Thursday, May 23, 2013

"So Suddenly Did the Twister Come": The Sedgwick Tornado of May 25, 1917

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

Earlier this week, on Monday, May 20, we again witnessed the tremendous power of wind and how, in a instant, the landscape of a community can be changed forever by a tornado as it did in Moore, OK and surrounding areas.  Harvey County residents well know the challenges ahead for the people affected by this most recent storm.  If you would like to help the people of Oklahoma during this time, please contact the Red CrossMennonite Disaster Service or relief organization of your choice.

May 25, 1917

In the late afternoon of May 25, 1917 one of the deadliest tornadoes in US history tore through Harvey County.  At 4:20 in the afternoon, the Kansan received an Associated Press bulletin "stating that a tornado had struck Andale, 19 miles northwest of Wichita where six people were reported dead. . . . The wires were all down but a special train was made up at Wichita and started to the scene." Power was out in Newton, and the editor pointed out that "the Kansan is handicapped on that account as the linotype machines were helpless." The tornado "ground its way across this county" traveling in a northeasterly direction destroying homes and farms. Initial reports indicated damage and at least two fatalities. Obtaining accurate information was difficult.  The Kansan noted; "there are rumors that it had continued on up as far as Peabody, but definite news of damage done could not be learned."

The May 25, 1917 Newton Evening Kansan Republican:
Newton Evening Kansan Republican, 25 May 1917, p.1

The tornado  was followed by a "terrific downpour of rain, even here in Newton. . . trash  and debris fell in large quantities in the streets."  The Kansan also reported that several automobile loads of men left Newton almost immediately for Sedgwick to help with rescue efforts.

Devastation at Sedgwick, Ks
 The next day, the full tragedy was reported in the Newton Evening Kansan Republican.  At about 3:00 in the afternoon "a terrific tornado struck the southeast part of the town of Sedgwick . . . sweeping away more than a mile of telephone and telegraph lines and the A.V.I. power lines and the Kansas Gas & Electric high line."  

Official tornado warnings were non-existent before 1948 and the residents of Andale and Sedgwick had no warning. "The twister rose in the southwest, roared down upon Andale with a suddenness that prevented any organized escape. . . it swept through what is known as one of the richest farming districts in the state, leveling standing grain and powdering farm houses and outbuildings."

Many rural families were caught in the open. The Norris family saw the storm coming and Mrs. Norris, along with the children were able to make it to a hedge row for shelter. William Norris, the husband and father, was "caught and thrown to the north where he was found with his body crushed" killed instantly. Several members of the Coble family were able to make it into a cellar.  A nephew, Dewey Faw, however, did not make it and was killed. Even those that made it to safety suffered broken bones and bruising.
Coble Farm
HCHM Photo Archives
The L. E. Fife Farm was "one of the finest country homes in the county" and was "equipped in the most modern and up-to-date manner" with heat and a "water plant."  Mr. Fife and a hired hand took shelter in a small shed, which was not touched.  Mr. Fife described his experience for the Kansan.
"So suddenly did the twister come that he first saw debris flying and heard the roar and crash of the buildings as the mighty whirl wrenched them from their foundations and crushed them into kindling wood, hurling them with spiteful viciousness in every direction . . . he saw his beautiful home lifted, first the roof, then the entire structure hurled from it foundation and crushed like a house of cards. Imagine his impotent grief  when he saw Mrs Fife lifted and hurled  through the air then picked up again and thrown against the fence." 
Mrs. Fife was caught in the house.  When she heard the roar of the storm, she went to the door, but could not open it.  She turned back to the room;
 "and the next she knew was when she found herself hung across the front fence.  One of her shoes had been torn off and her ankle severely wrenched and a bad gash had been cut across her right temple.  the house and all buildings . . . a complete wreck. Seven of Mr. Fife's purebred horses . . . killed."
Fife Farm
HCHM Photo Archives
Mrs. Fife, although badly injured, survived the tornado.

The Danner farm was hit especially hard. S.T. Danner had purchased his Harvey County homestead from the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1870s. Married to Anna Harryman, the Danners had three sons, William S., Albert E.S. and Samuel E. (who died at age nine). 

Danner Farm, ca 1910
HCHM Photo Archives

His wife, Anna Harryman Danner, worked along side him to create a beautiful home.    Active in public life as well, Danner served in the Kansas Senate in 1893 and 1895.

Danner Farm, ca. 1916
HCHM Photo Archives

That fateful day, the Danner  family was at home.  Son, Albert (A.E.S.) and his wife took shelter in the cellar, but for some reason his parents did not.  Anna Danner was "killed outright, her head being crushed and her arm twisted and broken in a frightful manner."  Mr. Danner was injured so badly many doubted that he would survive.

Samuel T. Danner Farm
HCHM Photo Archives 
He did survive, but friends noted that "he never fully recovered [from the death of Anna], and put his worldly affairs in order." Danner died two years later on March 20, 1919.

Although the Fuji scale had not yet been developed, it is estimated that the tornado that went through Sedgwick and rural Harvey County on May 25 was at an F5 strength.  There were 23 deaths and 118 buildings completely destroyed in the communities of Andale, Sedgwick, and Florence.  The tornado was over one mile wide at one point and traveled 65 miles

The same storm continued to wreak havoc across the United States.
Newton Kansan Evening Republican, May 28, 1917, p. 1

The May 25, 1917 tornado is listed as one of the top ten Weather Events of the 20th Century for South Central Kansas by the National Weather Service Forecast Office. The tornado that roared through Harvey County was part of a larger outbreak of storms across twelve Midwestern states.  Between May 25 and June 1, 1917 at least 382 people were killed in the eight day tornado outbreak sequence that made it the third deadliest tornado season since records were kept; a total of 551 people lost their lives to tornadoes.  For fatalities related to tornadoes 1925 season was the highest with 794 fatalities; followed by 1936 with 552 fatalities.  

May 25 was also the date of the 1955 tornado that devastated Udall, Kansas where over half of the population with either killed or severely injured.

Newton Evening Kansan Republican, 25 May 1917, p.1
Newton Evening Kansan Republican,  26 May 1917, p. 1
Newton Kansan Evening Republican, 28 May 1917, p. 1
Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives Photograph Archives

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  1. Dewey Faw was the 18 year old boy who was killed. He and his brother Floyd Faw were raised by their Aunt Caroline Coble after their mother died in 1902. Dewey was in the house and he opened the door when he heard the noise. He couldn't escape. Floyd was one of the lucky ones who made it to the cellar. Four years after the tornado Floyd married his nurse Ivalee Harvey who cared for him while he was recovering from his injuries in the hospital. They were my grandparents.

    1. Thank you for telling us what happened to Floyd and the story of your grandparents. I'm sure an event like this tornado stayed with them their whole lives. Thank you.

  2. That was a nice little house the Danners had. From the side, it looks indistinguishable from a modern house.