A DAY IN HISTORY…. April 3, 1956

The Portage Point to Grand Traverse Bay Tornado

Researched and written by Kim Smith

Those who shared their stories and information:
Doug Courtade:  10 years old
Jim Lautner:  4 years old
Melinda Lautner
Darlene Loomis:  8 months
Ginny Loomis:  3 years
Liz (Youker) Morrison:  Sophomore in high school

Bill Rosa:  12 years old
Cynthia (Perrin) Schroeder:  17 years old
George Snyder (grandson of Pete Winowiecki):  18 years old
John Werner – 10 years old
Midge Werner – 9 years old

Do you remember this day? Or know someone who remembers the tornado? Please contact us and we will connect you with the author. She is hoping someone comes forward with more information and pics from Leelanau County.

It will be 68 years ago since that early spring day of April 3, 1956 when many people in Manistee, Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties would have a close encounter of the tornado kind that they would never forget.  Northern Michigan was experiencing an unusually warm and humid day with temperatures in the mid 70’s and high humidity, contrasting with the snow still on the ground, Lake Michigan water temps in the 30’s, and inland lakes still frozen.  It was just after supper time and the day was winding down with evening chores and activities underway. Unbeknownst to the residents of West and Northwest Michigan there was a storm front moving across Wisconsin that had spawned a tornado there, and the front was moving across Lake Michigan towards us.

This front spawned a water spout over southern Lake Michigan, as well as tornadoes forming when the storm hit land, with those tornadoes now racing through the Saugatuck, Holland, Hudsonville, Lowell, Standale, and clipping the northwest corner of Grand Rapids.  One of the three tornadoes in west Michigan was classified an F5 tornado, one of only two F5 tornadoes to ever occur in Michigan.  A fourth tornado formed and started its path about ten miles north of Manistee, in the Portage Point/Onekama area, racing through the areas of Bear Lake, Thompsonville (where the one fatality would occur), Honor and then the Lake Ann area.  It would leave the ground intermittently and then return to the ground to strike again and again leaving destruction, devastation, and injuries in the wake of its 50-mile path.

It then barreled towards the little community of Cedar Run (on Cedar Run Road) before making its way towards Solon Township and the southeast corner of Leelanau County.  In 1956 they did not have the sophisticated weather tracking systems meteorologists utilize today in order to give people accurate warnings of life-threatening weather.  There were also no cell phones or social media to warn people if they were away from their radio or tv.  The topography and trees obscured views from most areas so that the tornado could not be seen coming by many of those impacted by this tornado.

Fatalities:  1
Injuries:  25
Path length:  approximately 50 miles
Maximum width:  200 yards

Time:  6:35 pm to 7:45
Rating:  F4 – Per the National Weather Service website, an F-4 tornado has wind speeds of 206 to 270 mph. 

Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown off some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated.  

Tornado path by Chris Gray from Paths of Destruction  by Ernest Ostuno
Sketch of Tornado strikes and sightings in northeast Benzie County & Leelanau County

The first home that fell victim to the power of this tornado was in the Bear Lake area.  The storm continued in a northeasterly path, gaining in strength and laying waste to power lines, orchards, and barns.  Despite all the damages, there were no deaths or serious injuries reported in Manistee County.  The tornado next blasted into Benzie County, bringing with it large amounts of rain and hail stones. 

Moving through Benzie County the damages became greater as the storm intensified, leaving homes and farm buildings, as well as Homestead Community Church demolished.  The tornado continued cutting its path and building in intensity until it struck with deadly force, totally decimating the home of Hugh and Fidelia Parks, who lived northwest of Thompsonville.  It is here that the now F4 tornado took its first and only fatality, while the three other people in the home at the time survived, but sustained injuries serious enough to require hospital stays.  As the storm moved on, a schoolhouse about two miles east of Honor was destroyed. 

Lake Ann was the next village to lay directly in the path of this destructive storm. Several homes and cottages were destroyed as the storm raced through the lakeside community.  Debris was left scattered over the ice on frozen Bryan Lake as the tornado passed over it.  The community of Lake Ann was fortunate to have only one injury, an 81-year-old who suffered injuries from flying glass.  The tornado may now have left Lake Ann looking like a war zone, but it was not yet done with Benzie County.  

Pioneer Road, two miles southeast of Honor. Courtesy Edna Beechcraft and Benzie Historical Museum.
Demolished home on Lake Ann. Courtesy of Bill Rosa.
Demolished home Lake Ann area. Courtesy of Bill Rosa.

Lying directly in the path of this storm’s oncoming fury was the little community of Cedar Run, which sits close within a triangle formed by where Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau Counties meet.  Cedar Run, in times past, had been a bustling logging town, but was now a quiet community of mostly residences.  On the south side of Cedar Run Road there was the Courtade home where young Doug Courtade’s family lived, the store/post office/gas station/residence where his grandparents lived, a garage, a barn for horses and a barn for cattle, and lastly, the home of his Uncle Joe Loomis and his family.  On the north side of the street was the Wynkoop house that had been a boarding house in the early 1900’s and a few other homes and structures.  After the tornado passed, the little community would have not one single building left standing on the south side of the road, while all the structures on the north side came through the tornado, upright and intact.  

Doug Courtade was only ten at that time and had spent the afternoon flying kites with his cousins.  It was after dinner and his father had just left for Traverse City to attend a mink raising meeting. He remembered the family being aware that there was a tornado down by Grand Rapids, but that the tornado would not reach their area. 

Doug can remember standing at the kitchen window watching in fascination as the wind blew and whipped around a chimney pipe attached to the back side of their garage.  His mother and two sisters, Carol Ann, five, and MaryJo, four, were in the living room with their mother.  He remembers hearing his mother hollering at them to get to the basement.  At that time, he was standing no more than three feet from the basement door.  He can remember going to the basement door and feeling wind, like walking into a great big fan.  His next memory is seeing the kitchen floor, only the floor was now tilted 180 degrees, and he was lodged between the floor joists with nails piercing his feet and a gash on the back of his head.  He remembers his young German shepherd puppy licking his face and waking him up. 

His mother and sisters never made it to the basement. They ended up on the front lawn underneath a big dining room table with the home’s floor and debris on top of the table.  The family had a collie dog (named Collie) and Doug says his mother used the collie to help rescue his two sisters from under the table and flooring because the location under the debris where the girls were trapped was too narrow for an adult to get into.  

Doug’s father, Richard Courtade, had only made it about a mile from home and decided to turn back because it was raining so hard he could not see.  Unfortunately, he could not get any closer than 1/4 to 1/2 mile from their home and while trying to get back a plank of wood had been driven through the back window of his station wagon.  He got out of the car and walked back the remainder of the way home only to find his home and family had been in the bullseye of the tornado.  His father immediately rounded up his family, and his brother’s children, getting them to the car in order to get to Munson Hospital to obtain care for the children. 

Doug remembers his father telling him afterward that they must have been the first victims to arrive at the hospital because the Munson Emergency Room staff would not believe his father when he told them that they had been victims of a tornado.  Due to the damage to the car, Emergency Room staff all believed he was lying and that there had been an auto accident.  Munson discovered their error when they began receiving other victims.  A family anecdote Doug told was the fact that his great aunt, whose house sat right next to the road across the street from the homes destroyed, had been asleep and slept through the entire storm.  

In an interview Maxine Courtade gave to Ernest Ostuno about 50 years later while he was writing Paths of Destruction, Maxine stated that the pressure from the wind on the basement door was so strong, they could not open it.  She instructed the kids to get under a large pedestal dining room table.  She next remembers the southwest corner of the house split open and they were flying through the air on the dining room floor.  She landed in the front yard, while the two girls were under the floor.  They could hear the girls crying and she tried moving timbers to get to them.  They (she and her husband who must have gotten there by this time?) were able to reach Carol, but not Mary. 

Mary was farther under the debris, with an injured leg and could not be reached.  Collie crawled into the small space letting Mary grab his hind legs.  Collie then pulled the little girl out to safety.  Collie sustained a laceration on his back by his tail area.   It was discovered a month later, when he got sick, that he had a 2 1/2″ piece of plate glass embedded in his abdomen that had to be surgically removed.  The vet figured it had traveled from the back laceration to the dog’s abdomen.   Collie was later named Michigan’s dog of the year and went on to live a long life.

Continuing easterly, the tornado next destroyed the remaining buildings on the south side of the road; knocking them down like dominoes, and scattering the buildings until they were unrecognizable piles of debris.  Doug stated that his grandparents had been at home when the tornado hit.  This building did not have a basement and was totally flattened.  He does not know how they managed to survive, but that they did, and he also did not remember them sustaining any injuries.  He remembers that they had a couple of large, heavy items like a stove, and maybe they were protected by one of these items?  Their daughter Maxine stated in her interview that her parents were taken to Munson by ambulance where they received care for non-life-threatening injuries.

Courtade home. Courtesy of Doug Courtade.
This store/post office/private residence (picture taken in 1902) sat catty-corner across the street from the Wynkoop home shown on the left of the picture above. Picture courtesy of Bill Rosa.
Debris pile remains of the store/post office/gas station/residence. Courtesy of Doug Courtade.
Picture of Collie, the collie, who helped rescue his small mistress. 
Courtesy of Bill Rosa.
What remained of the community of Cedar Run. Clean up was underway when this picture was taken.  Courtesy of Bill Rosa.

At the easternmost end of the string of homes on Cedar Run Rd. was the Loomis home.  Ginny Loomis was at home with her mother and father, Joel and Marion Loomis, as well as her three other siblings; Bobby, eight, Judy, four, herself, three, and baby Darlene, eight months.  She and her sister Darlene (who was the eight-month-old baby) told me that their mother was in the kitchen working, Darlene in her crib and while Ginny and Julie were playing nearby.  They had no previous warning of an oncoming tornado.  Ginny’s mom told her that she first noticed a dead calm, with the sky next turning a greenish yellow color.  All of a sudden there was a very loud sound like a freight train coming. Ginny’s mother screamed at the girls to go to the basement.  

Ginny’s father and brother were in the basement and came running upstairs to see what was happening to make that loud sound. Ginny’s father, being close to the top of the stairs was picked up and taken by the tornado’s winds, dragging him along Cedar Run Road.  Mom and the kids all made it into the basement, but the force of the tornado was stronger.  The tornado sucked Bobby back up where he was thrown around hitting the old railroad ties that had been used to support the house.  Baby Darlene was also sucked out. Trixie, the family collie/German shepherd mix dog found Darlene shortly after the storm had passed.  Darlene had been carried by the winds down a hill and was deposited in the neighboring swamp. 

Darlene was found uninjured, under a stove with a large tree resting above the stove.  Ginny remembers that someone went back to the site where Darlene was found two hours later and found the tree that had hovered above the stove and Darlene had toppled further crushing the stove and, consequently, would have killed the infant. When they viewed the pile of debris that was at one time their home, they were amazed to find their father’s truck sitting atop the debris pile that had been their home.

Ginny’s mom had a stick impaled through her calf, going in the front and coming out the rear, and she needed surgery to remove it.  She spent three months in the hospital.  Jump forward thirteen years and her mother discovered a lump on her thigh.  The doctors thought it was cancer and performed surgery to remove it.  When the doctors dissected the fatty tissue, they discovered two large splinters in her leg that they figure had been there since the storm. The doctor put the splinter in a test tube and gave them to her mother.  Ginny relates that her mom kept them and always called them “the twins”. 

Ginny’s father sustained injuries to his back from being dragged along the gravel road.  The hospital nurses told him about all the fine gravel they had to pick out of his wounds as they cleaned him.  Ginny’s brother, when he was sucked up had his head banged around on the big railroad timbers that had been used when building the house.  When he went to the Navy academy and they had to shave his head they told him his head looked like a tic-tac board with all scars he had from his injuries.  Ginny has been told that the 2” scar she has below her knew is from a stick that was stuck in her leg as well.  Ginny related that to have a 2” scar on a little three-year-old body, it must have been a pretty good size stick. 

Loomis home with Empire Air Force and Civil Air Patrol men sent to watch over what was left of the homes in Cedar Run. Courtesy of Bill Rosa.
Loomis home, cleanup underway. Courtesy of Bill Rosa.

Doug states that after the destruction of the buildings in Cedar Run, the tornado continued east, hitting a big hill.  The tornado then rose off the ground, changed direction and continued along traveling over the valley. The tornado continued on its unrelenting course, crossing East Traverse Hwy where Cedar Run Road intersects with M-72 at Ruthardt’s Siding, destroying a potato warehouse that sat there. 

The tornado moved onward and at times upward, leaving the ground for short lengths of time, only to then reach back down to Earth, wreaking havoc throughout Leelanau County.  This whirling dervish roared through the woods, swamps, and farm fields of Leelanau County.  Jim Lautner states that if you look closely when walking in the swamp lands the tornado swept through, you can still see the stumps of trees twisted and sheared by the force of the tornado. 

Jim Lautner remembers that the storm destroyed the big barn on M-72 where the Iris Farm was located.  Jim was only four at the time, but he can remember going with his dad and other neighbors to work to remove the large, downed timbers in an attempt to save the cows trapped below.  You will see on the tornado path drawing above that this barn was close, but not close enough to have been in the 200-yard width of the reported tornado.  Had the tornado spawned a small second tornado that was short-lived?  Or, did the high winds surrounding the tornado do the damage?

Jim related that his dad had been in the pig building feeding the pigs when the air went still and he noticed a dead calm surrounding him.  He went to the open doorway of the building that housed the pigs.  Looking out, as he attempted to close the doors, he saw the sky turn green and then heard a loud roaring noise.  He tried to close the doors, but could not close them all the way due to the strong winds that were now upon him.  He held tight to these doors through the storm to keep from being blown out himself.  He watched through the 12″ or so gap as the tornado blew (or sucked in?) the two east side barn doors, tearing them off their runners and depositing them inside the big family barn.  He then saw the winds rip off the two large west side doors, sending them sailing like flying carpets through the air.  Jim’s dad told him these doors flew over a tall black locust tree, reaching a height of over 100′ as they soared away, flying over the swamp and forest lands behind them. 

A shed built off the side of the barn, as well as a cupola were blown off by the strong winds.  The cupola was found two weeks later in the swamp, but the two large barn doors were never found and new ones had to be built.  The large barn itself was fortunate to remain standing.  His father attributed the survival of his barn, while other barns in the area were destroyed, to materials used (some steel) and the method of construction.  The storm twisted the barn, damaging some of the interior construction, but the barn remained standing and sound.  The Lautner’s also had a windmill, that had just the four legs and no blades. Even without the blades to catch the wind, the tornado toppled it over with it landing between two buildings. 

Melinda related to me that Jim’s mother had told her that while the tornado was upon them, she had been holding little Jim in her arms and watching the storm through a window in the house.  Melinda questioned her as to why she did not take Jim and his sister to the basement.  She replied that she just never thought to do that.  Again, times were different and tornado drills to go to a basement were not in schools back then.

The storm continued north down Solon Road ripping a large tree down in such a way to block the entrance to a neighboring garage.  Due to the size of trees down, a tractor was needed to move trees for cleanup.   To the north of the Lautner’s farm, the winds damaged both the house and barn of the Henry Antoine farm.  The storm then continued down Solon Road, and at the Carl and Edward Antoine farm a granary was leveled and a barn was blown a foot off its foundation. 

Antoine Farm before tornado, L-shaped barn to the right side of kids was destroyed. Courtesy of Jim Lautner.
Barn destroyed (Silo had been added after the earlier pic). Courtesy of Jim Lautner.

The tornado was still on the move and continued on its northeasterly course bearing down on the LaBatt farm on Gallivan Road.  According to neighbor George Snyder, Charles LaBatt, his wife, and son Tip were all in the house when the tornado struck.   As the force of the tornado hit their home, it moved it off its foundation.  Cynthia Schroeder, another neighbor, stated that the home had been lifted off the foundation and then dropped back down on the foundation in a cock-eyed manner.  Cynthia felt that the home may have been standing, but that with all the damage the house looked like a “wreck”. 

The other barns and farm structures were not so lucky as they were flattened, killing livestock and chickens. The Leelanau Enterprise reported that this entire farm had been “wiped out”.  Mr. LaBatt received minor injuries, Mrs. LaBatt had to be taken to the hospital with a broken leg, and son Tip was “roughed up” suffering numerous minor injuries from flying debris.  

After leaving the LaBatt farm, the twister roared towards Perrins Landing, just off County Road 614, a little resort community on the south end of Lake Leelanau.  Cynthia (Perrin) Schroeder, a young newlywed who was home alone while her husband was at work, remembers being outside and noticing that in the air there was an abnormal total stillness and calm.  She looked up and saw the sky turn a color “yellow as yellow can get”.  This color was so scary she ran into her home and hid under her bed because there was no basement.  She stayed there until the storm had passed.

Cynthia related that her grandma, who ran the Perrins Landing Resort cottages and facilities with Cynthia’s grandfather, ran down to close up the resort cottages when the weather started getting bad.  She was outside between cottages when the wind caught her and she lost control of her footing.  The wind blew her into a tree and she grabbed and clung to this tree for dear life because she was no match for the winds. 

The roaring was so loud that Cynthia’s father, who was helping his mother (Cynthia’s grandmother), did not hear his mother’s screams at first.  When the worst of the storm passed, he heard her and he, being a large man, was able to get to her, remove her from the tree, leading them into the safety of a cottage where they “rode it out”.  Neither Cynthia’s grandmother or father sustained any injuries that Cynthia was aware of.

Cynthia said that the storm brought with it hail large enough to dent the cars in the area and that the wind blew all the ice fishing houses off Lake Leelanau, which was still frozen at the time.  She stated that many trees were downed and when they went back to the tree that her grandma had clung to, they discovered a large number of straw pieces had been driven into the tree.  She said the strange thing was that the straws weren’t even bent.  She also related that the farmhouse that was located on the south side of Fouch Rd. and within a very short distance from them had a big barn that sustained a lot of damage from the storm. 

This tornado was not done yet.  Reports show that the Walter Core farm lost two barns and that their house was badly damaged.   Midge Werner remembers her father, who worked for Consumers Power checking substations when there were power issues, telling his family that he had to do some checking in the area of the Core farm after the storm.  He related that big timbers from the destroyed barn had collapsed into the barn with one of them landing on a horse, breaking its back, but not killing it.  He said it was awful hearing the horse whinnying in pain and no one being able to reach it to relieve it of its pain. 

In this same vicinity, the tornado blasted into Howard Britton’s large barn, tearing off the roof and front wall in one singular piece.  This large section of barn was finally deposited by the storm 1,000 feet away.   Britton’s also sustained damage to a pig pen, corn crib, granary, and tractor shed.  This tornado also slammed into the Perry Warner farm causing damage there as well as it moved onward.

Damaged Britton barn with Elizabeth Britton on the tractor – picture taken by Loyd Britton from the book Paths of Destruction by Ernest J. Ostuno.

The tornado next ripped its way through the valley where the little town of Bingham sits.  The old Bingham store was torn apart as well as the Bingham school and church both sustaining damages.  Other houses in the area were badly damaged and another barn destroyed.  The Don Fisher farm in this area took a big hit with many of their farm buildings wiped out.  John Werner remembers Don Fisher telling him about damage done to the back door to their home, which was made of 1 1/2″ solid wood.  After the tornado passed, they found a piece of straw entirely through the door.  The straw was perfectly intact.  

In neighboring Lake Leelanau, the storm dropped a “full one inch” of hail.  The tornado was not done creating misery though, as its path of destruction twisted its way further up Leelanau County.

John Werner, whose family farm was located on Shady Lane relates that the water in the house was frozen so he had to carry water from the barn to the house.  He had just carried his first bucket of water from the stable.  He remembers the air was very still and the sky becoming a greenish-pink.  He noticed all of a sudden, the winds picking up, so he went to the door in an attempt to shut it.  The wind had other ideas though, and blew the door out of his hands.  At the same time, his father was bedding the horses in the horse stable in another part of the barn.  His father noticed the changing weather and heard what sounded like a train coming. 

In that area of the barn where his father was, both the front barn doors and back barn doors were blown off.  John said it felt like the storm only lasted about ten seconds, but in that short time they had a 16′ x 24′ lean-to blown off the barn as well as another lean-to structure. He stated they had a winter garage down by the road.  The tornado had taken the roof off the garage, sending the roof sailing over a corn crib where it landed 80′ to the northwest near their garden.  When the roof blew off the walls of the garage the walls collapsed outward.  The car was left inside the garage without a scratch on it.  

After leaving the Werner property it headed over farm fields and trees where, like a whirling dervish it left destruction and disruption at the Youker farm on Elm Valley Road.  Liz (Youker) Morrison remembers that her family had gotten a radio recently and that they had heard on it that there was a tornado warning in effect.  She said that her sister, a friend, her mother and herself were all inside because of this warning.  They were watching the weather out the kitchen window and commenting that the radio had to be wrong since this area does not have tornadoes. 

There was a lot of rain coming down, the winds intensified, and then there was a loud noise that sounded like a freight train.  They watched from the window as the barn blew down and trees that were standing one second, were laying flat on the ground the next.  At this point they decided they should probably go to the basement.  She said they got halfway down the basement stairs and realized that they were too late; the worst of the storm was over.  Liz remembers that trees fell on both sides of their home, but they were fortunate in that the trees did not fall on the house.  She said the only damage to the house was to the second floor where the plaster cracked, possibly from the tornado causing the house to twist some as the tornado passed.  

Liz states that their big barn was totally leveled as well as the cinder block building that housed their chickens.  She said she did not know how many chickens her family raised, but she said there were chickens all over.  She remembers going out after the storm and everyone picking up chickens everywhere as they had been scattered hither and yon.  Another neighbor mentioned all the chickens, as well as the Leelanau Enterprise stating that there were 600 chickens scattered by the winds. Liz then expressed that at times like that you learn who your friends are. 

A neighbor, Leonard Erickson, came and helped them pick up all their chickens.  Liz said that he took all of their chickens and housed them in, what had been, his very clean tool shed.  He housed the chickens until the Youker’s could build another house for the chickens.  She believes that the baby pigs that her father was raising all survived in the basement of the barn, because the top of the barn totally blew off rather than just collapsing on top of the basement.

Again, the tornado raced through orchards and farm fields until it slammed into the Bertha Rude farm on Revolt Road just off M-22, kitty-corner across the street from the Leelanau Fruit Company.  The tornado took down the Rude barn and then left the ground to sail over the Ivan Livingston farm on M-22 and Send Road.  The tornado then headed out over Grand Traverse Bay north of Lee’s Point, moving across the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula where it took down trees, but no known damage to buildings; finally making its way again into Grand Traverse Bay, where it eventually dissipated.  It has been related to me that the storm was still severe enough in nature to take down a barn south of Elk Rapids, as well as damages occurring in the Rapid River and Charlevoix areas as it continued its easterly path. 

After storm help and cleanup:

The storm was over and now life must go on.  Doug Courtade relayed to me that while the tornado was winding its way through Benzie and Leelanau Counties, the Empire Air Force Base had picked up the tornado on radar.  Doug, as well as the Record Eagle, reported that the Empire Air Force Base sent armed airmen to keep watch over the area of destruction, while County Sheriff’s Departments, State Police, volunteer fire departments, Civil Defense personnel, and neighbors rallied around the homes and families left with the devastation wreaked along the entire path of this destructive twister.  The Red Cross and Salvation Army also jumped in to help where needed. 

Bill Rosa, who was twelve at the time, remembers that as a Scout, he and other Scouts came to help with cleanup at Cedar Run.  The Loomis family were able to stay at the Wynkoop home directly across the street as they rebuilt; while the Courtade family moved into another home across the street that belonged to an extended family member until their home was rebuilt.  

George Snyder remembers many neighbors, including his grandpa Pete Winowiecki and an uncle helping with cleaning up at the LaBatt farm and rebuilding the destroyed barn.   George stated that the Red Cross moved in a trailer for the LaBatt’s to live in in the interim until they could fix their home.  In Leelanau County I heard many reports of neighbors helping neighbors, as well as doing all they could to help the trapped, injured or now homeless animals and livestock that were the bread and butter of many who were horribly impacted by this tornado.


Record Eagle, April 4, 1956
Leelanau Enterprise, April 5, 1956
Ernest J. Ostuno, Paths of Destruction, Grand Rapids Historical Society, Copyright 2008

By Kim Smith
March 22, 2024