CRYSTAL LAKE – Palm Sunday 1965 will be forever remembered as one of the darkest days in McHenry County history.
About 3:30 p.m., an F4 tornado touched down in Crystal Lake, ripping through subdivisions and killing five residents. More than 100 houses were damaged, leaving many people homeless.
That deadly afternoon serves as a reminder to many Crystal Lake residents that tornadoes are a real threat in McHenry County.
“It was like a war zone,” said Bob Blazier, who was the principal of South Junior High School in 1965. “It looked like somebody dropped a bomb.”
For 40 minutes, the tornado moved through Crystal Lake; it hit South Junior High, ripping off parts of the roof. The Palm Sunday storm was somewhat of a blessing, Blazier said, because the school was not well prepared to handle a tornado.
“We didn't really practice tornado drills,” he said. “Up until that time, people didn't really think much about it.”
The school was one of the first buildings hit. The storm then made its way over Route 14 toward Keith Avenue, picking off houses, flattening a barn and killing a farmer. Then the storm headed straight for Colby's subdivision, where the twister killed a family of three and damaged dozens of homes.
“There was so much debris that you couldn't get into that subdivision,” said Harry Dillon, the Crystal Lake emergency housing director during the 1965 storm.
Dillon was in charge of setting up housing for those displaced. He recalled stories – some tragic and others humorous – such as the one of a man who lost his home while taking a shower, standing bewildered as his walls and roof were sucked away by the storm. A neighbor ran over and gave him a coat.
Another home was ripped entirely out of the foundation, and in its place a Chevrolet pickup from down the street rolled in and landed in the home's basement.
A man in the subdivision was balancing his checkbook during the storm, and one of his checks was found by a man in Waukegan, Dillon said.
“You're kind of numb with what you're seeing,” he said. “The trees are gone. The houses are gone. Cars are tipped over in the street.”
Dillon was tasked with finding places for the 100-plus residents to live while their homes were being rebuilt. He received a call the day after the storm from the president of the Illinois mobile home dealers association, who agreed to provide 95 mobile home units to Crystal Lake.
People who lost their houses were able to set up the mobile homes in the driveways of their properties, pipe the plumbing from the basement to the mobile home and resume somewhat of a normal life.
“They literally stayed in their own homes,” Dillon said. “Psychologically, that was a help because they could see their house and kind of supervise [the reconstruction] on a daily basis.”
A year to the day after the first mobile home was set up for tornado victims, the last mobile home was removed, and life moved on for the people of Crystal Lake. But for Blazier and Dillon, the storm is a reminder that although McHenry County may be on the outside edge of tornado alley, disaster can strike with little warning. But it also is a reminder of how a community can come together.
“People came forward in a crisis like that,” Blazier said. “The Red Cross set up temporary housing at Central High School in the gym, but it was never used. All those people were taken home by other people in the community. And we all got in there and cleaned up as much as we could just to make them feel better.”
More information and photos of the 1965 tornado can be found at the Crystal Lake Historical Society at www.cl-hs.org.