From Dell Rapids' Attic - History
Furious Tornado Swooped in on City 1884
On July 21, 1884, Dell Rapids was still in the early stages of its growth. It had been eleven years since the community began, and the population had now grown to nearly 1000 residents. The squabble that decided the site of the downtown business district had been settled, and many wooden buildings were now being built along the dirt road that would eventually become the historic main street that we know today.
In front of these wooden stores with their false-fronts, merchants had built boardwalks. Walking on a plank sidewalk was a luxury, but unfortunately many of these walks were built at different levels. A person walking on these walks would have to step up or down these crudely built structures so they could gain access to the entrance of the next place of business. But, as nature would have it, this was about to change.
One of the worst storms that Dell Rapids ever experienced blew into the city that day. The storm with hurricane force winds of up to 100 m.p.h. blew relentlessly for half an hour. The damaging effects destroyed many businesses, the school, and many homes. It had a devastating effect on the community, which would be forced to look at rebuilding.
Fifty-two years later, (August 6, 1936) the Dell Rapids Tribune wrote an article recalling this storm. In this revised and edited article, the business names will remain the same - the names they were known as in 1936. Only our local old-timers will be able to tell you their exact locations today.
It came as quarrels sometimes
do when married folks get clashing.
There was a heavy sigh or
two before the fire was flashing.
A little stir among the clouds
before they went asunder;
A little rocking of the trees and
then came on the thunder.
And all above was in a howl,
and all below a clatter.
The earth was like a frying pan
or some such hissing matter.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
Coming from the west about two o'clock on the afternoon of July 21, 1884, the tornado swept through the center of town, striking first a building where the Capesius Poolhall now stands and where the Crossman Bros. General Store was back then. The light frame structure was demolished as the devastating wind ran its uncharted course, unfolding its fury on the streets of Dell Rapids. Crockery, bolted goods, hosiery, pots and pans, work shirts, and groceries were violently hurled into the street. They were flung with a wild abandon to the skies, only to light and be swept down the muddy street by the cloudburst that followed the high wind. Men and women scampered to shelter, such as there were, and waited for the storm to end.
Jumping across the street, the wind completely ripped out the first story of the harness shop where the Fred Barbour harness shop is now. The fragile wall collapsed when winds struck it from the west. This caused the upper story, where the Odd Fellows had their hall, to drop down into the harness shop below. The story is told that Jim Nisbet, who was running the shop, was in the building when the wind dropped the hall into his place of business. He was saved when he crawled under some boxes, which acted as a support from the falling floor above.
Other damage done that day included the wrecking of the Congregational Church. At that time, the church was located in the north part of town on the site where the Chris Bach home is today. The school house, built in 1876 and remodeled the previous year by adding a second story, was also blown down by the heavy winds. The warehouse at the old mill, located in the west part of town and operated by E. J. Elliott, was also destroyed. So were many of the homes, newly planted trees, horse barns and other loose outbuildings located throughout the little city.
Continuing its mad course, the wind raced in a southeasterly direction snapping off trees like toothpicks, and scattering any loose objects such as wagons and hayracks. It eventually stopped at a point nine miles southeast of Dell Rapids where the Peter Grav farm is now. Only one fatality was reported. A blind woman, a Mrs. John Hale living south and east of Dell Rapids on the Jacob Staudenraus farm, 2 1/2 miles east of the LeBrun farm, was killed as she ran for a storm cellar.
A jubilant group of citizens filled the Dell Rapids streets after the high winds, the heavy rains, and the general confusion that had accompanied the passing of the tornado had subsided. The townspeople and farmers were in awe as they strolled about viewing the damage and commenting on the extent and the freaks the storm had wrought. People who regarded themselves fortunate for not having lost their property or lives continued their celebration late into the night.
It did not take long before the townspeople began to rebuild. During that summer of 1884, the first stone building was erected in Dell Rapids. It is the building where the Worthington Creamery is located, next to the Greening Bros. Drug Store. The old timers nicknamed it the "bank" building. After this building was erected, it was used for a triple purpose. The west side was the post office where Alfred S. Folsom served as postmaster. The center portion became the bank where M.R. Kenefick served as cashier and C.H. Eighmen as president. There was a jewelry store in the east part that was operated by R. A. Knight.
Shortly after the work was started on that building, work also began on the Union Block - the building in which the Council Oak Store is now housed. The Crossman Bros., owners of the wrecked store on the corner, and Ed Whalen erected this building. Work progressed quickly, and they were able to move in the following January 1885.
For the rest of the year and into the next, the community saw a frenzy of building activity. In addition to the rebuilding of numerous homes, the Fargo home on 7th and Orleans became unique when it was built with lumber from the downed Congregational Church. Lucile Fargo described the storm and its aftermath in great detail in her book – Prairie Girl.
The townspeople also rallied and rebuilt the school with local quartzite. The building became a handsome stone structure, two stories high, with 4 classrooms, and a recitation hall. It was opened for students the following year.
Also, as the main street began to rebuild itself, the thinking and practice of having boardwalks at different levels gradually gave way to the system we know today - having all walks on one level.
By the end of 1884, Dell Rapids' downtown merchants were well on their way to rebuilding its active main street - one that would continue to serve the growing community in the years to come. But, while some of these buildings were rebuilt with stone and brick, many others were rebuilt with the same construction material used before the tornado - wood.
It would take another disaster that occurred four years later - the Fire of 1888 – that would lead Dell Rapids merchants to rethink before they rebuilt again. This time they would use the famed quarry rock - thus giving us the grand look that we enjoy today.