Sunny, humid days in June probably sound familiar to Nebraskans. What might also be familiar on those days is a wall of dark clouds forming in the distance, and, as the clouds move closer to home, the omnidirectional whine of a siren. An alert signaling foul weather, possibly a tornado, and that people should seek shelter.
A tornado siren's whine can also be heard about every six minutes at Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch south of Blair. But this siren doesn't mean head to the basement — it means step inside the pumpkin patch's newly constructed exhibit for a close-up look at fast-spinning winds.
Jeff Bledsoe, who co-owns Skinny Bones with wife, Maria, recently constructed a 46-foot tall tornado simulation inside a grain bin on the property with his son, Jared, and employee Zach Treves. The new attraction aims to educate and capture the experience of seeing a real tornado.
"Most everything that I've built (at Skinny Bones) has been stuff from my childhood," Jeff said. "When I was young, I was over at my grandparents house, and I was 10 or 11 years old. I saw two tornados off in the distance. It really scared me, it affected me. My parents and I, we took off, we came back an hour later, the house next to my grandparents, the garage was gone, there was just stuff all over. I'd never seen a tornado before. That's something I've always been fascinated by."
Before heading into the grain bin with the twister, people will watch a short video containing numerous tornado facts told by a professional meteorologist, such as tornados can spin up to 300 miles per hour, move at 60 miles per hour or what the difference is between a warning and a watch.
Inside, multiple fans and a technical control center work to create a tornado while a siren wails, lightning-like light flashes and water droplets spray about.
Jeff said he'd had the idea for the attraction, named "Tornado Alley," about eight years ago, but it's only become realized over the last two.
"The past two years, my son and I, we've been working at our shop just trying to get it working," he said. "We made a 10-foot tall one at my shop in Omaha to see if we could get it going good. Two years ago we couldn't. This last winter, we finally, through trial and error, got it working right."
Simulating a tornado takes some engineering and technical know-how, Jeff said, because almost any outside influence can affect its performance.
"The humidity, the temperature, the sun on the grain bin walls, the direction of the air outside," he said. "When you open the doors, that can mess it up. We have three different fans in there to take care of all of that and they all have to be adjusted just right."
Jeff said when he told his Maria that he wanted to go through with constructing the attraction, he told her he was 95 percent sure it would work.
"She said, 'If it doesn't work, you may be sleeping in there,'" he said.
It does indeed work, and now, Maria said, "Tornado Alley" is the tallest simulation in North America.
"The only one taller is in Germany," she said.
Jeff said the previous tallest simulation in North America was in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.
"They got an indoor one that's 40-feet tall, that was their claim, 'The largest one in North America,'" he said. "But this one is six feet taller. That was kind of my goal, to make it the tallest one."
He said he and Jared have spent a lot of time learning about weather over the years by going to classes, talking with people from the National Weather Service and even becoming trained weather spotters.
"It's just something that we've always been interested in," Jeff said. "I wanted it to be educational. I guess most people have never seen a tornado even though we live in tornado alley. The tornado I saw when I was young really affected me, so I wanted other people to see this is what a tornado looks like."