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Columbus Day Storm rips through county

Fifty years ago, winds upward of 180 mph caused mass destruction in the county

Early October, 1962. Yamhill County residents were marveling about the new ‘63 models on the Chuck Colvin Ford and Vinton & Larsen car lots. 

McMinnville residents met for lunch at the Dinette Café downtown, or bought $1.09 a pound T-bones at Safeway or Bill’s Market to cook at home.

The local Montgomery Ward store was advertising a sale on electric freezers. Wives qualified for a discount equal to their husband’s weight multiplied by 20 cents a pound.

“The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Sergeant was a Lady” were showing at the Mack Theater. U.S. Sen. Wayne Morris was running for re-election.

And Mac High fans were looking forward to the Oct. 12 football game — especially since the Grizzlies were undefeated thus far.

The only thing dampening spirits was the weather. Fall leaves swirled in gutters overflowing with rain dumped by a series of storms. About 4 inches alone fell between Sunday, Oct. 7, and 6 a.m. Friday, Oct. 12.

The clouds were propelled by the remnants of Typhoon Freda, although Freda seemed to be spinning itself out in the tropics many hundreds of miles to the southwest.

Carlton residents reported seeing what they described as a funnel cloud on Oct. 11, and there were several downed trees and power outages that week.

But people were more weary of the rain than worried about it. Oct. 12 dawned drier and colder, at 28 degrees, leading farmers who lived near the Walnut City to believe they’d be finishing the harvest in good weather.

Laurel Adams taught classes at Memorial Elementary School as usual that Columbus Day. His wife, Janet, dropped their 6-month-old daughter off at her friend Reita Lockett’s house, then headed to her substitute teaching job.

Don Johnson went to work at the Farmers’ Co-op repair shop, now known as Wilco Farm Stores. Ruth Banke went to work at the Yamhill County Courthouse — the old one, not today’s courthouse, which was just being planned in 1962.

At 9 a.m., as Yamhill Valley residents studied, worked and played, sailors on a ship 340 miles off the Northern California coast reported winds of 92 mph coupled with plummeting barometric pressure. Two hours later, ships off Southern Oregon began reporting high winds, heavy rains and dramatically low pressure as well.

At 1 p.m., a 175-mph blast hit Cape Blanco. It tore away the anemometer, so no further measurements could be recorded.

But no one in the Willamette Valley yet realized the storm that would become the nation’s worst weather disaster of 1962 was rampaging toward them.

In the era before the Weather Channel and up-to-the-minute forecasts on the Internet, the Columbus Day Storm took nearly everyone by surprise.

Its 180-mile an hour gusts and 100 mph sustained winds hit Oregon hard. Magnified by the narrow channel of the Willamette Valley, they were especially terrible inland, where they mowed down trees, ripped roofs from buildings and killed people and animals.

Officially called an “extra-tropical cyclone,” the storm killed 48 people in its surge across Northern California, Oregon and Western Washington. Twenty of the deaths occurred in Oregon, four in Yamhill County.

Dolph Schutz and Marilyn McManimie, both 16-year-old Dayton students, were driving to Salem when wind blew a tree onto Marilyn’s car. He was killed instantly; she was taken to the hospital, where she died a few days later.

Walter Miller, a 39-year-old McMinnville contractor, was repairing a barn when the storm hit. He died when the barn collapsed on him.

On Oct. 14, Sidney Vernon White, 66, was hit by a car while crossing Evans Street in McMinnville.

His death also was blamed on the storm. Power was out, and the driver couldn’t see the pedestrian in the pitch dark.

Dozens of car crashes and building collapses were caused by the Columbus Day Storm. Almost every building in Oregon suffered some damage, from blown-off shingles to broken windows to utter destruction.

Nearly half a million families were left without power, many for a week or more. And 129,000 were without phone service for several days.

Rex Mobile Homes lost the roof of its 12,000-square-foot warehouse. Officials at the pulp and paper mill in Newberg expected repairs to run into five figures. The Coronet Store at Fourth and Baker, like many other area businesses, lost its windows, and the wind tossed merchandise all over the building.

Carl Hurner’s house was almost destroyed when a window blew out and gusts scattered hot coals from the fireplace. A tree fell on Leland Hudson’s garage on Washington Street, destroying the car inside. Doug Leeming’s home on Stag Hollow Road was moved 10 feet by a blast of wind.

In 1962 dollars, estimates of the damage topped $170 million in Oregon. Yamhill County’s share was more than $15 million. Insurance companies declared both the county and the state “catastrophe areas.”

Much of the financial damage was to the agriculture industry. Nearly all of Yamhill County’s 2,800 farms reported losses.

Fred Withee’s barn blew away. Rudy Leppin’s barn collapsed, killing nine cows and calves and 1,000 chickens. Hal Mahon’s orchard on Baker Creek Road lost at least half its walnut trees. Reuben Reist’s prune orchard was half destroyed.

In fact, the Columbus Day Storm almost wiped out the local walnut and prune industries and heavily damaged other tree crops.

The county extension agent estimated severe damage to half of the county’s 14,600 acres of orchard land. Fortunately, the agent said, most of the walnuts and filberts were salvageable.

McMinnville city parks lost hundreds of trees, with Wortman Park suffering the worst damage.

The Columbus Day Storm left McMinnville and the rest of Yamhill County reeling. It even caused the delay of that important Grizzly football game, and Mac High lost when it finally played Oct. 15.

Still, there were bright spots.

People helped out one another, offering shelter, sharing food, and pitching in to clear away fallen limbs.

Volunteer firefighters carried water and emergency generators to stricken areas.

Cascade Tractor opened earlier so residents could get chainsaws and other items they needed for cleanup and repair. City manager Joe Dancer reopened the old city dump at Second and Adams streets for disposal of storm debris.

Mrs. and Mrs. Robert DeGraff of McMinnville welcomed a new daughter, born by candlelight while the power was still out, at McMinnville General Hospital.

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