1957 Cantwell - Desloge, Missouri Tornado



Seven Persons Dead and Scores Injured. Property Damage Estimated 5 to 10 Million

One of the most disastrous tornadoes in the history of this community struck the cities of Desloge and Cantwell, Tuesday afternoon, May 21, 1957 shortly after four o'clock.

The known dead are: Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Cunningham of Farmington; Mrs. Orville Pratte, Cantwell; Mr. and Mrs. Everett Ragsdale, Cantwell; Eli Pratt, Cantwell; and Mrs. Clarence Cunningham, Colorado Springs, Colo. Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Cunningham and Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Cunningham were visiting Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Cunningham of Farmington Rt. 1 where a family reunion was being held.

The tornadic activity was apparent here for about an hour before it struck. Tuesday, May 21, will go down in history as "Black Tuesday" in this vicinity. The dark cloud was not at first unusual but soon it began to take on an oblong shape, with a portion of it trailing away to the west over the top of the hills. It came on clearly in a zigzagging manner, changing its direction several times. People on Main Street, Flat River, thought it was surely going to strike there first, but the funnel-shaped cloud veered to the vicinity of Cantwell and Desloge.

The peaceful towns, serene and quiet just an hour before, soon became a shambles, with debris strewn up and down the main street of Desloge, through Cantwell Lane and all of that community. Huge trees were uprooted, utility and telephone wires were blown down.

Business houses were destroyed, and Earl Bannister, proprietor of the Bannister Market, was seriously hurt. On Wednesday he was taken to a St. Louis hospital. His wife and three children, in the store at the time, were also injured. Mrs. Gladys Vines, a customer in the Bannister store, suffered a fractured neck and spinal injuries and is a patient in Barnes Hospital. Mrs. Kathryn Rubottom, Cantwell Postmaster, is in Bonne Terre Hospital, but her injuries are not considered serious.

Many beautiful homes were destroyed or damaged extensively, including the residences along Cantwell Lane and the costly new home of Ferlyn Prather, manager of Wetteran Grocer Company, into which he and Mrs. Prather recently moved.

Storm victims admitted to Bonne Terre Hospital were: N. C. Boyer, Desloge; Mrs. N. C. Boyer, Desloge; Everett Ragsdale, Desloge (Mr. Ragsdale died at 12:12 a.m. Wednesday, May 22); Mrs. Vinnie Pratt, Bessie Robinson, Lillie Permont, Earl Winch, Kathryn Rubottom, Mary Jones, Sam Ste. Gemme, all of Desloge-Cantwell area; Lawrence Cunningham, Myrtle Cunningham, Emmett Cunningham, Farmington Route 1; Bertha D. Helvey, Desloge. Five others who were more seriously injured and were given emergency treatment, then moved to St. Louis hospitals, were: Alberta Smith, Mrs. Gladys Vines, Eli Pratte (who died enroute to St. Louis), Wardie L. Pinkston and Norma Culton.

Admitted to Mineral Area Osteopathic Hospital were: Walter Hollyfield, Flat River; Betty Hollyfield, his wife; a son, James and daughter, Betty Hollyfield, Flat River; Hazel Reddick, Cantwell, and Frieda Cook, Cantwell. Mrs. Cook was released from the hospital on Wednesday.

Other persons injured included, J. F. Henderson, Mary Jones, Jackie LaBrot, Beverly Long, Lillie Permont, Bessie Robinson, Geneva Tiefenauer, June Tiefenauer, Bobby Tiefenauer, Earl Winch, Ruby Winch, Patsy White, Tommy Hoehn, Sam Ste. Gemme, George Vallo and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Parmer and son, Donald, the latter three of Poplar Bluff.

The National Guard has been on constant duty since the disaster, and Desloge Fire Department was alerted to fires. Other groups assisting in keeping the damaged sections safe included the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Sheriff's office, Flat River and Desloge local police and the Civil Air Patrol.

The American Red Cross established headquarters at the V.F.W. Hall in Desloge and the St. Francois County Chapter, under the direction of Ben Donnell, has assembled a crew of volunteer helpers to assist Red Cross personnel sent here from the national organization. The Salvation Army workers are also assisting the wounded and homeless.

Union Electric and Missouri Natural Gas Company crews have been at the site of the damaged area since the tornado, and many trucks have been called into service, to move the tree limbs and other litter from the streets.

Civil defense and police officials agreed that a earlier [sic] loss of life was averted because residents had been alerted to the possibility that a tornado might strike in the Desloge-Cantwell area and took refuge in basements when they saw the funnel-shaped cloud whirling in from the southwest.

A short time before the tornado struck, hail as large as golf balls fell, residents said, and then came a period of eerie quiet and stillness before the huge black cloud appeared in the distance.

G. V. Allers, agent for an oil company, said: "I saw it forming about 4 p.m. (5 p.m. daylight saving time). I was at Flat River about a mile away. You could see very black clouds forming into a funnel, and I knew this was something terrible.

"The clouds were a sort of light gray and very unusual looking. As I reached Desloge, I saw the funnel picking up speed until it came roaring at the town with a sound that is almost beyond description.

"It was picking up doors, lumber, trees and whirling them about as though they were twigs. The force of this thing was unbelievable, and when it got near I went to the basement. The house was not in the direct path, but the tremendous power made it seem the building was going to be lifted right off its foundations."

Morris Edgar of Bonne Terre was driving north on U.S. Highway 67 when he heard the roar, and looking over his shoulder saw the tornado coming up behind him. He said he jammed the accelerator down and sped ahead until he was able to swerve down a side road and out of the path of the tornado just as it ripped past.

Mrs. Naomi Steinmetz of Desloge said, "I heard this awfully loud rumbling noise, and I just knew it was a tornado." She added she and her husband ran with their four children, 8 years old, 6, 5, and 11 months, to her mother's home a block away.

"The basement was crowded with neighbors who had also seen the tornado coming. It was a terrible experience. We were sure the end had come, and we all prayed. My three older children were crying and terrified at the awful sound. I huddled in a corner with the children and leaned over them in the worst part of the storm when we thought the house was going to be blown away or blown in on us.

The thing that saved us was the fact that this was a well-built concrete block house. In the same block there were at least eight frame homes that were demolished."

Darren Wheland, a mail carrier, saw the tornado strike. He said he saw houses and other buildings splinter high in the air as they were sucked into the funnel.

Many houses looked as if a huge weight had been dropped squarely on top of them, leaving only shattered timbers. Trees with diameters of more than two feet were snapped in two, and other trees equally as large were completely uprooted.

Debris, large tree limbs and broken glass littered the streets of Desloge and Cantwell. Telephone and electric power lines dangled from poles that [had] been bent nearly to the ground or completely broken.

M. W. Drace, local manager of the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, stated that 2,000 telephones were put out of order by the tornado, but by 9:00 p.m. Tuesday, 800 of them had been restored. A trailer truck load of cable and equipment was delivered Wednesday morning, and approximately 100 men from nearby towns are here to assist in restoring service. All long distance circuits were back in service about five hours after the storm struck.

This writer drove through the devastated communities on Wednesday afternoon, and there are no words which will adequately describe the enormity of the damage caused. The beautiful Desloge High School building and Auditorium, pride of the community, is almost a total loss; the same thing happened to the Cantwell Grade School. Other public buildings extensively damaged or destroyed include the Desloge Methodist Church and parsonage, the Jones Market, Foshee's IGA Market, Strickland's Store, Cantwell Post Office, Desloge Variety Store, Grisham Store, Kirshon Produce, Church of God, Cantwell; School for Retarded Children (formerly the Greek Orthodox Church), Desloge.

While no one is capable of making an estimate as to the damage done in life and property, it is safe to say it might run as high as ten million, including utilities.

Union Electric Company employees from Transmission, Substation and Distribution Departments have been working around the clock restoring service to the thousands of customers that were cut-off from electric service by Tuesday's tornado. As the tornado struck, approximately 8,000 customers were out of service. Within an hour service had been restored to about 5,000 customers. A short time afterward service was restored to the Bonne Terre area by a temporary connection with Crystal City. By 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, service had been restored to Leadwood.

Approximately 250-300 customers in portions of the disaster area, Mitchell, central Desloge and other areas around French Village are still without service. However, many of these customers would not be able to use electric service due to the extent of damage to their homes and businesses. These are being connected continously throughout the day as the electric lines are being rebuilt.

Men and heavy equipment from other districts were on their way to the area within an hour after the tornado had struck to repair the heavy damage to the big transmissions and to the distribution system. At present 204 men are working to restore service as quickly as possible.

All customers: residential, farm and business, have been most considerate and extremely patient in this emergency for which the Company and employees are most grateful.

At the invitation of Rex Davis, News Director for Radio Station KMOX in St. Louis, The Lead Belt News editor made the following statement Wednesday morning over a nationwide broadcast:

"Yesterday afternoon about 4 o'clock The Lead Belt News Staff noted two clouds of extreme density, one from the southeast, the other from the northwest. They met a time or two and parted, but finally at 4:20 they met and cut a path of destruction of property and life about a half mile wide thru Desloge, Cantwell and rural territory. I viewed as much as possible during the evening but did not see the full picture until this morning. The main business section in Desloge is just about leveled along with one-fourth the residences. One entirely new section in the southeastern part of town is wiped out. Both the High School and Auditorium are complete wrecks. Utility poles and wires, along with giant trees are strewn over most of the streets. Cantwell is about half wiped out which includes all business houses and the grade school. Houses not totally destroyed are sitting in the middle of the streets. While there is no panic, people are gathered in huddles talking about the troubles and losses. In Desloge the Methodist Church was badly damaged and the parsonage completely destroyed. An old church building used as a school for retarded children was flattened. Practically all the big oak trees in Desloge City park were uprooted. National Guard Units, additional Highway Patrol, Desloge firemen, the Sheriff's force, are all busy directing traffic and folks should be warned not to come to the stricken district if on sight seeing trip. It may be several days before electric power is restored and phone service is about out of the question."

Desloge High School and Cantwell Grade School classes are being held in the First Baptist Church and Masonic Temple. It was reported yesterday that the Cantwell Post Office will reopen in the S. V. Hipsher home.

Coroner Berl J. Miller has not conducted inquests in the deaths of the tornado victims, but they will probably be held next week.

A speaker for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company stated yesterday that all toll circuits had been restored at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, ten lines to Potosi went out during the rain storm, but were restored within an hour; and that 450 telephones which had been restored to service in the tornado area here, went out again Wednesday night during the electrical and rain storm.

Red Cross blood plasma was rushed to Bonne Terre Hospital by the Civil Air Patrol, after a plea had been sent to St. Louis headquarters. All ambulances were called out.

Other nearby communities damaged by the tornado included Belgrade, Leadwood and Frankclay.

The home of Mrs. Myrtle (Jesse) Turley in the Fairview community was leveled by the tornado, but Mrs. Turley was unhurt.



Funeral services for Mr. and Mrs. Everett Ragsdale, who lost their lives in the tornado which struck Desloge-Cantwell community on Tuesday afternoon, will be held Friday May 24, at Taylor Avenue Methodist Church in Flat River. The Rev. John Glassey, pastor, will conduct the services and burial will be in St. Francois Memorial Park. Caldwell Service.

Mrs. Ragsdale, the former Alice Edna Thomason, was born in Fredericktown, April 8, 1890, a daughter of the late Elizabeth Gale and A. J. Thomason, and was aged 67 years 1 month 13 days at the time of death. Brothers and sisters surviving are: Dr. Gale Thomason and Mrs. Edith Rigsbee, Flat River; Mrs. Nell Martin and Mrs. Florence Zarub, Bull Shoals, Ark.; Harry Thomason, Elvins; and Claude Thomason, Beaver, Pa.

Everett Sterling Ragsdale, son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Herman Joshua Ragsdale, was born in Mine La Motte, Mo., June 25, 1891, and at the time of death was aged 65 years 10 months 27 days. He is survived by a brother, Luther Sylvester Ragsdale of St. Louis.

Mr. and Mrs. Ragsdale moved to Cantwell a few years ago, from Rock Island, Ill.

Published by THE LEAD BELT NEWS, Flat River, St. Francois Co. MO, Fri. May 24, 1957.


Francis Alfred Pratt [sic], son of Eli R. Pratt [sic], was born in Washington County, August 19, 1912, and died as a result of the tornado, May 21, 1957, at the age of 44 years 9 months 2 days.

The body is in state at the home of his brother, Wilford Pratt, Desloge, until Saturday, when funeral services will be held at the Immaculate Conception Church at 9:00 a.m. with the Rev. Gottwald officiating. Burial will be in the Catholic Cemetery, St. Francois. C.Z. Boyer & Son Service.

He leaves to mourn his passing his father, Eli R. Pratt, a brother, Wilford Pratt; two sisters, Mrs. John Raymo and Mrs. Raymond Pratt; a niece, Mrs. Harold Whaley, other relatives and friends.

Published by THE LEAD BELT NEWS, Flat River, St. Francois Co. MO, Fri. May 24, 1957.


The body of Mrs. Mary Cunningham of Colorado Springs, Colo., who was killed in Tuesday's tornado, is at the Sparks Funeral Home in Bonne Terre. Arrangements for funeral services will be made when members of her family arrive; a daughter was expected here yesterday from Colorado Springs. Her husband, Emmett Cunningham, was critically injured and was unconscious for several hours after the storm hit the Lawrence Cunningham home where they were visiting. He is a patient in Bonne Terre Hospital.

Published by THE LEAD BELT NEWS, Flat River, St. Francois Co. MO, Fri. May 24, 1957.


Funeral services will be held Saturday, May 25, at 2:00 p.m. at Memorial Methodist Church in Farmington for Mr. and Mrs. Hubert [sic] Cunningham of Farmington, both of whom lost their lives in the tornado Tuesday afternoon. Their pastor, Dr. Carl A. Bergsten, will officiate. They are in state at Cozean Funeral Home.

Mr. Cunningham, an employee of Lees' Shopping Center, and his wife, were about 60 years of age and had been married more than thirty years.

Mr. Cunningham was the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Cunningham and grew up on a farm five miles north of Farmington. He had lived in that community his entire life. Mrs. Cunningham, who was Miss Joyce Cunningham before her marriage, was the daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Cunningham. She also grew up and lived in St. Francois county most of her life. She is survived by one brother, Clarence Cunningham of Desloge.

Also guests at the family dinner were Mr. and Mrs. J. E. Cunningham of Colorado Springs. Mrs. Mary Cunningham, wife of J. E. Cunningham, also lost her life in the storm.

Surviving Mr. Cunningham are five brothers and one sister: C. E. Cunningham, Antioch, Ill.; J. E. Cunningham, Colorado Springs, Colo.; C. H. Cunningham, Millington, Mich.; Lawrence Cunningham, Route One, Bonne Terre; Mrs. M. Glenn Denison of Farmington Route [?].

Published by THE LEAD BELT NEWS, Flat River, St. Francois Co. MO, Fri. May 24, 1957.