destroyed, windows broken, doors ripped off, etc. The old log house that we moved to the grounds about 20 years ago will have to come down because it is twisted beyond repair.
Most of our club equipment escaped major damage, but some of the threshing machines did receive some damage. Some of our own equipment sustained some heavy damage: an old wooden Bird sell clover huller which has been in the Petemell family for generations received some major damage. The machine dearest to this writer's heart was a wooden Minneapolis grain thresher. I spent most of the summer of 1976 stripping all the paint off this machine, right down to the bare wood, sanding it, and completely repainting it for the second Albany Pioneer Days Show. This machine was damaged beyond repair. A summer's work destroyed in less than a minute!
Now our club has the huge task of rebuilding. Some of the buildings will be up and finished by show time on September 18. The stained glass window repairs will wait until next year and hopefully we will be able to raise some extra funds to complete them for our twenty-fifth anniversary show in September of 1999.
We will be forever grateful that more lives were not lost because material things can always be replaced but the loss of any one life is tragic.