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Tornado that ripped through Kittson County Fairgrounds still fresh in locals' minds

HALLOCK, Minn.--It's been 20 years since a tornado ripped through the Kittson County Fairgrounds, sending some 1,500 people gathered for the annual fair's finale--the demolition derby--scrambling for cover moments before the twister tore the gran...

Kittson County Fair board members Loren Younggren, left, and Dennis Sobolik are photographed with a print of a painting that Hallock native Darlene Swanson Turner painted depicting the tornado that destroyed the grandstand at the Hallock fair twenty years ago.The canvas print will be raffled off as a fundraiser for the fair. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

HALLOCK, Minn.-It's been 20 years since a tornado ripped through the Kittson County Fairgrounds, sending some 1,500 people gathered for the annual fair's finale-the demolition derby-scrambling for cover moments before the twister tore the grandstand to shreds.

Yet, to those who witnessed it firsthand, the memory of that July 9, 1995, event is as fresh the morning dew.

With demolition cars revving their engines, some in the stands didn't hear the emergency sirens. So, many were surprised when law enforcement officers rushed in, ordering people to take cover.

"I don't think some people believed it," said Ken Peterson, who now serves on the fair board. "We were looking east. We couldn't see it coming."

The twister soon made believers out of everyone.


"It was so vivid," said Dennis Sobolik, a retired attorney who has served on the Kittson County Fair Board for the past 43 years.

Sobolik, his wife, Marlene, their daughter, Cara, and granddaughter, Olivia, sought refuge under a tractor, hanging for their lives.

"I can visualize the dump ground-a half-mile south. I could see something flying in the air. I thought for sure it was a horse," Sobolik said.

Peterson and his wife, Barb, who is the Fair Board secretary, and their three children headed for a roadway ditch.

"Once we were in the ditch, it was calm," he said. "But the noise. We saw the grandstand go down.

"The whole midway-it all lifted. It was like a blizzard of debris. Cattle trailers were going over. Fiberglass water tanks, too. It looked like napkins were flying around everywhere. It was insulation."

Moment captured

Darlene Swanson Turner, a Hallock native and an artist who was living in Montana, had come back for the fair, where she set up a booth to sell some of her paintings. She was just packing up on the fair's final evening, when the local emergency sirens started to blow at 7 p.m.


Instead of seeking protection, she grabbed her camera and started snapping pictures.

Nearly two decades later, she painted a scene from those images.

A canvas print of that painting will be given away this weekend as a fundraiser for the fair. The board also is selling greeting cards with the image on the front and the artist's description of that tornado printed on the back.

"I began to photograph the storm coming in and then as it left," wrote Swanson Turner, who professionally signs her work as Thad's Wife, in honor of their 50-year marriage.

"A tornado is mesmerizing! There aren't words to explain the veils and layers of colors, the beauty," she wrote. "It moved in slowly and drifted back and forth, so it was hard to tell quite which way it would go."

She recalls her brother, Lyle, saying, "It's a damn tornado, and she's taking pictures!"

She finally huddled with a group of teenagers.

"I remember being in the fetal position, holding onto a young man's shirt and praying louder than the storm," she wrote. "We were in the back draft of the grandstand debris as it flew through the air sideways. A piece of tin roof just missed Lyle, as his back was against a big electrical spool.


"The thing that I loved was that American flag still flying after the storm had passed, and the grandstand was flattened."

No casualties

The tornado lasted just a couple of minutes, but for those who lived through the twister, it felt like it lasted much longer.

"It seemed like two hours," Peterson said. "When it was over, all we were thinking about was how many dead people are we going to find."

No one died.

Early reports at the time indicated perhaps a half dozen people suffered minor injuries, the most serious being a woman who broke an arm while trying to hold onto a gate at the fair's petting zoo.

"We were in disbelief," Sobolik said. "We couldn't believe there were no casualties, not even any livestock; not a chicken or a cow, not a thing."

Debris was found as far as 20 miles away.


Board members and community volunteers spent the rest of the summer cleaning up the fairgrounds and the community. The storm destroyed or heavily damaged scores of buildings and vehicles around Hallock, a city of 970 located about 75 miles north of Grand Forks.


The fair was back the next year, right on time-but without the grandstand.

Fair Board members say that some county fairs might have disbanded rather than rebuilding after such a loss. But that really wasn't an option here.

They credit the late Willis Lilliquist, who served on the board for 55 years, for shepherding the recovery, spending hundreds of hours to get the fair back in operation in 1996.

"Our community really stood behind us," Board President Mike Wollin said.

A new 2,700-seat grandstand, completed in 1997, was financed by a $600,000 federal grant.

It includes about 6,600 square feet of office and exhibit space, as well as other rooms under the seats.


"It was God's answer to our prayers," said Barb Peterson.

The board receives $22,500 annually from the Kittson County Commission, Wollin said.

Over the years since the tornado, the board has added other amenities.

A new 60-foot-by-120-foot exhibit barn was built last year. The Centennial Building got a new roof this year.

The improvements are financed through local fundraising efforts.

"We think we've got one of the finest fairgrounds anywhere," Wollin said. "It's all because of the community."

This year's fair, which began Thursday, runs through Sunday, climaxing with the annual Demolition Derby. For more information, go to: www.kittsoncountyfair.org .


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