GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Most West Michigan Aprils are spent praying that we’ve seen the last of the snow. While “tornado season” typically doesn’t start until June, twisters can still form early in the spring, and they do tend to be major storms.

West Michigan’s strongest tornado struck in early spring — April 3, 1956. It was also West Michigan’s deadliest twister, sparking out of a monster storm system that wreaked havoc across the country.

The day in West Michigan started out unseasonably warm. Strong winds out of the south had brought heat and humidity to West Michigan, setting record highs in Muskegon and Grand Rapids. Holland and Kalamazoo both topped 80 degrees.

But a cold front was pushing down from the west, ready to clash with that warm air. By the end of the day, the storm front kicked up 28 tornadoes across 11 states, including two in Wisconsin and four in Michigan — all of them stronger than any tornado the area has seen in the last 20 years.

Wisconsin was hit first. A tornado touched down around 1 p.m. about 80 miles west of Green Bay, killing two people. Another touched down around 2 p.m. about 20 miles further east, killing seven more and injuring 50 others.

Those twisters gave Michigan an important warning. According to the National Weather Service, the U.S. Weather Bureau in Grand Rapids — the predecessor of the NWS — issued alerts to say there was an increased risk for tornadoes. Some schools dismissed early to try and get ahead of the storm, and many families had taken precautions, but not all.

The front raged across Lake Michigan and had reached the lakeshore by late afternoon, causing chaos for the next three hours.


The first tornado touched down around 5:45 p.m. right off of the lake, just south of Oval Beach in Saugatuck.

It destroyed the Oval Beach beach house and the historic Saugatuck lighthouse and moved northeast, crossing the Kalamazoo River and toward Holland. Seven people were hurt, and several homes and businesses were destroyed, but no one was killed.

It was a strong twister. The NWS says the storm was 100 yards wide and stayed on the ground for 9 miles. It was rated an F4 on the Fujita scale, meaning winds were estimated between 207 and 260 mph.

F4 tornadoes are uncommon — approximately one in 100 tornadoes are measured at those speeds. But somehow, the next one was even bigger; much bigger.

The second one touched down less than a half an hour later outside of Zeeland, dwarfing the F4 twister.


The second tornado — dubbed the Hudsonville-Standale tornado after two of the hardest-hit areas — registered as an F5, with winds measured between 261 and 318 miles per hour. According to the NWS, the storm was on the ground for an hour, carving a path of destruction 400 yards wide for 52 miles.

It was the only F5 tornado recorded anywhere in the world that year.

When it was all said and done, 17 people were killed and hundreds were injured.

It started in the farmland in Vriesland. Carl DeKleine was 12 years old that fateful day. He shared his first-hand account with the NWS about watching the tornado form.

“My mother sensed that a bad storm was on its way due to the warm temperature and a very black sky developing in the west,” DeKleine said. “She had us come with her to the backyard to look at the unusual sky. There seemed to be no wind. … Suddenly, Mother pointed to a spot in the sky, became nearly hysterical and said that it was a tornado forming. The view was quite clear although the western sky was as black as coal.”

He continued: “Between our vantage point and Zeeland, the tornado was small, thin and snaked up to high black clouds. It did not seem to be touching the ground. As it progressed towards Hudsonville it became wide, white and definitely moving on the ground. … Large objects were visible being blown in the air. We stood there watching it travel the entire distance through Hudsonville, Standale, and then disappear north of Grand Rapids.”

Maxine Brower’s home was one of the first to be hit.

“My father and I stood at the windows looking west. A big, yellowish spot appeared in the churning, pea-green sky. My father said, ‘Oh, here comes the sun. It will soon blow over,’” Brower said. “I believe the tornado was already approaching us but more from the south. We didn’t see it. We went to the living room, and as I recall, only a few minutes passed before our home was pelted with debris and all sorts of flying objects from the homes, barns and greenhouses just across the road.”

She continued: “Then, the windows exploded and doors flew off their hinges. As I crouched on the living room floor, I saw a wall disintegrating as it fell toward me. That’s all I remember until I crawled out from under some rubble. My father and sister were stumbling over the debris, trying to find me and my mother. My little sister was thrown far out into the fields, about 400 feet away from where my mother was found, although they were right next to each other in the upstairs bathroom when the tornado hit.”

Brower’s mother was giving her youngest daughter a bath when the storm hit. Their neighbor, Jennie Burmania, found the young girl naked and covered in muck from the fields. Brower’s mother died from her injuries later that night.

Burmania and her family lost their home but were not seriously hurt. She recalled the moments after the storm as the neighborhood came together to try and unpack their sudden trauma.

“We assembled all the children at one of the houses that were still standing. They just sat on the steps until help came because there was glass everywhere,” she said. “We were taken to Zeeland Hospital. There I realized we were not the only ones who were in the tornado. There were many people with worse injuries than ours. … I decided that we were not hurt as bad as others and really didn’t need the medical attention.”

It took seven months before the family was able to move back home. Despite all of the possessions lost, Burmania remarked at how many things were returned to her.

“As the weeks and months passed after the tornado, I received a lot of my old mail from many miles away, including from Rockford, Coral, Blanchard, Lake, Farwell, Clare, Mount Pleasant, and as far away as Saginaw,” Burmania told the NWS. “My fur coat landed in Rockford. The people who found it in their field saw the Herpolsheimer’s label and serial number inside it. They called the store. The store had the sales record of it and gave them my name and address.”

The tornado intensified and destroyed several homes near 40th Avenue and Van Buren Street, moving northeast and bowling through 36th Avenue and Port Sheldon Street. Twelve people were killed in this area, including two people who were caught in a car. Eyewitnesses said the car was picked up above “the tops of the telephone poles” before crashing back down.

The tornado stayed on the ground, cutting through Georgetown Township before hitting the Standale neighborhood in Walker. The twister cut through the heart of the business section at Kinney and Lake Michigan Drive. The NWS reports that clothes and other items from these stores were found in Gladwin, more than 100 miles away.

Anna Hart, who lived on Cummings Street, was the first of four Kent County casualties from the tornado. She was thrown about 200 feet from her home. Two more people were killed near Bristol Avenue and Waldorf Street after a house and a trailer were destroyed.

The twister crossed 3 Mile Road and Alpine Avenue, heading through Comstock Park, where it took its final victim, a woman who lived on 4 Mile Road.

The tornado continued to do more damage, following West River Drive and the Grand River before rolling through the western edge of Rockford. Finally, after blowing through several farms, the tornado dissipated just north of Trufant in Montcalm County.

Richard Shaver took in the last of the storm from one of the highest views in all of Grand Rapids.

“I was sitting on Lookout Hill when I heard on my car radio that there was a twister heading northeast at 35 to 40 miles per hour,” Shaver said. “It was almost 7:30 (p.m.) when the tornado hit Comstock Park. I sat on the hill and watched sparks flying off all of the transformers that were blowing up. After it quieted down, I went out to the area that was hit. It was a disaster zone, with cars upside down and trees down. There were people outside when I got there and lots of people were hurt. The next day I drove up to Rockford and saw where it crossed the road up there. I got out of the car and could see the path of where it went.”

The second storm had passed but West Michigan wasn’t out of the woods.

The front page of the April 4, 1956, edition of The Grand Rapids Press detailed the deadly storms that swept through West Michigan. According to data from the National Weather Service, the death toll was corrected to 17. (The Grand Rapids Press/NewsBank)


Shortly before the second tornado petered out, a third one touched down further south. This storm was on the ground even longer, from approximately 7:15 to 8:30 p.m. and it stretched more than 50 miles, first touching down south of Bangor in Van Buren County and roaring northeast across Allegan County, the northwest corner of Barry County and into southern Kent County.

The tornado was measured around 150 yards wide and was classified as an F3, with winds measuring between 158 and 206 miles per hour.

Several cottages along the west side of Eagle Lake were blown away and several farm properties were destroyed. Among them, the farm of David Dykstra’s family outside of Middleville. Dykstra was milking cows when his father called him out of the barn to check out the storm.

“He came in the barn and said, ‘Boys, come out here and listen to this.’ We went outside and heard the roaring noise. It was very dark, and we couldn’t see anything. None of us had any experience with a tornado before, but we knew that something bad was on the way by the sound,” he told the NWS. “I suggested we take shelter in the barn, but my dad said to make a run for the house, instead. So we headed for the house but only got about 50 feet before the wind and debris knocked me and my brother down. Dad grabbed us both with one arm and held onto an electric pole with the other arm as the tornado went through.”

He continued: “We were pelted with stones and sticks. We heard a loud crash as the barn was lifted up and set back down, collapsing onto the cows. We could hear the poor cows bellowing under the barn. The top limbs of a big maple tree nearby were ripped off and went sailing over our heads. Sparks were flying from the wires of the electric pole. Then, it was over. We could still hear it moving away.”

Dykstra noted that he and his brother likely would have died if they hadn’t been warned by their father. The bulk of the barn landed where they were working and all of the cows in the milking area were killed.

In all, 12 people were injured by the third tornado, but no one was lost to the storm.


A fourth tornado, an F4 twister, formed near the Lake Michigan coastline and traveled through Manistee, Benzie and Grand Traverse counties. That storm was on the ground for 50 miles and destroyed more than 13 homes and dozens of barns. One person was killed.

Recovery efforts started right away, searching for victims and getting the injured to nearby hospitals. The National Guard was activated, and the Civil Defense, Red Cross and Salvation Army stepped in to find housing for the people who lost their homes in the storms.

(Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8/Visme)

Tornado-related fatalities are quite rare for Michigan. Before last summer’s Gaylord tornado, Michigan hadn’t seen one since 2010, and there have only been 11 tornado-related fatalities in the last 40 years. Part of that is advancements in technology and the warning systems put in place by the NWS.

The other is that West Michigan has seen a notable decline in violent tornadoes. NWS data says Michigan recorded 12 F4 or F5 tornadoes between 1953 and 1977, but we haven’t had one since.

The other is the overall drop in the number of tornadoes Michigan has seen in recent years. Between 1979 and 2019, Michigan averaged 16 tornadoes per summer. However, the average between 2009 and 2019 was only 13.

Regardless of West Michigan’s recent stretch of severe weather, it’s important to be prepared. Storm Team 8 recommends having a weather radio in your home and have customized weather alerts set up for your smartphone.