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Merlin Johnson of rural Cass Lake holds a photograph of the Raymond Curtis farm in Deer Creek. The picture landed in Johnson's yard following the June 17 Wadena tornado, which destroyed the Curtis farm. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Photograph travels from Deer Creek to Cass Lake during Wadena tornado

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This picture is worth much more than a thousand words.

A photograph of a farm in Deer Creek, Minn., apparently blew from its home to a rural Cass Lake residence during the June 17 tornado that caused widespread damage to the Wadena region.

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The black-and-white photograph is dated 1969 and shows an older farmhouse surrounded by farmland during a Minnesota winter.

Merlin Johnson, who lives south of Cass Lake, caught a glimpse of the photograph about 6:30 p.m. June 17 when he went outside to see if his garden had been damaged in the storms.

"And there was a piece of old tar paper about 4 feet away from it," Johnson said. "They must have come up here like buddies."

Johnson found the photo about 6:30 p.m. The tornado has been estimated to have hit Wadena about 5:10 p.m.

Deer Creek, about 10 miles southwest of Wadena, is 76.2 miles from Cass Lake, according to infoplease.com, an online distance calculator.

The photograph would have been unidentifiable - except for a sticker on the back that listed crucial information: "Raymond Curtis farm, Deer Creek, 1969, winter scene."

"I'm so glad that sticker was on the back, so I had something to go off of," Johnson said.

Johnson's son-in-law is an adjuster with State Farm Insurance and went to Wadena for work following the tornado.

And, as things tend to happen in smaller cities, he mentioned the picture to another person, who mentioned it to another person. Soon after, information about the photograph was relayed over a radio station.

Meanwhile, Nancy Kern had returned to her family's farm to clean up. The tornado had completely destroyed the 120-acre farm in Deer Creek.

A cousin was helping with cleanup when she heard the familiar name of Raymond Curtis over the radio station. They were asking anyone who knew him to call the county sheriff's office.

The cousin forwarded the message on to Kern, the only daughter of the late Raymond and Impi Curtis (Raymond died in 1981; Impi died two years ago).

"My mother saved everything," recalled Kern, not knowing exactly from where the photo came.

She has yet to receive the photograph from Johnson, who will mail it back to her. But when she does hold it, it will remind her of what the farm was before the tornado.

"Everything's gone," she said. "The tornado tore down the entire 120-acre farm."

About 20 acres in the back 40 still has some trees standing, she said. But the trees in other 110 acres have been destroyed.

The older farmhouse pictured in the photograph withstood the storm.

But half of a newer, 1981-built home on the land was being renovated at the time of the storm and was destroyed.

Kern, who now lives in Battle Lake about 20 miles from Deer Creek, said she had planned to eventually move into that home after the renovations were completed.

She counts herself among the lucky ones.

"There are people much worse off than me," Kern said.

Even though the original farmhouse was still standing following the tornado, it has since been demolished.

Nothing was salvageable, Kern said.

That home had newspapers in its walls dated back as far as 1909, so Kern assumes the house was built around that time.

The photograph of the farm was found in Johnson's yard in the middle of the grass. The photo, while barely weathered, was not wet.

"The picture and the cardboard were completely dry," Johnson said.

Dave Kellenbenz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D., office, said it was likely the picture got wet at some point during the storm.

Winds in the Wadena tornado, he said, were estimated at greater than 180 mph.

"At that wind speed, it could have dried very quickly," he said.

Also, he said, the picture would have fallen 40,000 to 50,000 feet, if not more, and the picture did, apparently, travel about 80 miles in just over an hour.

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