Portage County WI Deadly Lightning Storm, July 1929

It seems that for miles, you see nothing but empty fields, broken by the occasional home sitting alone on several acres of open land or a row of trees at the edge of a field. From the time this land was first settled, there was never a large concentration of people here. There was a time though, when as far as the eye could see, the fields of the Buena Vista Marsh area in the town of Grant were awash with Kentucky Bluegrass.

It was that grass which brought the Nebraska Seed Company here in 1929. Hiring six local men and their horses, they divided into four teams and they set to harvesting the bluegrass seed that July. For those men, this was good money and for one man, Herman Behrend, it would go a long way toward feeding and clothing his eight young children.

To this day, the memory of those six men remain etched in the minds of many of their descendants, and in the annals of local history forever: Walfred Anderson, Walter R. Peterson, and Walter Burmeister, town of Grant; and Herman Behrend, Otto Hamann, and Fred Gukenberger, town of Saratoga.

On the corner of County Highways W and F, in the town of Grant, stood a ramshackle home owned by William Riggs. Long since abandoned, and with a good sized opening on one end, it made the perfect shelter for the teamsters and their teams when storms came up, and was located right where the four teams were working their four separate fields.

Such was the case about 4 p.m. that Monday, July 8, 1929 when suddenly, what would long be called one of the most severe electrical storms central Wisconsin ever experienced, started to move in. With the flat land and open fields, the storm could be seen approaching for miles, allowing for plenty of time to get the teams and men to the shelter of the Riggs house. The six teamsters, four teams of horses, and their timekeeper, Andrew Timm, Kellner, all crowded into the building, with two of them standing in the open doorway, watching the storm.

Hamann and Gukenberger took their teams into the more enclosed part of the house and simply dropped their reins, and Anderson's team was placed in the remaining room. Peterson's and Behrend's teams were held by their bits by their owners who stood just inside the doorway. Burmeister's team stood next to Peterson's team and was held by Burmeister in the east wing.

The lightning struck about fifteen minutes after the men sought shelter. According to Hamann who was standing two feet from Peterson and conversing with him when the strike occurred, he never felt a thing, but instantly two men, Behrend, 32 and Anderson, 22, and two teams were dead. A third man, Peterson, 27, died within minutes, after crying out "Oh, don't leave me."

A newspaper photo of the scene the following day shows Burmeister and Gukenberger standing outside the building, with the carcasses of the dead horses lying in front, where they had been left after being removed to extricate the live horses.

The limp bodies of the three men had been removed through a window which had the boarding kicked out.

Leaving Hamann and Gukenberger there with the dead and injured, Burmeister and Timm tried to start a car at the site but it would not start due to wet coils, so they had to run to Burmeister's farm, near the scene and get a vehicle there. They tried stopping a couple places to call for an ambulance and Pulmotor (an apparatus used for artificial respiration in cases of drowning or electric shock) and were unsuccessful, but finally got to town and obtained help. Dr. F. X. Pomainville rushed to the scene, to no avail.

None of the survivors could state for certain, but the lightning bolt seemed to have entered either the open doorway or one of the windows which had no glass. There were more than 20 places on the interior walls marked by nicks from the bolt. A two-by-four board on the north wall was nearly split in two and everywhere that nails had been driven, there were splintered areas, seeming to denote that the lightning played around inside the building for some time.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that while the bodies of all three men showed scorch marks, the bodies of the horses showed none, although a bit ring in the mouth of one of the horses was broken, and bent nearly straight.

According to websites on lightning, most of what we believe is myth. Lightning is not attracted by any one thing, not even metal. The odds of lightning finding a specific target are small considering it is striking from miles high and the fact it changes its path on the way down. Even a lone building in the middle of a field is no more of a target than the ground itself, unless the building is near where the strike was headed anyway.

Another myth is that lightning never strikes the same place twice. Not only is a second strike possible, even a person can be struck twice.

Retired dentist and rancher, Doug Hambach who lives not far from where the 1929 tragedy occurred, shared a great deal of information on the story. He also tells how he was standing some years ago, at the very place where the men were killed, when a sudden storm came up and lightning struck the fence in the same area.

No one knows for certain why the lightning was attracted to those inside that particular structure, or exactly what happened when it struck, and the building is long since gone so there is no going back trying to piece together the mystery, but we do know that a great many people's lives were impacted that day.

Anderson left behind a wife of less than a year. Peterson had been married five years and left behind a wife and two children. Behrend had eight children between the ages of 3 and 16.

In a telephone interview with Behrend's son, Herbert, 86, who was nine at the time, he vividly recalled Monroe, who owned the store in Kellner, coming to the house to notify Herman's wife Gertrude of what had happened. "Things were pretty tough after that," Behrend said.

Life certainly was difficult after that with the widow and children left to farm alone, raising crops to feed the dairy cattle and hogs they kept. Mrs. Behrend only lived 15 years after the death of her husband.

Neal Hamann, son of Otto Hamann who survived that day, also agrees that things were hard for the family. "We lived next door and my father helped them out, but Earl, who was the oldest boy, pretty much ran the farm from (Herman's) death on," Neal said.

Herman Behrend was buried in Pioneer Cemetery, not far from the Saratoga Union Church where his funeral was held, and not far from where he had lived his life.

Published November 7, 2006 in the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune
Story by Rhonda Whetstone Neibauer/Tribune Correspondent