The sense of excitement grew as the bus filled with Bradgate and Rolfe residents was rerouted Saturday morning from gate C at the Clay County Fair. It reached a fevered pitch as the bus entered gate G, and proceeded onto the fairgrounds.
Enthusiastic to begin their day, the early morning travelers, who were bound together by the fact that they had encountered a tornado on May 21, were being treated to a day at the fair.
The free trip, sponsored by Shoppers Supply, Arnold Motor Supply, Lundt and Sears Plumbing and Heating, Northwest Federal Savings Bank, and an anonymous donor, was organized by Ted Cate of Spencer.
This marked the second year that Cate organized such an event to the Clay County Fair. He spearheaded a trip for a similar group from Spencer, S.D. last year.
"This is really a tribute to the fair and to those towns. I think he's to be commended," Everett Amis, the Clay County Fair Board of Directors president, said of Cate and his efforts.
This year's special fairgoers from Bradgate and Rolfe were adorned with white hats and yellow button, identifying them as survivors of the "Bradgate-Rolfe tornado."
Richard Mowry and Jerry Guertteman of Rolfe, recalled the tornado hitting on the south side of Rolfe and traveling through the town's cemetery.
"Our graveyard has no trees anymore. All kinds of trees are gone," Mowry said.
Both men followed the mass of swirling winds to neighboring Humboldt County. The tornado, according to Mowry, followed the old Northwestern railroad tracks down through the Des Moines River valley.
"We went to help everybody in Bradgate," Guertteman reflected.
What they found was a town, leveled.
The town of 124 residents, however, has begun to rebound and spirits have started to pick up since May 21.
"It's coming back. It's coming slow," said Guertteman. "It's a small town. I think a lot of people are going to a bigger place because they don't have homes anymore."
He continued, "Just so everybody gets back where they belong. In time, they will."
While Saturday's visit to the fair offered a slice of sunshine and a bit of hope to several of the delegation, it also served as a type of healing encounter for some. A few took time to share their stories surrounding the tornado and its aftermath.
One gentlemen told Amis how he had lost his wife 18 years ago. Terrified of storms, she would cower and say, "God, take care of me."
"He said when this storm came through, it took all of the trees except one out of the cemetery, right by her grave," Amis said.
Loren Ask, who has worked as a bus driver with Reading Bus Lines of Reading, Minnesota, for the past 14 years, said his drive into Bradgate and Rolfe, as well as his ensuing contact with the area's residents, touched him.
"When you pull into a town and see grain bins all in pieces and buildings and roofs and stuff off, I guess it kind of gets your attention," he said.
"It's a mess," added Cate. "There are several prefab homes going in. I was down there again just the other day, and there's some prefab homes sitting out and some new basements. But, there really isn't anything in the town, other than the elevator."
"The most amusing thing down there is the fact that there's a radio antenna sitting right out at the edge of town. It didn't touch it," he added. "That big radio tower, that's the religious station out of Fort Dodge. So, God must have been watching that for them."
Sonia King of Rolfe, who was accompanied to the Clay County Fair by her three girls and fiance, explained before hitting the fairgrounds, "We've been so wrapped up with trying to rebuild from the tornado that we really haven't got to do anything for the kids. Summer's pretty much over, so this was a nice surprise. We are very thankful for it."
"The sponsors deserve a big hand," added Mowry. "I looked at that ticket for that (Clay Aiken grandstand) show tonight; I couldn't afford that. They're just wonderful people to do this."
In addition, the Hy-Noon Kiwanis, and the Kiwanis Daybreakers club of Spencer also provided meals for each member of the traveling group. Nutty bars were donated for dessert.
Meanwhile, Cate is already looking forward to next year.
"As you saw today, I think these people were very appreciative. The biggest problem the man told me he had on the other end was convincing the people there was no catch to this. They all thought there had to be a catch to being offered a free day at the fair. And the people from Spencer, S.D. last year couldn't believe that we were doing it for them either," he said. "So, if you can think of another community that has had a major catastrophe or is deserving in some other way, I would like to make this a yearly event that could possibly be put together."