The Fury of the Storm

The stories we hear as children stick with us, sometimes only in fragments. My grandmother (gone 17 years this week) used to tell of a tornado that struck near her family farm when she was a girl, but the only detail I ever recalled was the date of the storm: 11/11/11, one hundred years ago today.

The anonymous journalist who wrote the front-page story in the Janesville Daily Gazette on Monday, November 13, 1911, spun a spectacular lede: “It would be impossible to tell the tale of death and desolation that swept over the county on Saturday afternoon last. Almost without warning the cyclone swept out of the west and into the fertile fields of Rock County [Wisconsin]. Lives were lost, homes, barns, even fields were swept clean of all vestige of life and vegetation as though devastated by fire. In less than twenty minutes, the fury of the storm had worked its evil, leaving behind a twisted mass of splinters to mark the spot where homes had stood.”

My mother remembers hearing that, as the storm loomed, my great-grandmother and great-grandfather went outside, apparently to secure their livestock. They told my grandmother, then 5, and her four-year-old sister to put on their coats and sit on the front porch of the house where they could be seen. The sky got so dark that the chickens—which were probably the livestock that needed securing—went to roost. (From the first report on the storm, published in a few Sunday papers the next day: “About four o’clock the clouds lowered and it became black as night.” A report later in the week, however, set the time at 2:30PM.)  Presumably the family took shelter in the basement after that, until the storm passed. The tornado itself went south of their farm on its way through the western portion of Rock County.

(My mother remembers only one other detail Grandma told: about a piece of straw driven straight into a tree like a nail into a board. That detail isn’t reported in any of the newspaper stories I found, although the papers do tell of a six-by-six timber driven through a cow, a hog cut in two by a plow, chickens and pigs dismembered, and a cookstove carried into a field and deposited right-side-up and undamaged.)

In family lore, the storm was known as the Hanover tornado, but it actually tracked a path east from Brodhead to Orfordville to Hanover before turning sharply north toward Milton Junction and Milton. The path was later reported as 34 miles long and a quarter-mile wide. Initial reports had seven people dead, including several children about the age of my grandmother. The toll eventually rose to nine, including an entire family of four.

Rock County, Wisconsin, was not the only place hit by storms 100 years ago today. Tornado fatalities were reported in Illinois as well. In the wake of the storm, a cold wave struck—the temperature, in the 70s at midday, would fall to zero that night. Snow and sleet followed, which added to the misery of those hit by the tornado. It takes only a layman’s knowledge of meteorology to understand how volatile the atmosphere would have been, and thus how violent the storms were, over a great swath of the Midwest that day.

Could music possibly have anything to do with this? Find out on the flip.

According to Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories 1890-1954, the most popular song in the land 100 years ago today was Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Whitburn’s primordial chart for that week is topped by two versions of it, each by Pioneer Era superstars: one by Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan, which was #1 for 10 weeks that fall, and another by Billy Murray. The top songs of 1911 include several other titles that might be familiar to listeners or readers 100 years later. Two versions of “Mother Machree” would hit #1 that year, by Will Oakland and by John McCormack, the most famous Irish tenor in history. “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine” (heard in the movie Titanic) would hit #1 in two versions as well, one by Murray with frequent partner Ada Jones. Collins and Harlan would score two other big hits that year, Oakland and McCormick one more each, all largely forgotten except by aficionados of the Pioneer Era.

The songs of the day did not necessarily play in the heads of the people of Rock County, Wisconsin, in 1911 the way that they would play in the heads of their grandchildren years later. And they are at best a minor footnote to what happened that day. But I like to imagine that maybe, a newspaper reader in Janesville, by the stove on a cold night later that week, read the Gazette while another member of the family played Edison Amberol cylinders of Collins and Harlan and McCormack and others. If that’s a tenuous link between the storm and the music, so be it. Music is what we’re about here, how it plays in our lives, and how it played in the lives of others—even a century ago.

(More about the storm here.)

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