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Stopping by: Columbus Day storm stories

On the afternoon of Oct. 12, 1962, JacE (Cameron) Macy stood at her back door with her sister and father, watching the Columbus Day storm tear through the family’s large walnut tree.

Although they didn’t realize it at the time, they were caught at the center of what would be named the nation’s biggest weather disaster that year.

The storm killed at least 46 people, four of them in Yamhill County; ruined thousands of homes; and uprooted millions of board feet of timber and thousands of fruit and nut trees, including walnut trees that played a major role in local agriculture at the time.

Macy was 15 at the time, a student at McMinnville High School. Her father happened to be home from the Third Street grocery store, which he owned. Her sister was a Linfield student living at home.

One member of the family was missing — their mother, stuck downtown at her job at the Rexall drug store. And they were terribly worried about

“What did we do to deserve this?” her father asked as the storm grew stronger.

Eventually, her mother made it home and the family survived the storm intact.

Their walnut tree didn’t fare so well, though, and adjacent Evans Street flooded. Macy recalled her father out in his hip boots the next day, pulling leaves and debris out of the drains so the water would go down.

It’s a vivid memory even after the passage of 50 years. “The storm was something else,” Macy said.

Columbus Day 1962 started out as a regular school day for Laurel and Janet Adams.

Janet Adams spent that Friday substituting in an elementary classroom. After school, she went to friend Reita Lockett’s house to pick up their infant daughter, Denise.

“I was holding the baby in my arms when I opened the car door,” Janet recalled. “The wind was so strong, it almost ripped Denise right out of my arms.”

Laurel Adams taught at Memorial Elementary School. As he left the building about 4:30 p.m., he heard a roaring sound.

“In seconds, the wind blew almost every leaf off the black walnut trees along Birch Street,” he recalled.

He was taking home a couple of empty buckets, and a gust almost jerked them out of his hands. The wind pushed a wooden backstop across the playground toward a neighbors’ house, and Adams and the homeowner had to tip it over to keep it from sliding.

Laurel, Janet and the baby made it home all right. The couple stood at the windows of their house on 17th Street, watching shingles and other debris blow past.

“That was kind of dumb, to look out the window during a storm,” she said, laughing at the memory. 

Saturday morning dawned sunny and calm.

It wasn’t quiet, though. “Chainsaws were going all over town,” Janet recalled.

The power was out for several days.

“I worried about the stuff in the freezer, since the power was out,” Laurel said. “I was so worried, every 10 minutes I opened it up to see if things were still cold.”

The Columbus Day Storm left a lasting legacy that Laurel notes every Friday when he attends meetings of his service club, Walnut City Kiwanis. “We credit that storm with changing McMinnville from ‘The Walnut City,’” he said.

In addition to being a major agricultural crop in the area, walnuts also grew on the trees shading nearly every street, he said. But many of those signature trees blew down in the storm.

Gail Craven was 8 when the Columbus Day storm hit her hometown of Beaver, on the Nestucca River at the coast. “We stood on the edge of Highway 101 and watched,” she said, recalling the wind ripping at signs and the water rising as the rain poured.

An earthen dam broke on the Nestucca and water rushed downstream, flooding everything. The surge wiped out a small bridge.

It’s a vivid memory, said Craven, who now works as the superintendent’s secretary at the McMinnville School District main office.

On Oct. 12, 1962, Don Johnson of Yamhill was working in the repair shop at the Farmers Co-op, now Wilco Farm Stores, on Highway 99W in northeast McMinnville.

“The wind started coming up very strong,” recalled Johnson, who was 24 at the time. “Somebody got wind that we were in for a big storm.”

Lloyd White used to park his log trucks on the co-op lot, Johnson said, and several were there that day.

“The old store had an all-glass front, so we got him to pull the trucks right in front of the store to protect the windows,” he said. And it worked.

However, the fierce wind ripped the 12-foot sliding doors off the front of the shop where Johnson worked. It tossed around empty 50-gallon oil barrels as if they were fall leaves. And it destroyed the screen at the drive-in, located behind the co-op property.

Susan Butler, who was 7 at the time, came home from school and went out to play in the yard of her Tualatin home. “It was getting windier and windier,” she recalled.

Just as her mother pulled up in the car, a gust caught the little girl and lifted her. It blew her right across the yard — to her mom. 

“I was safe,” recalled Butler, who now works for Oregon Mutual Insurance, a company that answered more than 9,000 claims from the Columbus Day Storm.

For Ruth Banke, the Columbus Day Storm is a vivid memory, but not a bad one.

“We were safe, our neighbors were safe,” she said. “We had no power afterwards, but you can live without power.”

She was working at the old Yamhill County Courthouse that Friday. Focusing on preparing for the upcoming elections, she and other workers didn’t pay much attention to the rising wind.

Then her kids called her from home. They told her it was really windy — so windy, the dog was having problems walking across the yard, so they’d brought him in.

Banke told them to stay inside as well. Then she called her husband at his workplace, Cascade Tractor, which was located at Highway 99W and Evans on what’s now a vacant lot.

He told her the roof had just blown off a store across the street.

Both Banke and her husband, Vic, made it safely to their house, near what is now Tice Park. A neighbor came over to stay with them, as she was worried about the big trees at her place blowing over.

Not far from there, most of the trees in a walnut orchard on Baker Creek Road blew over, just before the nuts were due for harvest.

After the wind abated, Banke said, Cascade Tractor reopened so local residents could buy chainsaws and other equipment to clean up the mess. When she returned to work, she discovered two trees had fallen near the courthouse, right where her car had been parked on Friday.

“We had a lot to be thankful for,” Banke said, who recalled attending a special worship service at her church in the days after the storm.

Craig Singletary watched the storm from his home near the Linfield College campus, where he taught communications classes and advised the students who ran the school’s new radio station.

His family was lucky that day, he said. Other than losing a few shingles from the roof, it didn’t suffer much damage.

The Linfield campus wasn’t as fortunate. When he walked over to take a look the next day, Singletary said, he saw a great deal of debris on the tree-covered grounds.

Lois Lawler lived in Vernonia in 1962. On Columbus Day, she was startled when she looked up at the sky.

“It was just swirling,” she recalled. “I said I sure am glad that’s up there, not down here!”

By the time she reached home, though, the storm had descended on the town. She grabbed her five children and took them across the street to a neighbor’s house.

She said she figured it would be safer if they got away from the tall trees on her property. Ironically, they were just entering the neighbor’s back door when the neighbor’s apple tree blew over, the tips of its branches scraping the house.

The Lawlers stayed overnight with their neighbors. “It seemed like the storm went on for hours,” she recalled.

After the wind abated, Vernonia, like much of Oregon, was without power.

Back home, Lawler heated soup and cooked on her woodstove for more than a week. Her husband, junior high teacher Dan Lawler, stayed home because all the schools were closed.

Power and phone lines were down all over, and toppled trees littered yards and roads.

The Lawlers’ own trees emerged almost unscathed, though. They lost only the top of one fir.

The neighbors’ apple tree survived the storm as well. “They just pushed the roots back in the hole and it grew,” Lawler recalled.

Future McMinnville Mayor Rick Olson was a second-grader at St. James School in the fall of 1962. When school ended on Friday, Oct. 12, he headed down Third Street toward his parents’ wholesale candy business, at Third and Ford streets.

“There was some wind,” he recalled. “I heard it whistling. And the sky was an eerie gray.”

As the storm gained strength, his family took refuge in the store. But the barometric pressure dropped rapidly, causing a marked difference in pressure outside.

“It sucked the windows out, sucked merchandise out,” Olson said. “All along Third Street, big plate glass windows were sucked out.”

He said the image is still vivid in his memory to this day.

Police officers and Civil Defense workers herded people downtown into the Mack Theater, where they would be protected by thick, windowless walls. Huddled in the dark, Olson listened to the wind whistling outside.

People were allowed to leave the theater that evening, when the winds died down.

Olson said it took his family two hours to walk to their house at 11th and Irvine, as the darkened streets were blocked by trees, tree limbs, broken glass and wrecked cars. “Dad sent us down into the basement when we got home,” he said.

The next morning, under blue skies and sunshine, the Olsons inspected the damage. They had lost eight of the nine walnut trees on their property, and their chimney and roof were gone.

Hoping for a hot meal, his family went downtown and joined the line at the Dinette Cafe, located where Nick’s is now. It was the only restaurant with grills that operated on propane, and consequently, people were lined up for blocks.

In the following weeks, he said, he watched utility trucks arrived on rail cars as agencies from all over the west sent crews to help repair the damaged infrastructure of the Willamette Valley.

The storm had a lasting impact on the future mayor. For years, he said, he was terrified by even minor windstorms.

“I’ve been through lots of storms, even a hurricane in Florida two years ago,” Olson said. “But nothing compares to the Columbus Day Storm.”

 Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or spointer@newsregister.com.

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