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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Remembering the Ruskin Heights Tornado 60 Years Later

Everyone seemed to sense something strange in the air. The smell was even reported to have been different - a humid tension building havoc well beyond the skyline. 

The wind howled across the plains, evoking the ability to feel that something just wasn’t quite right. The humidity rose as it tends to do in the Midwest, creating a dewy balminess to the day.

The afternoon looked unusual- as if looking through a yellow filter. Quiet. . . something strange and eerie about the feelings hiding in the clouds.

Original Martin City kindergarten
graduation program- May 20, 1957
Courtesy of Jay Roberts 
But it was a Monday afternoon in southern Jackson County, the school year coming to a swift close. The daily life of a suburbanite had young baby boomers off at various locations with their 20 and 30-something parents in tow.

At the Methodist Church in Martin City, the Boy Scouts had their weekly meeting scheduled, and kindergarten graduation would crowd the newly-built school.

It was just another warm May day in Ruskin Heights. Parents of small children shuffled them to and from activities. No one could even begin to imagine what the sky had brewing amidst the atmosphere above.

May 20th, 1957 will go down in the history books as one of the most pivotal weather-related events in the Kansas City metro area. Sixty years ago, residents of Ottawa, Spring Hill, Martin City, Hickman Mills and Ruskin would forever be changed.

These communities couldn’t predict the course that would follow. Farmers, dairymen, World War II vets and their young baby-boomer families consisting of 2.5 children, small business owners, the elderly who had seen so much through their eyes. . . no one knew.

Mrs. Helen McKinney (1902-1990)
Courtesy of Carol McKinney-Woodcox

55 year-old Mrs. Helen McKinney, first grade teacher at Martin City and a cherished member of the community, was more concerned about what the humidity would do to her hair than the fragment of a possibility that a twister would thrash its way straight through the heart of her little city.

Jay Roberts, a freshman at Grandview High School and Jim, his younger brother, were being wrangled up by their father to head to the kindergarten graduation at Martin City. Their little sister was to receive her honors. Jay fought the idea of going; he had finals to study for and begged to stay home.

Sandy, John and their father, Allen McGee, had plans to attend the weekly Boy Scout meeting at the Martin City Methodist Church while ten year-old Karen Ray Miller was at home with her two younger brothers and mother at 124th and Holmes; her father was working late.

Nearby in Ruskin Heights, 14 year-old Don Flora had plans with twin brother Ronnie to attend a Boy Scout meeting at a neighbor’s house on the east side of the community. Seven-year old brother Hill had informal plans to play with the plethora of children in the neighborhood.

Author of two books on the Ruskin Heights Tornado, Caught in the Path and Caught Ever After, Carolyn Glenn Brewer stated, “Ruskin Heights was the first tract housing development in the Kansas City area. Most of them didn’t have basements.”

Roy Hopkins, 11 years old and along for the ride, was with his mother, Evelyn, and his little sister, Kate. Roy’s younger brother had a baseball game at the elementary school and his older sister, Sue had 8th grade graduation practice at Grandview High School.

It was a busy afternoon in May, full of indoor and outdoor activities that wouldn’t halt at the chance of a quick-passing storm. These things were common; the day would move along as planned.

The path of the Ruskin Heights Tornado. Courtesy of the National Weather Service.
 The three primary networks on television would air their normal programming. These were the days of uninterrupted shows- no weather alerts, Doppler Radar or live coverage would dare interfere with I Love Lucy or the 64,000 Question. Most people, quite honestly, got their weather alerts from looking at the sky.

Keep in mind during this time, there wasn’t live radar broadcast to the masses. Tornado sirens? Not in 1957.

But people did sense in their gut that something just wasn’t right. But alas, the day would move forward with activities that spilled into dusk.

At about 6pm, the Weather Bureau, a precursor to what we know today as the National Weather Service, picked up funnels and pinpointed the Kansas City area as a possible target.

Mrs. McKinney had to prepare dinner for her husband and her visiting son and daughter-in-law. Helen raced down to Atkinson’s Martin City Market at 135th and Holmes. She’d need to get her groceries, return home to cook dinner, get ready and run up to the school for the kindergarten graduation scheduled at 7:30.

One of the only photos taken in Ottawa of the twister that would become
 known as the "Ruskin Heights Tornado"
She greeted a friendly face, 43 year-old butcher, Lowell Atkinson. Lowell, according to his daughter, Kathy, was an incredibly hard worker who always made time to be with his wife and four children.

Wishing to cook her visiting family a nice dinner, Mrs. McKinney requested steaks. Unfortunately, Lowell was out and told her the meat truck would be there the next day with fresh selections. She opted for two slices of ham and said she would be back.

Mrs. McKinney waved goodbye to Lowell Atkinson as she left and headed home to organize her evening. Lowell, a big man with broad shoulders, waved and smiled as Mrs. McKinney departed.

At 6:15pm, the skies opened up and formed a swirling tornado 63 miles southwest of the little community of Martin City. This was the tornado that would transform hundreds of men, women and children for the rest of their lives.

As the tornado grew in strength, it traveled at about 42 miles per hour and hit Antioch Cemetery near Ottawa and carried headstones from their sleeping graves for several miles.

Mr. and Mrs. J.A. Marsh, 84 and 78 years old, sat down in their modest home 2.5 miles from Ottawa to eat supper. Unsuspecting of the growing severity of the situation brewing outside, Mr. and Mrs. Marsh were swept away in the winds and were the first two victims of what would come to be known nationwide as the “Ruskin Heights Tornado.”

Half of a letter addressed to the first victims was found later six miles away from their leveled home.

Damage to a school bus in Martin City.
Photo courtesy of Roy Hopkins.
Reports of the tornado reached the Kansas City metro, but no one seemed too concerned. It was 50 miles away from Martin City and 61 miles away from Ruskin Heights. It was safe to assume danger was far out of reach.

Activities scheduled were a go while other residents in Martin City, Grandview, and Ruskin Heights prepared to sit down after dinner to watch I Love Lucy or The 64,000 Question as this twister tore across the countryside heading northwest- a direct path to these people.

Fifteen minutes later at 6:30 p.m., the funnel was sighted 40 miles southwest of Kansas City.

The show must go on. There were meetings to go to, graduations to attend, dinner to cook, shows to watch, and baseball games to play. Although the skies still seemed unsettled, the communities of Martin City and Ruskin went about their lives with one eye at the sky.

By 7:23pm, the twister had torn its way through just south of Olathe and northwest of Spring Hill, Ks. When it arrived at Isham Davis’s farm, it killed him and left him in the wreckage.

A photo of the tornado taken as it hit near Ottawa, KS.
His wife, Barbara Davis and their two girls, Pamela, seven, and Tamara, five, were later found dead in a field ¼ mile northwest of their farmhouse.
   
Mrs. McGee took the warnings seriously. Her husband, Allen and her two sons stood at the site of the path of the tornado spotted in Kansas. She rang the Martin City Methodist Church and urgently asked to speak to her husband.

“This tornado in Kansas is projected to hit Martin City,” she excitedly explained.

Without much more pressing, Allen McGee loaded his boys into the car and drove north three miles to their farm at 120th and State Line, unaware at the time that his wife had been more than right about the projected path.

Kindergarten graduation was to start at 7:30pm, and Jay and Jim Roberts shuffled into the Martin City school to reluctantly see their little sister get her kindergarten diploma. Mrs. McKinney greeted the children and families at the doors, the unsettled skies rumbling nearer and nearer.

Just before 7:30pm, an airline pilot reported the funnel was just two miles west of the Grandview Airport.

A view looking southeast along 135th St., the remains of
Badger Lumber, the current location of the abandoned Sutherlands
building in Martin City. Courtesy of Roy Hopkins
“Time was relative that night,” Don Flora recalled as he rehashed his memories of the Ruskin Heights Tornado. He and his brother were in midst of a meeting for the Boy Scouts in Ruskin when the clouds were developing, but there seemed to be no hint of a tornado.

“Pop was very fascinated by thunderstorms. It seemed to me watching thunderstorms may have been one of his life pleasures,” Hill Flora stated from his 7 year-old memories of that night. “He had the garage door open and was standing just inside the door watching these storms.”

Back in Martin City, butcher Lowell Atkinson was sensing that there may be something to these storms. Kathy Atkinson DenHollander, ten years old, was at home when her father called to tell her family to take cover. Her mother sent the children to the basement and stayed upstairs. “She was scrubbing the floors,” Kathy recalled. “I’m assuming she was just trying to keep busy or was in shock.”

Just northeast of Lowell Atkinson’s store in Martin City, 57 year-old widow Lena Smith and her 24 year-old daughter got wind of the impending storm. It had gained power- it was larger than anyone could ever imagine in their wildest dreams.

Mrs. McKinney, Jay and Jim Roberts and countless other community members had noticed that the sky to the southwest seemed green- it was far from normal. As people began to slowly saunter into the stuffy school, things turned daunting.
The kindergarten graduates of Martin City taken prior to the tornado- May 20, 1957
Courtesy of Jay Roberts

At 7:37pm, it became clear in Martin City the storm was a tornado- and it was a nightmare.

Helen McKinney recalled, “Just then, Superintendent Taylor hurried to the platform and raised his hands. ‘Take your children and go quickly to the central hall,’ he said. ‘Everyone take hold of a child if there is one near you,’ he shouted.  ‘Go to the hall and get down on the floor!’”

Karen Ray Miller in
4th grade
The McGee’s, thanks to a quick call from the matriarch of the family, steadied their gaze to the skies to the southwest. They hunkered into their storm cellar and listened contently to the radio. It was clear by then- there was a tornado churning and blasting through the community of Martin City where they had been minutes before.

Many weren’t as lucky as the McGee’s and had no storm shelter or basement to use as a bunker, shielding their bodies from the sheer terror of what could be racing along the horizon.

Karen Ray Miller, her mother and two brothers were warned by neighbor Harold Gadd at 124th and Holmes. Harold had been at the Boy Scout meeting at the Methodist Church in Martin City when he heard a tornado was on its way. “He came home and got his wife and all of us and took us back to the church,” Karen recollected.

Thus, some people literally drove into the eye of the storm without even knowing it. “We didn’t have basements,” Karen explained.

The inside of the Martin City kindergarten graduation program
Courtesy of Jay Roberts 
The tornado showed no mercy. No one was ever prepared or could predict the power of an F-5. This event changed everything at the time and headlined some of the most important changes in weather reporting.

Chief Meteorologist Bryan Busby for KMBC Channel 9 described the magnitude of an F-5 tornado. “Everything is leveled down to concrete slabs and foundations. Nothing is left standing. Trees that are still upright are debarked and road surfaces are stripped off the streets.”

As it crushed buildings, houses, and roadways, the twister gained strength as it engulfed the landscape. It headed in its northeasterly pattern, passing a short distance away from the kindergarten graduation.

K and K Motor Service, the Mobil Gas Station in Martin City
before the tornado hit. The building was made of concrete blocks and brick.
Courtesy of Dan Keister
Mrs. McKinney and the Roberts boys followed the swift directions of the superintendent and headed for the hallway of the Martin City school. The lights went out, sending a dark shadow over everyone inside. “That roaring chug, chug, chug, chug as of a huge, laboring, straining engine coming closer. . . each frightful moment filled our ears.  I stumbled into two small children, took their hands, rushed with the others to the hall, and crouched down against the wall,” Mrs. McKinney wrote in a letter to her family.

It’s surreal how some react in sticky situations. There was a composed calmness at the kindergarten graduation- as if the community had extended their arms and banded together to barricade themselves from the unknown. Mrs. McKinney wrote, “There was no panic really.  The sudden darkness was frightening to the small children.  Some elderly people needed to be helped. Superintendent Taylor shouted for us all to lie down flat on the floor.”

The Martin City School was spared, but not before the sucking power of the tornado threw some, including Jay and Jim Roberts, far down the hallway, broken glass and shaking foundations below them.

Just down the road between the Martin City school and the Methodist Church was a Mobil gas station called “K and K Motor Service” run by brothers Jim and Herb Keister. With the tornado approaching, the brothers decided to make a run for it up to Jim’s home on Cherry St. “My dad and uncle jumped in the car and just got across the railroad crossing to turn up Cherry when they realized they were not going to make it,” Jim Keister, son and nephew of the men recalled.

All that remained of K and K Motor Service, a Mobil Gas Station.
The Keister brothers survived by holding onto a tractor inside.
Courtesy of Dan Keister.
Jim continued, “So, they turned around quick and went back to the garage. There was a big farm tractor they had been working on in the garage so they positioned themselves in the rear wheels and held on for dear life."

The tornado crushed the building into unrecognizable pieces. A beam over 40 feet wide ripped off and crashed nearby.

Roy Hopkins and his family, who resided at the house (612 E. 135th St.) next door to the Mobil Station left the baseball game out of the tornado’s grasp fully aware of the darkened skies near his home. Their dog, Candy had been left chained up to his dog house in the backyard.

Damage at Roy Hopkins' house at 612 E. 135th St. in
Martin City. Even though their dog was safe on the porch,
the doghouse he had been chained to was never found.
At 135th and Oak St., 12 homes stood prior to the tornado. After it passed through at unimaginable strength, eight of the houses were stripped down to their foundations.

Seconds before it crossed 135th Street and gained strength, Karen Ray Miller was pulling into the church in Martin City. “We got out of the car and as we ran into the church, [someone] called out to the store owner across the street to come with us to the basement. He said he was okay and he was going to watch.”

The man that someone called out to was none other than butcher Lowell Atkinson at the Martin City Market. Karen had barely sat down in the basement when the tornado hit with a loud roar. “The basement windows had been opened to equalize pressure and as I looked out, I could see trees that looked as if they were floating in the air,” she recalled.

The tornado hit 135th and Holmes St., slaughtering the stable buildings on the east side of the street. The original Jess and Jim's, established in 1938 as a small bar and grill, was originally where Jack Stack is today. It was caught in the tornado's fury along with a real estate company and a grocery store.

A view looking northeast on 135th St. showing the damage
to the gas station, a National Guardsman stationed nearby.
Courtesy of Roy Hopkins
Fortunately, Jess and Jim’s, a destination restaurant in the area, was empty at the time of the tornado. Carolyn Glenn Brewer explained, “It was a real blessing that Jess and Jim’s wasn’t open that Monday. It was the first Monday they had decided to close. Can you imagine how many more casualties there could have been?”

One of the only remains left of Jess and Jim’s was a pet parakeet that had miraculously survived.

The grocery store leveled just south of the restaurant was where Lowell Atkinson had decided to stay.

At 13401 Charlotte, just behind Jess and Jim’s at 135th and Holmes in Martin City, Lena and daughter Margaret were literally carried away in the twister. 24 year-old Margaret was the seventh victim of the storm, and her mother was thrown over 100 yards away from the home and into a nearby field.

The tornado ripped through the shopping center at 111th and Blue Ridge Blvd. By 7:50pm, the tornado was at Holmes Park at 95th and 71 Highway. 

Damage in Hickman Mills. Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Times.
Roy Hopkins and part of his family watched from afar in sheer terror as they arrived at Grandview High School to pick up his sister from graduation practice. “We watched the tornado pass to the north of Grandview. It was amazing that the funnel cloud looked so small compared to the path it cut across Ruskin Heights,” Roy reminisced.

Carolyn Glenn Brewer explained that tornadoes can be eerily deceiving. “If it’s coming right at you, you can’t tell it’s moving toward you.”

It’s hard to imagine that this tornado was still gaining its strength. As it consumed Martin City, the tornado grew even larger, capping out at up to ½ mile wide.
The Flora Family in winter 1956.
Top Row L-R- Don, Hill Sr., Ron. Middle Row- Henrietta
Bottom Row L-R- Hill, Jr., Cathy, Donna, Reba
Courtesy of Don Flora

There were no tornado sirens- no central communication to let people know that they should take cover.

Don and twin brother, Ronnie were rushed during their Boy Scout meeting into the basement. As the tornado advanced toward Ruskin Heights, Don recalled, “I remember hearing a loud noise- I came to remember it as the sound of a train.”

Don’s seven year-old brother, Hill was home with the family at 11509 Sunnyside Drive (now Sunnyslope Drive). Hill and his three younger sisters had settled in front of the television set to watch I Love Lucy. His mom started to make peanut butter fudge when the power went out around 7:15pm due to the storms in the area.

Minutes later, a massive tornado had scathed the side of Truman Corners shopping center and was heading toward its deadliest intersections.

Mr. Flora was still surveying the skies on Sunnyside Drive when Hill went out to join him. Just a short time later, there was a loud noise off to the south- the tornado was destroying the Hickman Mills Bank just a few blocks away.

There was little time to react. Mr. Flora hastily pulled his car out of the garage and loaded the kids inside. He became enraged when his wife, according to Hill, “went around the house closing windows and the front door.”

The tornado was on their heels and time was running short. As they raced away, Hill was watching through the back window of their car. At the corner of 115th and 71 Hwy. (now Hickman Mills Dr.), an image of the destruction was burned in seven year-old Hill’s memory.

Ruskin Heights had a distinct carved-out path that
could be seen from the air. Courtesy of the Kansas
City Star.
“I watched as our house was picked up and turned over and broken apart on the houses due east of our house,” Hill recalled. “It was in slow motion. . . the back of the car felt like it was being lifted off the ground.”

Bryan Busby looked at some of the iconic images from the tornado damage in Martin City and Ruskin Heights. “I am astounded at the sheer force of that tornado. It pretty much wiped total neighborhoods off the face of the earth. It was so tough to navigate destroyed areas, since there were no landmarks anymore.”

As the Flora Family outran the tornado, they set out to go get the twins, Don and Ron from the Boy Scout meeting. Retracing their route was difficult; roads, houses and signs had been steamrolled to the ground.

Once they arrived at the house of the Boy Scout meeting, it became clear that the twins had been brought back to their house.

But their house didn’t exist anymore.

The twins had returned from their Boy Scout meeting and walked down a nearly unrecognizable street. The first two houses on either side of the street were still there. “Our house was the third from the left. There was nothing there- nothing.” As Don and Ron gazed around the destruction of their neighborhood, the house across the street was still whole, but the house next to it was partially gone. Then nothing.

Nothing.

And nothing was what those boys did as they stood speechless in front of an empty lot at 11509 Sunnyside Drive.

Damage to the Ruskin Heights Shopping Center
Courtesy of the Kansas City Star
The devastation of this F5 Tornado is hard to decipher. The memories attached to the madness it created have not been forgotten. Researching, pulling photos, and listening to just a fragment of the survivors has had a profound effect on me personally. . . and I wasn’t even born yet.

When Carolyn Glenn Brewer was doing research and interviews for her two books, she was caught by the same revelations. “As I talked to people, it was really something to see how much power this event had over the people that survived it.”

15 stores in the Ruskin Heights shopping center at 110th St. were completely demolished. Over 900 businesses, homes and schools were destroyed. The most severe of the damage was in the tract housing development, Ruskin Heights, which is where the tornado’s namesake derives. The path carved out by the strengthened tornado went straight through Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills, leaving 25 dead in the community.

Damage looking west along 135th St. The current site of Jess and Jim's
can be seen in the top left, a chunk of the second story destroyed.
The remains of the Mobil Station can be seen in the forefront.
Courtesy of Roy Hopkins
“When people ask me the strangest thing about a very large tornado, I tell them the smell. . . it was simply incredible,” Hill Flora said. “The smell of soil, dust, gasoline, natural gas, broken lumber, broken trees and God only know what else is still so vivid.”

Once the tornado headed up on the outskirts of Lee’s Summit and hit Knobtown, it lifted and vanished into the stirring skies above, taking four victims in Grandview and two in Knobtown.

The aftermath was simply surreal; there was something that drew the community as a whole together, linked by the fury that fostered from the sky.

In Martin City, the community at the school slowly emerged from the ground and accounted for everyone. The Boy Scouts in the area grouped together and created search teams to try to dig the survivors from the rubble.

Elsie Gilby after the tornado
where her house stood
Courtesy of the Kansas City Times
The little city was in ruins. The main business district at the time was on Holmes Rd. where Jack Stack is today. 88 year-old longtime Martin City resident Gus Broockered recalled that 25 houses were leveled and businesses including Badger Lumber, Martin City Garage, Cross Plumbing, Jess and Jim’s and Atkinson’s Martin City Market were crushed into unrecognizable pieces.

Gus’s house on Charlotte was completely gone but he had been safe at the kindergarten graduation. He recalled that an elderly couple's house two doors down from his house was leveled. Jack Gilby had been bedridden and set up in a cot in his living room. His wife was sitting on a couch. In order to protect him, his wife, Elsie threw herself on top of him. She was thrown during the tornado; however, Mr. Gilby was left practically untouched and in tact as his entire house was stripped completely away - including the appliances. “There wasn’t a scratch on him,” Gus recalled.

Photo looking west at the damage in Martin City, the Methodist Church one of the only surviving structures. 135th St. can be seen on the left. Holmes Rd. runs parallel in the photo. Jess & Jim's was directly across the street from the church and Atkinson's Martin City Market was just to the southeast of the church.
Charlotte St. behind current-day Jack Stack was hit hard. Mrs. Lena Smith was thrown 100 yards and suffered a severe fracture to her head- but she was still alive and transported to Menorah Hospital. Her daughter, Margaret didn’t make it.

Dusk had settled on the horizon; the light was fading as people emerged from their hiding spots. The National Guard was called out to the area to keep looters out. They set up large lighting so that search and rescue efforts could continue.

Jay and Jim Roberts' house on 135th St. after the tornado.
The house was structurally unsound and they moved shortly
after the tornado.
15 year-old Jay Roberts joined a group of the Boy Scouts to look for survivors. They headed to the area where Atkinson’s Martin City Market was and searched within the debris. Jay recalled, “My group was the one that discovered the body of the grocery store worker that was found crushed between tons of canned goods and debris.”

This image is burned into the memory of Jay at 15 years old and even now. Lowell Atkinson had died in midst of the tornado, his resting place being the remains of the store he had worked so hard to build.

Railroad cars weighing tons were turned over, and a Pontiac was found, wrapped bumper to bumper, twisted around a tree. Other vehicles rested in the middle of fields next to dislodged bathtubs. Debris from neighboring houses and businesses spread far and wide.

Ruskin High School took a brunt of the damage in the area, an iconic symbol of the strength of this F-5 tornado that swept its fury across southern Jackson County. The school was leveled, and the only recognizable structure still standing were the curved beams of the gymnasium. The Ruskin Heights Presbyterian Church was stripped all the way down to its foundation.

The tornado had a sense of humor; the only letters remaining spelled out
"RUIN" in place of "Ruskin." Photo courtesy of the Jackson County Advocate.
The aftermath of this F-5 tornado is hard to imagine even today. The tornado was on the ground for a whopping 71 miles and 1 hour 38 minutes. 40 were dead and 531 were injured. The wounded all crowded two area hospitals, some being brought in on top of doors since stretchers were limited. Many people in Martin City didn’t have home insurance since their families had owned property for generations.

In Martin City, many lives were spared since so many people in the community were gathered at events at the church and the school. “I am so thankful that so many of the local townspeople were supporting the new graduates at the schoolhouse. The loss of life and property could have been much worse,” Jay Roberts stated.

Damage of Ruskin High School, courtesy of the Kansas City Star.
He’s right; had there not been two large functions going on in town and if Jess and Jim’s had been open on that Monday, the list of casualties would be much, much longer.

Roy Hopkins and his family returned from Grandview to Martin City unsure of what would be remaining. Miraculously, their two story white frame house was still in-tact and their dog Candy was waiting for them on the front porch.

But directly next door, steps away from their home, the brick and cement-block Mobil Station run by the Keister brothers was completely destroyed.

Hill Flora remembers all the odd things he witnessed in the days following the Ruskin Heights tornado that took his home. “Black top streets were torn up by the wind. Where our house had been the yard was almost completely clear of debris, but the next yard over was knee-deep in trash,” Hill recalled. “It was simply incredible.”

Debris, including letters from Hickman Mills, Ruskin Heights and Martin City, were found in the Richmond, Mo. area 60+ miles away.

There were many lessons learned amidst the chaos. Why were all the victims taken to only two hospitals, Richards-Gebaur and Menorah? What could be done to prevent this mass devastation in the future?

Immediately following the Ruskin Heights tornado, alert systems were put into place throughout the country. The Civil Defense system that had been installed in major cities to warn of a nuclear attack during the Cold War would also be used to alert people of a tornado warning. Carolyn Glenn Brewer said, “Boy, after the tornado, politicians made sure that we had warning systems in place by the next spring.”

Bryan Busby explained that technology is always advancing and is far superior today. “We always go back and look at the job we did in warning- what we did well, what we could improve. We all learned from that tornado,” he stated.

The Ruskin Heights Tornado slapped the nation in the face and changed the way tornado warnings were reported forever. "The Ruskin Heights tornado was one of the first weather-related events to make national news on television,” Carolyn Glenn Brewer said. 


Days and even weeks after the tornado crushed the community, another issue that emerged were the sightseers from the area. People from the Kansas City metro were all-too-curious. Many would corral their families and take a drive into the destruction.

Oran Lawrence of Martin City surveying the damage of his
home that was destroyed on 135th and Oak St. He suffered
a head injury. Courtesy of the Kansas City Times
Life would go on in Martin City, Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills, but the vivid memories of the nightmare were present for years to come. Most adults didn’t want to talk about the event and wished to just move forward. But the children that survived this powerful event were left with unanswered questions and memories never discussed.

The following Sunday, only 6 days after the tornado, survivors rallied together at the Ruskin Heights Presbyterian Church where only the foundation remained. Over 300 people were in attendance, and the Elks Lodge gave out clothes so people could “dress up” for services. At Martin City Methodist Church, people gathered to say goodbye to their beloved church, battered and beaten in the tornado’s fury.

The church in Martin City, erected in 1890, had been hit by a tornado in 1947 and suffered from a fire in August 1956. This tornado ravaged the building beyond repair, sagging rooflines and broken windows convincing the community it was time to move forward. The church was razed a week later and rebuilt to be the structure that still stands today (now home of The Martin Event Space).

Could the community rebuild? The short answer is yes- but it would take dedication and the tenacity of these survivors. Martin City, prior to the tornado, had signs entering the small town that read, "Welcome to Martin City, Missouri: a Growing Community." After the tornado, those signs were ironically ripped apart.

Jess and Jim's advertisement in the Kansas
City Star announcing their reopening
at their current location, 517 E. 135th St.
In August of 1957, the final victim passed away from her injuries. It was none other than 57 year-old Lena Smith who had been thrown from her house on Charlotte St. in Martin City.

The tornado was the largest and most destructive of all the 300+ tornados reported at the National Weather Service since 1950 in Missouri. That was until the E-F5 Joplin tornado struck on May 22nd, 2011 and killed 158 people.

Carolyn Glenn Brewer had written one book documenting the stories of survival called Caught in the Path. As time went on, she realized there were countless other victims-  part of the baby boomer era- who were begging to be heard. “I wrote Caught Ever After when I realized that so many of the children, including me, had a story to tell. This was burned into our memory.”

Years of silence had these children of the tornado asking questions and sharing stories. At the 50th reunion in 2007, they gathered together and reunited with one large thing in common.

They had all survived the Ruskin Heights Tornado.

And so this tornado, 60 years later, still casts a shadow on the survivors. Some are out still searching for answers to those minutes of hell while others find comfort in sharing their memories of that fateful day. Kathy Atkinson DenHollander lost her father, the Martin City butcher Lowell Atkinson, who she remembers loved ice cream and gave great hugs. She tries to find the positive in the situation that fragmented the world around her. “I was really lucky I had a really great dad for ten years,” Kathy fondly uttered. “Some people don’t even get that.”

Six decades later, we must learn from this story and remember the tragedy and the unimaginable courage of a community. Their stories give us strength and hope amongst some of the darkest hours the area has ever seen. 


In order to be resilient one must first survive. And thousands of survivors still remember May 20th, 1957 as a moment caught in the winds of time.

 * This story couldn't have been possible without all the people who offered their unique stories. A special thanks to Bryan Busby and Carolyn Glenn Brewer, author of Caught in the Path and Caught Ever After. To purchase her books, go to http://carolynglennbrewer.com.

This piece is dedicated to the victims of the 1957 Ruskin Heights Tornado and all the survivors of this event.

Amma Marsh, 78 
James A. "Bert" Marsh, 84 
Isham Davis,34
Barbara Davis,31
Pamela Davis, 7 
Tamara Davis, 5 
Lowell Atkinson, 43 
Margaret Erline Smith, 24 
Lena Smith, 57
Joseph Vinckier,78
Randall Magill, 3 months
Edward S. Henton, 50
Bessie Knorpp Smith, 50
Maybelle Gabbert, 73
Harry Gabbert, 71
Gladys Erwin, 54
Linda Sue Stewart, 3 months
Goldie Marie Taylor, 49 
Carolyn Kay Taylor, 3
Cornelia Davis, 25
Kathryn Sue Davis, 7
Margery Wackernagle Hower, 31
Oral Glenn Hower, 35
John Hower, 9
Lena B. Rucker, 39
Garold Rucker, 41
Dorothy Lavonne Leopold, 31
Harold Keith Leopold, 11
Charles L. Johnston, 36
Catherine Armon, 31
Alta D. Guyll, 41
George L. Kildow, 45 
Robert W. Yost, Jr., 9
Diane Marie Rossi, 7
Hester Timm, 38
Carolyn Denise Woodling, 3
Maxine Nehring, 30
Jeanette Dorris, 79
Arthur Frechette, 80
Charles C. Thompson,50