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POSTCARD MEMORIES: Recalling the frightening tornado of 1985

'The marsh was laden with debris from steel roofing to parts of houses and barns. It looked like a war zone'

It was Friday May 31, 1985, and we awoke to a normal spring day. I was ready to head to the shop at 88 and Highway 400. I was living at “Hillwood,” the former home of George and Hillary Stoddart. It was located at the south end of Sideroad 10 and the 4th Concession of West Gwillimbury.

As I opened the gate to leave the property, I looked over the Holland Marsh. Everything looked lush and the little seedlings were growing like weeds. It’s going to be a bumper crop of vegetables on the marsh this year.

I got in the van and as I drove the short run, I went over the tasks I had to do that day. Most urgent on the list was to finish boat cushions for a customer who was picking them up late afternoon. My partner was driving home from Florida that day and thought what a nice drive he was going to have.

Around noon the atmosphere seemed to be changing. Wind got up and the sky darkened. Allen arrived at the shop and said the wind was strong on the highway. He said he felt he was being pushed up the highway and he was heading home and asked if I would wake him around 4 as he had to be at work at 5:30 p.m.

The hydro went off around 3 p.m. and a few shingles were flying off the roof of the house. My cushions were almost done but without power I could do no more. I phoned the customer but the lines were down, so I decided to head to Hillwood.

As I headed south on the 10th Sideroad, there were power lines down and a couple of sheds in ruins. As I made my second-last curve in the road, I noticed a lot of large hailstones lying on a neighbour’s garden furniture. The last curve and on the home stretch, I noticed a lot of cars parked on my outer lawn and everyone was looking over the ridge toward the Holland Marsh. Wow. I could not believe the change of scenery from the departure time to the current time. The marsh was laden with debris from steel roofing to parts of houses and barns. It looked like a war zone.

Well, I better look inside the hedge and gate and see if my house is still there. I opened the gate and my heart started racing. Where was my house? All I could see in the front yard were massive trees down on top of each other. The house was a low, one-storey green structure and I ran to the south border of the property around the downed trees and there it was all intact.

I called out for Allen and there was no answer. I went to the bedroom and called and woke him up. As I said before, he was just in from Florida nonstop and was exhausted. I got him out of bed and steered him to the front door and told him to look up. He had not heard a thing as trees crashed on the house and yard.

Between 4:10 and 4:15 p.m., three massive tornadoes hit the ground coming from the west. At 4:10 p.m., one hit Mount Forest and by 5 p.m. was ripping the south end of Barrie apart.

At 4:10 p.m., one hit Grand Valley heading to Tottenham and through our area, and at 5:40 it was in Wagner Lake and slowing down.

At 4:15 p.m., one hit Alma heading to Hillsburgh.

The sun came out in the Bradford area and the birds once again were singing as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile, up in Barrie at 5 p.m., whole subdivisions, cement-walled factories and schools were being ripped apart. People coming home witnessed their neighbours’ houses being torn apart or lifted and taken away. An old schoolmate of mine had just driven in her drive and saw her husband sitting on the porch. The tornado hit, so she got the baby on the floor and she on top of the baby. Car carpets were being lifted around her and when it was over, she sat up and her house was gone as was her husband. He was a lucky man as he was knocked into the basement as the house flew away.

Because the power had been shut down, the schools in Barrie were let out and the students told to go home. Thank goodness because the roof of the school in south Barrie was ripped off the structure.

It crossed the 400 at Essa Road and up the hill to Little Avenue and surrounding streets.

Bradford-area resident Mrs. Muriel (Meher) Reynolds and her mother, Jennie (Bowles) Meher, had been in Barrie and were heading home along Essa Road at Highway 400. Because of the power out, the cars were treating the traffic lights as four-way stops. Windows down, they were waiting their time to make the turn onto 400 South.

Muriel looked up and, all of a sudden, cars and trucks were lifting off the road like marshmallows. Muriel yelled for her mom to get on the floor and Muriel on top of her. There were sounds like freight trains coming through in a matter of minutes, even though it felt like hours it had passed.

There were horses from the Barrie race track on Essa Road running wild as the barns had been destroyed. When Muriel got up and looked around, there were straw, bricks, two-by-fours, mud and tar in the car. The side-view mirrors had been ripped off the car, just leaving the spring adjustment rod hanging. The window channel was built up with tar as if it was making a window cover where the glass should be. Muriel and her mom had to go to the hospital each day to have their scalps washed and treated to get rid of the tar driven into the skin along with shards of straw in the scalp. 

The weekend in our area was spent cleaning up yards, cutting up trees and trying to get back to normal.

Unfortunately, the Holland Marsh farmers had to deal with homes and barns and crops heavily destroyed by the tornado. Highland farms along the 4th Concession, right from Orangeville to Bradford, had damage. The tornado had no rhyme or reason. It might take the barn and leave the house or take both.

No one was left untouched as the mighty wind rolled along the roads, ripping and destroying and taking lives along the way. Orangeville is about a one-hour drive from the Bradford area and there was a phone with the Orangeville exchange found on the 4th Line of West Gwillimbury. Some people left their homes on the 4th Concession above the marsh in the morning and came home after working in Toronto with nothing there but the foundation where a house once rested.

As the day progresses, I am sure you will read about a lot of happenings of that day so many years ago.