Tornado of '79: Memories remain vivid 40 years later

Tales of narrow escapes, a community pulling together

Abi Boatright, program coordinator at the Waterford Heritage & Agricultural Museum, stands with photos in the Tornado of '79 exhibit. (ASHLEY TAYLOR/SIMCOE REFORMER)

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WATERFORD — Forty years ago on Aug. 7 multiple tornadoes touched down in southwestern Ontario.

The biggest began near Woodstock and plowed south-east on a trajectory that took it through Kelvin, Vanessa and Waterford. Schools, churches, homes and businesses in Oxford, Brant, and Norfolk counties were damaged or worse.

“We all remember where we were that day, a tornado tore our town away,” Waterford resident Tom Swiech sings in his song A Tornado, which was written about the event.

Betty Black, of 36 Main Street North in Waterford, remembers exactly where she was when disaster struck.

Black sped north across the CN bridge and into her driveway as the tornado arrived in the north end of town.

Black hustled her family into the house and slammed the door behind her as trees and large limbs came crashing to the ground. The tornado was so strong that it blew entire trees onto the bridge she had just driven over.

“I’m glad we weren’t on the road,” Black said Tuesday. “Because we could’ve been. We crossed the bridge, pulled into the driveway and ran into the house. I’ve always thought how glad I was that I wasn’t on that bridge when the storm hit.”

The Black family was luckier than most. Not only did they cross the bridge under the wire, they suffered minor damage compared to their neighbours.

Many homes in the north end of Waterford suffered serious damage. In many cases, roofs and rafters were torn away. Many of the large trees in this part of town were damaged or uprooted.

The Thompson-Mott Funeral Home is a long-serving institution in this part of town.

The rear of the old mansion took a hit that required an expensive repair and remodeling. Peter Thompson was home with his family watching TV when the storm blew through. Tuesday, Thompson said it happened so fast there was no time to react.

“It was quite an event – something we’d never seen before,” Thompson said. “If you live down south in the United States, you expect it. But until then you didn’t expect it in Waterford.”

The funeral home was out of commission for a time but Thompson is proud that he turned no families away. Thompson stayed in business and continued serving the community because Waterford churches provided alternative venues, as needed, for visitations, services and the like.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the event, the Waterford Heritage and Agricultural Museum has mounted an exhibit called “Tornado of ’79.”

The museum is playing Swiech’s song for the duration and is showing photos to convey the human stories behind the disaster.
WHAM’s curator James Christison and assistant curator Catherine Caughell have heard stories as local residents shared their photos.

“It’s been interesting,” Christison said. “People coming into the museum remember what they were doing and where they were.”

One resident was in a Waterford bank watching the window blowing in and out as cars were lifted and carried down the road. Another recalled playing baseball in Simcoe when the sky turned a yellowish-grey.

While the tornado tore the community apart, it also brought people closer together.
“The response from people that weren’t affected to help the people that were was almost instantaneous. The help that came from outside, people driving from surrounding communities, from Woodstock to Waterford, was really fast,” said Caughell.
The former City of Nanticoke declared a state of emergency and help began pouring in immediately. The Waterford Lions set up optional tolls on Main Street asking people to give whatever they could to those in need.
Caughell said no one went homeless that night because people unaffected offered whatever they could to those who were.
One Waterford resident told Caughell she was married shortly before the tornado hit. Her neighbour’s house was hit and the wedding gift that they were still holding onto — a set of glasses — survived when parts of the house did not.
The damage from the tornadoes was estimated at over $100 million. This does not included damaged crops and injured livestock. There were two deaths outside Norfolk and another 150 hospitalized with injuries.
More information regarding the WHAM exhibit is available on the museum’s website.