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State Journal cover Nov. 13, 1911

This image shows the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal from Nov. 13, 1911, two days after a powerful and deadly tornado roared through Rock County.

Nine killed. Millions in damage. A 34-mile-long slash of death and destruction.

Nov. 11, 1911 — 11/11/11: The freakishly warm and humid weather that sunny Saturday set the stage for Rock County's worst weather disaster.

"It was so warm that morning. It was a muggy day," the late Mae Thompson of Evansville remembered in a 1999 interview. She was 11 at the time.

Shortly before 2 p.m., it was 74 degrees. Then, in a matter of minutes, the temperature plummeted 10 degrees in downtown Janesville. By that night, it had fallen to zero.

A massive cold front had slammed into the warm air, unleashing a rash of storms and tornadoes throughout the Midwest.

The most powerful tornado that day was an F4 twister that tore up Rock County with 200 mph winds from its southwest to northeast corners.

It touched down near Brodhead shortly after 2 p.m. and stayed on or near the ground for some 20 minutes; its swath of destruction ranged from 100 yards to almost a quarter mile wide.

"The wind came up, and it got dark. I was scared to death," Thompson said.

Her family ducked into the farmhouse basement for shelter.

"It just whizzed right through. I could hear the whistle of it," Thompson recalled. "It took some trees at our place."

The twister turned north just west of Janesville, then a city of some 14,000, and passed between the then-separate villages of Milton and Milton Junction. Then it slanted northeast and spent its force in the town of Lima.

The nine victims died horrible, painful deaths.

The tragedy was most poignant for the Schmidt family. Three of five family members were killed outright on their farm a mile and half from Hanover. A fourth — 14-year-old Albert — died the following Monday.

Family patriarch Anton Schmidt, a 55-year-old widower, died when the wind slammed him to his barn floor.

His daughters, Alice, 19, and Reggie, 9, were hurled more than 800 feet; they were found with broken necks.

But a homeless man who had sought shelter in the Schmidt barn survived unscathed. He hung onto the floor as the barn was blown over him.

Among the dead were a newlywed bride, Elizabeth Proede, who lived between Brodhead and Orfordville, and two other young girls, Helen Austin, 3, town of Lima, and Amy Korbin, 8, who lived between Janesville and Milton.

Leo Lentz, 16, of Hanover was killed when the barn he was helping a neighbor build blew down on him, and a Mrs. John Crowder died near Orfordville.

Besides the nine deaths, 13 people were reported as seriously injured.

Severe damage was widespread. Estimated then at $1 million, it would be about $23 million now.

The twister blasted frame houses and barns into splinters. Others were blown off their foundations.

The storm demolished the two-story, brick Milton Gas Works. The Willowdale School west of Janesville and the Saunders School near Milton, also known as the Hudson School, were destroyed.

At a farm east of Hanover, the tornado twisted a buggy around a broken tree.

The next day, residents boarded a train in Footville to view the damage in Hanover. The late Ella Dunbar, then 15 and living in western Rock County, was among them.

"We were dumbfounded," she recalled. "We didn't realize all that happened. I saw that buggy in the tree. I saw splinters driven through poles."

Scores of acres of corn, on the plant and in shocks, were flattened. The wind whipped feathers from chickens; hundreds of birds froze to death.

Travel and communication were almost impossible. Uprooted trees and severed telephone poles blocked highways. Roads were lined with dead animals.

Persistently strong winds and bitter cold through Sunday made life miserable for those who lost their homes.

The survivors quickly began helping their neighbors: clearing debris, opening roads, sheltering the suddenly homeless, finding and feeding scattered livestock.

"Everybody got together and helped clean up," Thompson said.

Convoys of cars carried food, fuel and clothing to rural families. The Janesville Daily Gazette started collecting money for the victims.

By the storm's anniversary, the gas works had been rebuilt. And within the year, the Daily Gazette reported, "the farm houses destroyed have been rebuilt, the school houses reconstructed, and the first anniversary of the terrible disaster finds many of the sufferers in a fair way to regain some of the toll of years that was swept away the Terrible Saturday Afternoon a year ago."

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