Wilmore, Kansas, before the tornado hit on May 20th, 1949. Photo by John Edward Schrock.
May 20th, 1949 was just an average beautiful spring day in Wilmore, Comanche County, Kansas. It was the last day of school and, according to custom, the school had a basket dinner to celebrate the fact. Everyone connected with the school in any way, or just anyone who wanted to, brought food and joined in the festivities. There was always a tremendous variety and amount of food If my memory serves me correctly, I believe this was the last year the dinner was held. This year it was held in the combination bus garage, lunchroom and kitchen that had been built a few years earlier.
I don't have any hard figures but I'm sure there were over 100 people in the bus garage and lunchroom around noon, but by the grace of God, by 4 p.m. everyone had left the area.
At approximately 4 p.m., a tornado swept into town. It hit Marvin Downing's house at the S.W. corner of town first. He had a small square frame house with 4 equal-sized rooms. He was sitting in the living room, the southeast room of the house. He was sitting on a wooden kitchen chair in the N.W. corner of the room near the wood stove, reading a newspaper. In a matter of seconds he was sitting on his chair with only the floor of the house and the stove beside him. The balance of the house and everything else in it were simply gone.
One of the many strange things was that even tho' his paper had not been torn, or pulled from his hands, the wall approx. 2 feet to his left was gone and the one aproximately 6 feet to his right was also gone. It seems that it just wasn't his time to go. He had a new home built on the same spot and lived out his life there, but I'm sure he never forgot that day.
This tornado did not stay on the ground very long at a time. It skipped several homes before it hit the school garage and lunch room. The school buses (5 or 6) had been out of the garage for the dinner that day but were all back in place by then. The tornado simply destroyed the building completely. It was a brick building, and there were never many of the bricks from it found. The buses suffered very little damage, no serious body damage - just a few scratches. Another amazing thing was that none of the buses were pushed over the hill into Mule Creek. The building was just on the west edge of the very steep hill that ran down to the creek.
From all appearances it seemed very probable that there was more than one tornado. As far as I ever heard, no one saw the one that they knew was present, much less a second or third one. The downtown section of town was severely damaged with little damage between Marvin's house and downtown or the school and downtown. The Wilmore Hardware Company (owned by Perry Wall and operated by Gene Dorsey, his son-in-law) was a large old cement block building and was totally destroyed, while a large old frame, tin-covered bldg. just 6 feet to the south of it was not damaged at all.
Forrest ("Pudge") Wood, son of Basil and Gladys Wood, had just bought his first car, a 1942 Pontiac, and it was a cream puff. It was unusual at that time to find a 7 years-old that was that nice. It was parked east of the hardware bldg. and the cement blocks made short work of it. It was another total loss.
Just about 50 yds. to the N.E. of the hardware was a brick building built by Lou Klutz in the early 1930's as a location for a very successful Dodge dealership. It was approximately 30 feet wide north & south and probably 100 - 120 feet long. Mr. Klutz had passed away by that time and Chet Barnes had a service station, garage and resturant in the building. It was totally destroyed. When the storm was moving in, Mertin Ward took refuge in his car under the canopy that covered the gas pumps on the south side of the building to wait the storm out. In a matter of minutes the building was gone including the roof over his head. The only problem was that one of the pumps - the type that you pumped up by hand and which held 10 gallons in a glass tank -was leaning on his car. He simply stepped out, pushed the pump off his car and drove off.
According to my recall, the only other building that was totally destroyed was George H. ("Shorty") Sawley's home. Shorty was a favorite to most people around Wilmore. When Dad needed help shocking feed, he would rather have "Shorty" Sawley or "Cap" McMillen if he could get them than anyone else he could find. I believe Shorty was born in Kentucky but no one ever knew for sure. He drifted into Wilmore right after World War I and lived the balance of his life there. He was the victim of German gas warfare. His mind didn't work as well as it had before, but his heart was as big as anyone's I've ever seen. His home was not very much but it was all he had. After considerable pressure from some of the prominent people of Wilmore, the Red Cross finally built a small 1-room home for him in which he spent the rest of his days.
The phone company building (at that time independently owned by Austin and Gertrude Cobb) was also severely damaged. With all this damage, there was no one killed or even a minor injury.
That day I went to the dinner as did almost everyone in the community. After lunch I had a date with Alice Norton in Protection, Ks. I don't recall what we did that afternoon but I do remember that at one time we saw seven small funnels in the clouds and that I jokingly said that they were headed straight for Wilmore. I didn't realize then how right I was.
At about dusk we got the news that Wilmore had been hit so I headed for home. When I got 2 miles west of Wilmore, the sheriff's dept. stopped me and wouldn't allow me to go through. Actually, it wasn't a matter of choice. There were so many trees down that it was impossible to get through town. I went back to Coldwater and then to the (Kiowa/Comanche) county line road. I got to within about 600 yards of our house (the 1887 Loren Ferrin homestead which my brother Buck and I shared) and was again blocked by trees. I walked on in and Buck had just got home the same way I had.
Our house was standing but not in very good shape. There were seven very large cottonwood trees laying on the. house and 25 more down in the immediate yard area. Every rafter in the house was broken and the entire north wall was out about 6 inches at the top. It was repaired but at considerable expense borne by the insurance company (Grandma Alcana Wagner Ferrin owned the house). We lost one granary, our chicken house, a storage shed and all the doors off the barn.
Buck and I had just bought a new L.A. Case tractor and a new Gleaner Baldwin combine. It was unbelievable that the only damage to the new equipment was one 1"x6" grain extension on the grain tank of the combine. The tractor had a few scratches in the paint but not a dent in it. It was pinned in by the "Y" of one tree crossed at a 90~ angle by another very large tree.
Before daylight the next morning Glenn Dellinger was knocking on our door asking us to go to Wilmore to help with the clean-up. Everyone knew that we had a large new tractor and a chain saw. He said that as soon as Wilmore was cleaned up there would be a crew out to help us. We fell for it. We had to make many cuts to free the tractor, but got it out and went around by Ridge Summit school to the (Kiowa - Comanche) county line road so we could get into Wilmore. Buck ran the chain saw and I ran the tractor. I don't remember how many saws or tractors there were but there were quite a few. We worked there three days getting the streets and many people's yards cleaned up. As I said, the tractor was brand-new yet we had to put new tires on it before we put it in the field. I guess that was my fault, I just pulled more than I should have and wore the tread off the tires on the gravel streets.
When noon came on the first clean-up day, May 21st, the Red Cross set up a trailer to feed workers. When Buck and I went to eat, they asked if we lived in town, When we said no, they refused to feed us even after we told them that we were helping with the clean-up. Before that I had always given generously to the Red Cross, but never again. Some people from town went thru the line an extra time or two and we did eat, but not by the graces of the Red Cross. The next 2 days we just told them we lived in town.
When we completed the clean-up in Wilmore, we went home to clean up our mess. We were expecting help, but it never arrived. It took us over 2 years to complete the clean-up. It was spring and we had to get into the fields. We did help Earl "Jimmy" Ferrin, our second cousin who lived across Spring Creek (in the house built by his father, Arthur Ferrin, in 1887) some, but he hired most of his clean-up done.
(Also see: The Wilmore News, May 27, 1949, page 1: "Twister Wrecks Wilmore Business District")
Speaking of tornados, I can think of 2 more that hit our area during my time there (30 April 1927 to 31 May 1966, when we moved to Tucson).
"When I was about 10 years old, a very small one hit about 1/4 mile south of the folk's house. There were several catalpa trees uprooted, but the thing that cinched it as a tornado was the fact that there was a 1-row, horse-drawn cultivator that was carried over the catalpa trees to the hog pen about 500 yards away.
Another time, in the late 1950s, Wayne and Helen (Ferrin) Flory, Buck and Dorothy (Banker) Ferrin and Alice and I and our families were at the folk's house about 4 miles east of Wilmore for Sunday dinner, which was more usual than unusual. Needless to say, there were a lot of kids there, all boys at that time. The older ones, Darrell (Ferrin), Mike (Flory), Rob (Thompson a.k.a. Ferrin), Jerry (Ferrin) and possibly Don (Flory) were playing in the barn.
Dad always watched the clouds in the spring and since there was a mean-looking cloud coming up from the southwest (all tornados travel from the southwest to the northeast even tho' they zig and zag at times), he went to the barn (which was previously the Ridge Summit Schoolhouse) to send the kids to the house. None of the parents were worried but Dad's intuition was better than ours. Dad stayed at the barn an extra few minutes for some reason.
The kids had barely made it to the house when we heard the noise. It was impossible to see the barn from the house because of the trees but the noise was tremendous In a matter of 1 or 2 minutes Dad was at the house. He was probably in his late 60s or early 70s but I bet no young sprinter could have kept up with him on his way to the house.
When he was approx. 50 yards from the barn, the tornado hit it and it simply exploded: the south end of the barn was torn off. That was the noise we had heard. Dad was not injured in any way, but had it not been for his intuition, our children would all have been in serious jeopardy and possibly not all would have survived."
(by Wendel Ferrin, 11/22/87)
-- Wendel Ferrin, "Tornados in the Wilmore, Kansas area", Life Stories, privately published, 1991, Tucson, Arizona.
Another Tornado StoryI had been helping Don York fix fence on an exchange basis on the Baker place southeast of Wilmore and we were coming in at about 3:30 p.m. because of a nasty looking cloud that was coming up in the southwest. We were on Highway 160 east of Coldwater at about the New Eden schoolhouse when we saw a tornado almost due west of us and moving towards the northeast. We pulled into Bob Hackney's yard so I could call Alice, as it looked like it was headed for our house. Bob wasn't at home but Jean and the kids came out into the yard and talked with Don while I went inside to call Alice. When I came outside, Don said: "Look up there". I don't know how high it was, but not nearly high enough to suit me. We were looking directly into the eye of the tornado. We could see tree limbs and other debris, including a picnic table, just floating. They seemed to be barely moving. Needless to say, we hurried Jean and the kids into a storm cellar. Don and I made a quick exit in the pickup. The tornado dissipated without doing any harm." (by Wendel Ferrin, 05/26/89.)
Tales From Tornado Alley by Bobbi (Hackney) Huck.
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