COOPERSTOWN—The day after Independence Day in 1994 was one many in this area would not soon forget.
Though mature trees and new construction have healed the hellscape left by an EF4 tornado carved through two-and-a-half miles along Zander Rd. in Cooperstown, its effects have been swirling for the last 24 years.
Pat VanGroll’s farm wasn’t particularly hit by the twister, save for 50 round bales of hay, each weighing hundreds-of-pounds.
“Some of them ended up in Harpt’s Lake, [six miles east] others said they saw them in Lake Michigan [ten miles east],” VanGroll said.
For months afterward, the community came together and pulled “at least” 150 trailers-full of debris and junk, including 70 flat tires of varying sizes, from the fields surrounding the tornado’s path.
“When it happened, the hay was already growing, so we were picking stuff out of there for a long time,” VanGroll said.
The storm took no lives that day, but it did take everyone by surprise. The existing newspaper accounts detail that the funnel cloud came, “without warning,” though that applied to the people on the ground as well as weather professionals.
“There literally was no warning. [The tornado] hit, it occurred, it happened, it was done, and then the tornado warning was issued…that means there was literally no warning at all,” said Chris Nelson, who witnessed the developing weather from his S. Wall St. home at the age of nine.
In fact, the Village of Denmark as well as most of rural Manitowoc County did not have emergency sirens, nor had Doppler radar and advanced satellite technology become tools for local weather forecasts.
“The conditions were definitely right,” says Nelson, who now works as a television meteorologist, “it just needed a trigger.”
Without a steady lake breeze from Lake Michigan, the storm may have been a blip on the radar, so to speak, but the right wind at the right time pushed the warm, humid air into an unstable upper atmosphere and all the pieces came together.
“As a meteorologist back then, I’m sure there was no way you could have figured it out,” Nelson says.
By the time local television stations reported a tornado warning, the tornado had already come and gone, leaving about $2 million in damage behind and destroying multiple homes.
Mike Albers had pulled out the family camcorder when he noticed the funnel, telling himself that, “when it gets to the top of the hill, then I’ll go into the basement.”
As he taped with an intense amount of debris flying around, he dialed an emergency number to report that a tornado had touched down.
“The operator said, ‘No there’s not…one hasn’t been reported yet,’” Albers recalled, still as confused by the contradictory comment in 2018 as he was in-the-moment in 1994, but his experience was not isolated.
Ron Towns was in the middle of his first day patrolling Denmark’s streets alone, having officially joined the Denmark Police Dept. just weeks before and going through special severe weather training as a prerequisite.
“It was moving in a circular motion,” Towns told The Denmark Press in 1994 about seeing the storm as he drove along Hager Rd. “And it looked like it was white—I thought it was rain at first that was just being swirled around—and that’s what kind of drew my attention to it.”
Before the tornado struck, Nelson witnessed golf-ball sized hail, which he vaguely knew to be a sign of possible tornadoes. Quickly heading out to the backyard deck for a gander, Nelson was stopped speechless by the sight of, “a big, gray tornado” just about two miles away from him.
“In that situation, when you’re young like that…and you see the power of mother nature, and the spinning…it almost becomes surreal. It’s like, ‘Oh my god, is this a dream? Is this really happening?’” Nelson remembers.
The tornado destroyed six homes, including an entire subdivision along Carol Ln., and damaged at least twenty others.
The most serious injury from the 150-yard-wide tornado was a broken ankle, which is perhaps the only reason why the story did not go wall-to-wall across the country.
“If you look back at data in the last 25 years, in terms of strength—and this was graded as an EF4 tornado; back then an F4 tornado—this was one of the strongest to hit Wisconsin,” Nelson says of the childhood storm.
An EF4 tornado has winds between 166 and 200 miles-per-hour and produces mass destruction, and only 18 have ever been recorded in America’s Dairyland. The ’94 Cooperstown twister is still the only EF4 to strike northeast Wisconsin.
An EF5 tornado (winds above 200-mph) blasted Oakfield in Fond du Lac County in 1996, though that is the only Wisconsin storm which has been stronger than July 5, 1994, in Cooperstown.
“We were so lucky considering that we didn’t have any warning, we weren’t exactly expecting widespread severe weather, and there were no deaths,” Nelson says in retrospect. “To me, that’s amazing.”
As Karl Nohr said in the first days after the storm, “We don’t have any funerals to go to…You can always clean up.”
“Everyone helped each other rebuild,” VanGroll said. “It’s such a great community of people out here, and they’ve always looked out for each other.”
Cooperstown has definitely its fair share of intense storms and tornadoes, however. A light twister had touched down there just five years before the EF4 ripped through, and several more have danced in that area since—notably in 2013, when two different cyclones (officially classified as straight-line winds) came through the Maribel Cherney Caves county park and leaving the stone hotel in further ruins.
Asked for his meteorological expertise on why Cooperstown is the area’s “tornado ally”, Nelson had a few ideas, but no certainties.
“We don’t know. There could be the proximity to the lakeshore, there might be another variable with a different wind that would maybe develop more wind shear within those storms,” he says.
“Maybe with the rolling hills [and] the stretching and vorticity that goes on….what happens when you stretch something? It usually spins faster. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, these are just hypotheses,” Nelson said.
One thing was definite in the first week of July 1994, though—Nelson’s boyhood crush on weather science was going to become his life’s pursuit.
“That definitely piqued my interest in weather,” he says. “Not just seeing it, but seeing it afterwards. I can remember, maybe a day or two after, going past [on Zander] and seeing the damage. I saw that tornado, I saw what those homes looked like prior, and now I’ve seen what the damage is like and what it can actually do.”
Nelson currently serves the Milwaukee area as a television morning meteorologist, and you can find an additional recap of the 1994 storm’s impact on his blog here.