A boom of thunder brought me out of a deep sleep before dawn this morning, and I listened tensely to see if the unmistakable sound of a tornado would follow. As a young girl—eleven or twelve—in Mitchell, South Dakota, I had found myself outside and running to a house across the street as the mechanical roar of an outsized John Deere tractor filled the night sky from every direction. It was my closest encounter with a tornado on the prairie, and I was terrified. My mother and my aunt raced behind me with a baby or toddler under each arm, and my father and uncle scooped up the remaining small children and herded us all into the neighbor’s basement as the sky crackled with electricity and the mammoth tractor rumbled on. In the aftermath, two things happened. We spent the next morning driving around the western part of Mitchell surveying the damage the tornado had done, and my father decided that it was time to jack up our house and put a basement underneath it. The family’s helter-skelter dash toward the neighbor’s house was, as he put it, a “rather stupid thing to do.” As a result, during my teen years, I spent storm events huddled in our new basement worrying about my father, who was always the last to head downstairs. Like Charles Ingalls in the summers of 1884 and 1885, Dad liked to watch the weather, confident in his own ability to reach safety before the storm hit.
Laura Ingalls Wilder described the sound of a tornado as “a dull roaring” that “filled all the air.” Just as I did, she heard “that awful roaring pass over [her family’s] heads and on.”1 To me, the twister sounded like a huge tractor grinding through the night sky, but others have likened it to the thunder of a waterfall or “the buzzing of a million bees, and even the bellowing of a million mad bulls.” Since the invention of the locomotive, people have most commonly compared the noise to the roar of a freight train. A tornado “is a very long, whirling tube of air, an enormous acoustical instrument,” but scientists still don’t fully understand how it produces sound.2 Like the growl of a grizzly bear or the crack of lightning, the sound of a tornado remains “among the most terrifying natural sounds on Earth,” according to science journalist Matt Simon.3
As their roar suggests, “cyclones,” as Wilder called them, are destructive natural forces. In late August 1884, for example, a tornado near Huron “demolished everything in its path, leveling buildings as if they were pasteboard.”4 Weeks later, barns and sheds “were torn to atoms and scattered over the prairie” as another cyclone carried away stacks of grain and shredded houses “into kindling wood.” The tornado also swept up a woman and her eight-year-old daughter, leaving them badly injured in a nearby field.5 More recently, six people died during a tornado in Spencer, South Dakota, in 1998. Five years later, an F-4 tornado destroyed the town of Manchester, just a few miles west of De Smet.6 Each tornado season, we watch as television news stations chronicle similar devastation across the Great Plains.
On this late summer morning, however, the thunderstorm rolled on across the plains without producing a tornado, and I thankfully went back to sleep, but the sound and power of tornadoes haunted my dreams.
Nancy Tystad Koupal
- Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal et al. (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, forthcoming 2021), p. 438.
- Thomas P. Grazulis, The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001), p. 11. See also Brian Palmer, “‘A Peculiar Moaning Sound’: How Did People Describe the Sound of a Tornado before the Advent of Trains?” Slate, May 22, 2013, slate.com.
- Simon, “A Tornado’s Secret Sounds Could Reveal Where It’ll Strike,” WIRED, May 8, 2018, wired.com.
- News item, De Smet Leader, Aug. 30, 1884.
- “Tornado near Huron Dak,” ibid., Sept. 6, 1884.
- Michael Klinski, “Spencer Tornado: Twenty Years Ago, Six People Died during Storm,” Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, May 30, 2018, argusleader.com; “Manchester Looks Back at Devastating F-4 Tornado,” June 25, 2017, Huron Daily Plainsman, plainsman.com.