1890 cyclone twists on in old photo, museum painting

When the Minneapolis Institute of Art reopens Thursday for the first time since the pandemic shutdown, visitors to its American Gallery can again directly gaze at a dramatic painting of a tornado — no software required.

Thanks to a sleuthlike director at another Minneapolis museum, we know the painting depicts a destructive twister that killed six and injured 11 just north of St. Paul on July 13, 1890 — 130 years ago Monday.

“When I visit the MIA, I usually make it a point to see the painting,” said Mark Meister, who returned to Minneapolis last year to lead the Museum of Russian Art.

Meister was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the 1970s when he landed his first museum job at the institute, where the oil painting of the ominous funnel, “Tornado over St. Paul,” hung just outside his office. Little was known about it aside from the painter’s name, Julius Holm, and the year 1893, both inscribed in the lower right corner.

“Nothing was known about the artist, or whether the scene was of a real event or imaginary,” Meister said.

Then he stumbled upon a tornado photograph as part of his grad school fieldwork in the summer of 1977. The photo, on a nearly 90-year-old souvenir card, was identical to the painting he had walked past countless times outside his office.

“For just about anyone else, it would have been an interesting and dramatic photo of a funnel cloud outside of St. Paul, but for me, there was an instantaneous flash of recognition,” he said.

Meister’s ensuing research connected the dots between the St. Paul photographer, William Koester, and Holm, a Minneapolis house painter with higher aspirations.

The tornado struck Lake Gervais on a Sunday afternoon in the French Canadian enclave of Little Canada, a township about 5 miles north of downtown St. Paul. That proximity to the city, along with its cottages and small resorts, made Little Canada a popular summer spot for vacationers.

Skies turned threatening about 4 p.m., one camper told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “At 4:45 it began to blow from the southeast and the typical funnel-shaped clouds began to form in the northwest, advancing slowly against the wind,” the witness said. “As these clouds approached Lake Gervais they swooped down like an eagle,” tossing cottages and trees “and anything else that pleased the tornado’s fancy to pick up.”

An Ohio newspaper reported “the cone-shaped cloud [came] over a hill half mile north of the cottages, twisting huge trees out of the ground and carrying them forward pell-mell in its path.”

Three days after the twister struck, the death toll reached six when searchers found three bodies in a marshy part of the lake. Caroline Schurmeier, 62, a German-born wagonmaker’s wife, had drowned with her 21-year-old son, Charlie, and a preacher visiting from Texas, the Rev. William Pfaeffle.

The slow-moving storm gave Koester, who had gone to the Cherokee Heights bluff on St. Paul’s West Side to take pictures of the city, enough time to get his camera ready. The picture he snapped is now known as negative number 414-B in the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives (tinyurl.com/1890twister).

Hoping to cash in, Koester published the photo on 5-by-8-inch souvenir cards, one of which Meister found in 1977 at the Ramsey County Historical Society.

On the back, the card read: “This ‘Chance Shot’ of the Lake Gervais Cyclone was taken about 5 o’clock P.M., July 13th, 1890, from the West St. Paul Bluff, where the undersigned happened to be with his camera, taking views at the time of the disaster.” He said the funnel touched down 6 miles “a little east of north” from where he stood at Cherokee Avenue and Ohio Street.

Enter Julius Holm, who must have picked up one of the souvenir cards and then copied it onto canvas. Born in Norway in 1856, Holm appears as a Minneapolis “portrait artist” in 1900 census rolls. The 1910 and 1920 censuses each list him as a house painter, as does the 1896 city directory.

In a 1977 Minnesota History magazine article, Meister describes Holm as a “self-taught artist whose aspirations were growing. He never attained his goals.”

Holm died in 1930 and was buried at Lakewood Cemetery 40 years after the storm, likely never dreaming his painting would hang in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum purchased the oil painting shortly before Meister’s article appeared.

Meister concluded that Holm “longed to be a successful artist but who could never really escape from the house painting profession has now received lasting recognition as an artist.”

He added that Holm, “like many self-educated artists … has an amateurish yet fresh and vital quality.” And apparently a sense of humor, he noted.

Just over his signature on the canvas, Holm painted a tree growing both inside and outside of some fence rails — unlike Koester’s photo clearly showing the tree in front of the fence.

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.

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