There are times that I just happen across things in my house that have been there for years… originating from a grandparent, distant cousin, or was acquired, stored and forgotten. Sound familiar? This is one of those stories.
My grandfather Kenneth Bennett passed away twenty years ago. Since I was the “family historian” items often just ended up at my house. I have a six-foot “highboy” dresser with drawers full of ephemera and photo albums. I don’t remember opening this particular manila envelope before. In it are several old newspapers, pages folded. They’re faded and brittle. The earliest is from 1918 with a headline proclaiming FIGHTING STOPS; PEACE REIGNS; FOE SIGNS DRASTIC TRUCE TERMS marking the end of the fighting in the Great War. There were another dozen or so newspapers up through the 1960s. My grandfather, born in 1904, was apparently saving news clips of important events during his life from the time he was about 14 years old.
I recognized that some were articles mentioning him… mostly having to do with his term as president of the Michigan Rural Letter Carriers association in the 1950s. Some included photos of him at association gatherings. That made sense. In the 1960s… there was the John F. Kennedy’s assassination headline; and the space program and moon landings were well represented.
One headline in the Grand Rapids Press from 4 April 1956 caught my attention because it was very personal to me in my childhood! TORNADO KILLS 18, HURTS 200 IN SMASH AT KENT, OTTAWA.
So why was it so important? I was less than six months old and I have a memory of that day! I was sitting or laying on a sofa situated in front of the living room window in my parents’ southeast side home. The memory has been there a long time… an ominous feeling of stressed activity by my older brother and my parents, having something to do with the weather. So, was it a memory of that exact day? I honestly don’t know.
When I was five, my parents bought an acre of land in Walker township and built a house on Hillburn avenue NW. The city of Grand Rapids annexed that part of Walker just then and with that, my father’s dream to have a horse on that acre was crushed. Growing up there was wonderful to me, nevertheless. I remember exploring in the woods across the street that adjoined the golf course. The woods stretched north a half mile; and there were many huge trees that had been blown over and the uprooted earth made great places to hide, explore and crawl through. I was told that a tornado had gone through the neighborhood. Indeed, there was other evidence. In the sumac woods next to our house, we found clothing and trash caught high up in branches of the trees. We found an old cast iron hand pump laying on the ground near there; and my dad employed it as a decorative terminal point for an underground hose in the back yard. In fact, I have that very pump in my back yard today. I haven’t been to the Hillburn house since 1977; however, one thing that may still be visible was a distinct, shallow trench in the ground through the SW corner of the parcel heading in a fairly straight path toward the northeast behind the house. I rode a riding lawn mower over it many times when I was a young teenager. I often wondered if that was there from the tornado.
Back to the newspaper. On page 10 there was a small map drawn (see illustration) showing the “track” of the tornado in Kent County. The street in the middle of this map crossing horizontally is Leonard. The hockey-stick angle to the left is Remembrance road. Collindale avenue is shown from O’Brien at the south and ending at the intersection of Leonard to the north. Hillburn is not shown and in 1956 may not have been more than a driveway to the one older house I remember being there. However, the diagonal track of the tornado is marked by the double-shaded highlight and the arrow indicates the precise location of our family home built just 5 years later in 1961.
Before it reached Hillburn and Leonard the tornado devastated Hudsonville and Standale. It then continued northeast to the Comstock Park area. Do you have memories of the 1956 tornado?