Stories

A Tragic Harvest Celebration

On Sunday, August 10, 1924, four miles east of Thurman, Colorado, the Garrett, Yoder, and Kuhns families gathered at Henry Kuhns' ranch after a Mennonite service. Twenty-seven people had just finished a harvest celebration dinner. Just after 1:00 pm, one of the men spotted a tornado to the north, in the direction of an adjoining ranch.

Very much in the Mennonite tradition of assisting people after disasters, Henry Kuhns and eight other men left to see whether help was needed. When they saw that no buildings had been hit, they returned to the ranch to witness the most tragic moment of their lives. What may have been the next member of that tornado family was bearing down from the west, directly at the ranch house. Eighteen women and children inside were apparently unaware of the approach of an intense, 100-yard-wide funnel.

The men drove southward as fast as possible but, as they came to within 200 yards of the front gate, the house "trembled as if a giant unseen fist was shaking it." After a few seconds "the structure was ripped apart and its occupants hurled into the air." Ten of the 18 people died; nine of the 10 were children.


The Newport Family

In a northwestern Kansas wheat field, not far from the Nebraska border, John Newport returned to his field chores after a brief rain shower had passed. The edge of an enormous thunderstorm, laced with brilliant lightning, had passed overhead and it seemed as if the worst of the storm was over.

Life was not easy on the Great Plains of Phillips County, Kansas on May 25, 1932. For some members of the Newport family, life was about to become even harder. A muffled roar in the distance grew sharper and louder. As John began to move toward the house, he realized that the low, indistinct form in the distance was not rain or a patch of fog, but a rotating transparent cloud, beneath a dark mass of cloud extending under the southwest corner of the thunderstorm. An occasional snake-like form would briefly appear within the cloud, and then suddenly vanish. It was coming directly toward the farm.

At his next glance, three or four contorted and transparent columns would briefly circle the center of what looked like a patch of swirling mist. The cloud looked nothing like the thin funnels and ropes that he had seen in the distance every few years. He now ran at full speed for the house, trying with each gasp to shout "Cyclone!" Within the next few seconds, seven people would make life or death decisions about contentd possessions, about family members, and about self preservation. The rotating cloud had changed from transparent mist to solid brown mass at the edge of the newly plowed fields and continued to advance relentlessly on the small cluster of farm buildings.

With the edge of the vortex still to the southwest, the corner of the roof suddenly gave way and the 30-year-old cottonwood trees that surrounded the house began to snap. A powerful jet of air, flowing into the tornado, began ripping at the house and the entire building vibrated as the unearthly roar grew steadily louder. One child grabbed a prized locket from a dresser, another gazed at the barnyard full of panic-stricken animals, another yelled for the dog. The oldest stared in denial at her mother; the youngest just stood and cried.

The mother had but one thought, that everyone head immediately for the small root cellar. The storm cave, dug some distance from the house, was now out of reach behind a growing wall of flying debris. The root cellar was the only remaining refuge. The children went first, the mother grabbing each by the arm, and quickening their movement by a half-step. The father braced himself against the kitchen door. The last child was on the steps when the parents finally moved toward the cellar, but the first of the intense whirling columns had reached the house.

In later interviews, none of the children mentioned whether there was, between the parents, a final glance at one another. If there were final words at the top of the stairs, they were not heard above the deafening roar.

Winds in excess of 200 mph created a pressure of 20 tons on the side of the small farm house and the building finally reached its limit of resistance. In an instant, a lifetime of work ... walls, beams, plaster, furniture, tools, clothes, toys, books, and family treasures were all airborne. Some would fall only a few hundred feet away; smaller bits and pieces would be carried 120 miles. Sheet metal and boards flew across the barnyard at 150 feet per second, impaling anything that was standing. The 12-inch-thick hand-hewn sills, on which the house had sat for forty years, would hit the ground a quarter-mile away and plunge eight feet into the prairie soil. An entire cottonwood tree was found two miles away.

After a few minutes the children emerged from the cellar, not into the kitchen, but out into a rain and hail storm. They located the lifeless body of their mother about 100 yards from the empty foundation. The father, barely alive, was found 200 yards further away, across the state line in Nebraska. His last words were instructions to get to the nearest neighbor for help, a half mile away. He fell into unconsciousness in the arms of his eldest daughter. The children, Mildred, Martha, Eleanor, Dean, and Paul, ages 3-15, ran through a barrage of five-inch-diameter hail. They arrived at the next farm battered, bloodied, with broken arms and ribs. John died a few hours later neighbor's living room. The children began new lives with their grandparents.


Epilogue

In mid-March, we were incredibly surprised to receive an email from a man in Arkansas. Much to our amazement, he is the grandson of John Newport, Martha's son, the next oldest daughter. He lives only a few miles from the Arkadelphia tornado path. He is involved with a Cub Scout troop, and they decided to study tornadoes. They went onto the web to see if they could find any information about the subject, and discovered this page. He was flabbergasted to find himself reading about his own family!

Shortly afterware, we were able to speak with Eleanor, and found that she remembered details about the tornado that were not in the story. Eleanor's most vivid memory is of the corner of the house lifting up and the light appearing just above the floor. The children crawled underneath the remnant of a door to seek shelter from the pounding hail. In a state of shock, the next thing she remembered was waking up at the neighbor's home hours later. The daughters were kept pretty much together by other members of the family, and all graduated from the local high school before they went their own ways.

We had a very pleasant visit with Eleanor in June, 1997. She, her husband, and their three children farmed wheat and cattle in southern Nebraska, not far from the Kansas border. At 79, Eleanor was retired, but was very active keeping her lawn and garden neat and blooming. A few of her old photos are below. They are right above the photo of the storm shelter that sits about 20 feet from their home. It was one of the first things Eleanor and her husband built after moving there.

Eleanor at 79 years old.

Eleanor in June, 1997


what was left of the Newport home

This is all that was left of the Newport family's home, an empty foundation with a washing machine next to it. Eleanor told us that she had no idea of who the people were that were in the photo. Many area residents came by to look at the damage. She said that you can still see tree damage at the site. We intended to go there as well, but 3 inches of rain had fallen the night before, and the road to the home site was a quagmire.



tornado damage at the Newport farm

This was other tornado damage at the Newport farm.



storm cellar at Eleanor's house

The storm cellar at Eleanor's home. The door leads down a set of steps and into a dry, roomy cellar. She stores her home-canned fruits and vegetables there, so it serves double duty.



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