Jennifer Kundak and Jeff Cowall talk about life in a neighborhood no one notices. Photo by J. Adrian Wylie

“It is a surprise even to folks who live in Chelsea,” Jennifer Kundak emails of the forty-five or fifty homes “off Island Lake Road, between Stofer and Riker, in Dexter Township.” 

Wandering Hills homes have Dexter mailing addresses, but they’re in the Chelsea school and library districts. So when Kundak and her husband, Jeff Cowall, moved here thirty years ago, Chelsea became the star around which their lives revolved. 

Their two-year-old, Michael Kundak-Cowall, “had an abundance of young playmates,” Kundak writes. Later, he got up early for the bus ride into town for school. Today, he’s a computer game content designer in Stockholm.

“A fair mixture of professionals, blue collar and retirees” keep in touch through an email list and private Facebook page, Kundak writes. That helps coordinate “lots of caring for needs of persons and families through tragic times, illnesses, births, deaths and emergencies.” 

On summer days, walking along Oakridge and  Cottonwood lanes, she delights in seeing “so many well kept yards, beautiful and varied flower and veg gardens.” And for as long as she can remember, “we’ve had an annual Labor Day weekend potluck.”

Almost every day, Kundak heads into Chelsea and “the happening spot of the universe”: the Chelsea District Library. She’s an appreciative patron, and also volunteers on Friends of the Library fundraisers like their monthly used-book sales and upcoming used jewelry and handbag sales on June 2 and July 28. The money helps support events like the Midwest Literary Walk—this year’s “was just a knockout,” she says. 

She’s also very active in One World One Family (see Groups and Clubs), whose most visible activity is an annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And she’s always “popping in and out of” downtown stores and connecting with friends on the street.

In an April phone interview, Cowall insists that his wife is the Chelsea expert—before retiring in 2019, he worked in IT at the U-M health system and spent less time in town.  

But then he mentions that it’s the tenth anniversary of the Dexter tornado—and that he and Michael were the first people to see it.

Cowall is an amateur radio operator and trained Skywarn weather watcher. At the time, Michael was, too. That day, when radar showed two large, low-pressure systems colliding nearby, they were the closest Skywarn spotters. 

Following directions from the Washtenaw County emergency operations center, they drove toward the storm until they saw a cloud with a bottom so flat, Cowall says, that “you can see light on the other side.”  

As they watched, the bottom of the cloud began to rotate—and then “Michael saw a white swirl.” The tornado had just touched down in a swamp, drawing up water that made it visible. 

They reported the sighting, then followed downwind as other spotters were directed toward the funnel cloud. As soon as another observer confirmed it, “the sirens went off.”

Father and son were behind the Busch’s supermarket on Dexter–Ann Arbor Rd. when the tornado “tore into the subdivision” nearby. Roofs blew off and insulation filled the air. 

It “was terrifying,” Cowall says. But the warning had come in time—everyone survived.