A view of the May 1957 tornado funnel looking north from the back porch of the United Methodist Church parsonage in Spring Hill. Also known as the Ruskin Heights tornado as it cut a 71 mile path. Photos courtesy City of Spring Hill
Special to The Gardner News
May 20, 1957, started out a like any other day. The Spring Hill High School senior class left for a class trip to Noel, Mo., to enjoy the Elk River and other sites.
Barbra Davis went to school and began the week’s lesson for her fourth grade class, and it was business as usual throughout Spring Hill.
That evening while families enjoyed their dinners, the sky blackened to the southwest and Spring Hill residents could tell a storm was coming. A tornado was never expected during a time when city sirens were not in existence, nor did anyone really practice a “tornado drill.”
The tornado first touched down in Williamsburg, Kan., south of Ottawa at approximately 6:15 p.m. on May 20, 1957. It continued northeast at a rapid speed and was on the ground approximately an hour and a half.
According to local lore, residents southeast of town witnessed two funnels collide and become one massive tornado. Jim Shields of Olathe, drove his car up Hale Street honking his horn and yelling out his driver’s window warning people of the tornado that had been reported on the radio.
Many Spring Hill residents scrambled to their cars and tried to escape the tornado’s path. Others took refuge in basements, underneath beds, and in ditches.
Approximately 22 farm homes between Ottawa and Spring Hill had already suffered damage by the time the tornado reached Spring Hill at approximately 7 p.m.
It first destroyed Elston Steel Factory and home and continued north to the cemetery where according to local legend all but two trees were torn and damaged and monuments were broken and scattered throughout the graveyard.
The tornado continued northeast destroying homes, automobiles, and everything in its path. The areas that suffered the most damage were between Allen and King Streets, and also between the cemetery and Jackson Street.
The tornado preceded northeast out of Spring Hill onto Martin City, Mo., and then through Ruskin Heights, Mo. and finally to Raytown, Mo. The tornado had traveled 71 miles, killing 44 people, and placing 200 in hospitals.
After the storm passed, Spring Hill residents scurried to check on neighbors and family members.
By 11 p.m. the bodies of fourth grade teacher Barbara Davis along with her two daughters, Pamela and Tamara, ages five and six were discovered on Alfred Larson’s property north of 207th Street and west of U.S. 169 Highway.
Isam Davis, husband and father to Barbara and the girls, ran an auto body shop in Gardner. His body was located some distance from the rest of his family. The Davis family apparently tried to outrun the twister when it destroyed their home. Unfortunately, they did not succeed. Their station wagon was found later on Arthur Meek’s property, and the vehicle was mangled beyond much recognition according to Spring Hill lore.
Mr. Masterson traveled to Bucyrus so that a call could be made to the senior class, knowing that they would be worried about their families. The principal, Mr. Ward, returned to Spring Hill immediately to help with the relief efforts.
The seniors continued their trip and returned home on Thursday.
Tueday – one day after the tornado tore through town — the women of the Methodist Church organized a meal center, and the mayor had assigned captains to clean-up teams. Both Methodist and Baptist church services were canceled on Sunday morning due to the clean up efforts. The Red Cross came to Spring Hill on Tuesday, and one of the workers remarked that the Red Cross really didn’t need to assist Spring Hill, because they seemed “to be taking good care of their own” according to a Spring Hill history book. Memories are still vivid in the minds of the survivors of the 1957 tornado, and many personal tragedies and stories can be told and shared with the younger generations.
The Spring Hill New Era reported 10 days later on May 30, 1957: “It is almost unbelievable how much was accomplished in the two days. The only way it was accomplished was by the willingness and cooperation of the volunteers who came to help, and they did help.”
May 20 marks the 58th anniversary of the day Spring Hill was dismantled and ravaged by a tornado.
(First run May 20, 2015)