On April 18, 1880, most of Marshfield was obliterated in a cyclone. Above are the remains of the courthouse, and the town’s square. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
MARSHFIELD – Much can change in a minute — and on April 18, 1880, that’s all it took to nearly wipe Marshfield off the map.
It started as a sunny Ozarks Sunday. As the day progressed, however, the air turned cold: The afternoon sky swirled queerly, alive with green-colored currents. Then, a sudden storm of goose-egg-sized hail brought a burning train to town. Or at least that’s what people thought, as they squinted out their windows at the ever-darkening sky.
“It was a huge, cone-shaped, dark-looking mass, several hundred yards in width, and as it sped on its mission of death and destruction, it apparently danced from side to side as if in glee at the terror of those upon whom it was advancing,” reported the Atchison Daily Patriot in April 1880.
But it wasn’t a train, or a fire as others figured.
It was the Marshfield Cyclone.
“It bore down upon the heart of the town, and for a space of half a mile in width, tore to pieces and ground to splinters everything in its path,” printed the newspaper. “Nothing was left — not one stone above another in the foundations — and from beneath the ruins of … what had been happy homes and well filled business houses came the dying cries and agonizing shrieks of men, women and children.”
Early in the morning
Marshfield, founded in 1856, is shown in the late 1860s. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
The Sunday that ended so tragically began with the beauty of an Ozarks springtime. “Our lilacs were in full bloom and cherry trees looked like mountains covered with snow,” recalled 13-year-old Ida Jameson, a survivor of the storm. Church bells serenaded the stroll to Sabbath school, taken along streets of the small — yet developing — community, one that had been around for about 35 years.
“In 1880, just 50 years ago, Marshfield was well built up, its public square being, for the most part, built up complete with either frame or brick buildings, with a handsome court house appropriate for a much larger town,” wrote William Chitty, another eyewitness to the cyclone, in 1930. Chitty, who later became a colonel in the U.S. Army, was 8 years old when the cyclone hit — but the memories of its terror stuck with him for the rest of his life.
The north side of Marshfield’s square is shown in 1872.
(Courtesy of Randy Clair)
“It was April and a warm day and being away from parental eyes my shoes came off and I reveled in the early spring joy of barefoot freedom,” he wrote. “About three o’clock it began to get very warm, and a little later the clouds began to form up for what looked like a summer shower. By five o’clock the whole sky was overcast with heavy black clouds, and reluctantly I gathered up shoes and stockings, wending my way home to the ‘Brick Block’ where we lived over James’ Drug Store.
“It was so warm I took a chance and left my shoes off, slipping him home very quietly and putting my shoes under my bed. Error leads to trouble and I never saw those shoes again, much to my temporary distress and discomfort.”
An hour later, his world changed forever.
“It was approaching six o’clock when, looking through the window toward the southwest, I saw what looked to me like the heavy smoke from one of the old time great smoke stacks still carried at that time by some of the locomotives. The sky had become very dark with heavy rolling clouds and the wind had become very gusty. As I continued to look out of the window at the heavy train smoke, it seemed to take on a larger and wilder aspect until it appeared like a house on fire and throwing up billows of heavy furious smoke. I grabbed my father’s knee and said, ‘Look, Cohen’s house is on fire,’ for so it seemed to me, the Cohen house being in line with the direction.
“My father looked steadily for a moment and then leaped to his feet with a cry, ‘My God! It is a tornado.’
The Chitty family ran to the street, seeking shelter in the nearby courthouse. According to eyewitness accounts compiled by the Webster County Historical Society (WCHS), they weren’t the only ones:
“Men, women and children ran in every direction — Mrs. Hosmer ran with her 7-year-old son, Johnnie, to the basement of the court house, Freeman Evans took his family to an outdoor brick cellar, Dr. and Mrs. William Smith, postmaster, and Dr. Sellars ran to a grove of young trees northeast of the school and clung to saplings, Wesley M’Querter and his mother and father ran to the railroad tracks and threw themselves flat upon the ground. He said, ‘Rails of the railroad promised an excellent anchor and to which many clung for dear life.'”
Then, it was there: The “boiling, seething, roaring black mass,” as eyewitnesses described it, screamed through town, whirling and whipping anything unlucky enough to be in its path.
“The wind now rose to a fiendish shriek as if all the demons of Hell had been let loose upon doomed Marshfield,” recounted Chitty. “From the shelter of the (courthouse) lobby looking out the door, I saw part of the tin roof of the Brick Block turn away and fly away into space as if some gigantic hand had ripped a piece of paper from a writing pad. The air became thick with dust until breathing was difficult.
“Everybody prayed. I prayed.”
Eli Jernigan, a Marshfield resident, recounted being picked up by the cyclonic winds and dropped on a pile of bricks. “He distinctly remembers his descent and of seeing fields of green wheat in the distance,” recorded the WCHS. “His wife was carried 100 yards. William Turner saw one house lifted as high as the tree tops before it exploded. George Sees saw a horse whirling in the mass of clouds and the tornado sucked all the water from his 39-foot-deep well. Letters belonging to George Rush were carried to Rolla in Phelps County and a life insurance policy belonging to Ad Smith was found in Iberia, Miller County.”
And in approximately 60 seconds, it was all over — or, in a sense, had merely begun.
“Then suddenly the wind had gone, its fury trailing off to the northeast with sullen and decreasing moan,” recounted Chitty. “For at least five minutes no one dared to leave the shelter of the lobby, then gradually we emerged to look upon the sad wreck of our homes and what had been the lovely little town of the quiet and beautiful Sunday April morning.”
Marshfield’s square as it appeared shortly after the cyclone went through town. The white tents were erected as temporary housing for displaced families. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
Folks hesitantly wandered around where their homes used to be, looking for folks who also used to be. Rain began to fall, forcing wanderers to once again seek shelter.
But for the most part, there just wasn’t anywhere to go.
Nearly everywhere was gone.
Even in the days before social media, word quickly spread. At 8:45 p.m. that night, the express train rolled into town, taking messages to Lebanon. To reach the south, horsemen rode to Strafford and Springfield.
“Two doctors from Conway were the first to arrive; they came on a handcar,” recorded “The History of Webster County,” a book published in 1955. “Dr. Williams of Niangua came with helpers. At 5 o’clock Monday morning a special train came from Springfield bringing four doctors and assistants. Three more doctors came from Lebanon. About noon on Monday trains came from east and west with hundreds of people bringing food, clothing, bedding and medical supplies.”
What’s the difference between a cyclone and a tornado?
Not much. According to Springfield meteorologist Will Carter, tornadoes usually take place on land, while cyclones are tropical systems typically occurring over water. Cyclones are also called typhoons or hurricanes depending on which region of the world one lives in.
“It really comes down to technicalities,” says Carter. “Even a tornado has cyclonic motion, which is a counterclockwise motion of an air mass. Around here you will here us talk about radar and storm spotters seeing the rotation before a tornado actually forms.”
And it seems that terminology was even interchangeable in the 1800s. Accounts describe the event differently: Although the event is usually referred to as the Marshfield Cyclone, the word tornado was used on occasion as well.
Remains of the Brick Block showed the cyclone’s strength.
Another look at the town’s square. Seated is R.W. Fyan, from whose property the photo was taken. (Above photos courtesy of Randy Clair)
By Tuesday, a relief committee was organized to organize order from the chaos. Communities from throughout the region came in support: St. Louis sent more than $2,000, and Springfield more than $1,000. Lebanon came in at $1,200, Oswego, Kan., gave $150, and Rolla offered $1,500. In total, nearly $32,500 was collected through private and public entities to help rebuild the town.
In those days, that was a lot of money. But for some with injuries, nothing less than a miracle would be enough.
Scalp wounds were common, which were aggravated by foreign substances such as gravel, sand and dirt. A bacterial skin infection called erysipelas was also quickly seen, as was something else: indifference.
“The patients showed no interest in their condition and all asked only to be left alone,” recounted “The History of Webster County.” “They did not even inquire about their families. This was characteristic of all the patients, and was believed to be because of some powerful changes made in the nervous system by their terrible experience. They differed in age, color, condition in life and degree of injury, but all showed this indifference to all about them.”
In the end, more than 60 people were instantly killed, and another 32 died later from injuries sustained during the storm.
Dead, gathered at the courthouse-turned-morgue, were buried with little ceremony. “All around could be heard the groans and cries of agony of the wounded,” recorded the book. Every house left standing was turned into a hospital, as was the town’s school.
Despite the destruction, the kind support of Marshfield’s neighbors illuminated the darkness like a beacon of hope.
“(The cyclone) also tells of the noble generosity of American hearts; of how charity rushed upon the heels of disaster and snatched from its clutch the misery of hunger and thirst that followed in its wake. A grand and awful picture this — of death, suffering, destitution, darkness and gloom; of charity, benevolence, philanthropy, heroism, hope and light,” noted the Fort Scott Weekly Monitor in May 1880 — and also mentioned it was “pleased” that the city, located in Kansas, also came to Marshfield’s aid with a $205 donation.
“It is only when some such occasion stirs the emotions that the good and noble impulses of humanity are seen in their grandest form, and in one sense of the word it is a benefit to the world that accidents and disasters now and again occur, as otherwise we might forget that virtue and goodness are moving forces of the universe.”
The cyclone’s aftermath
Marshfield, shown in 1895. It took about a year to rebuild after the cyclone’s trip through town. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
In addition to nearly obliterating the town, the storm accomplished some other random results. A baby was found lodged in a treetop, his parents presumably killed by the storm’s blows. While an unusual story all by itself, some even say it inspired the well-known children’s nursery song “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” (Fact check: This is debatable, since others claim it ties back much earlier, and to European tradition.)
Another random tidbit: While nearly 100 people perished because of the cyclone, Polly the parrot survived. The famous bird, born in Cuba and owned by local resident Dr. Thomas Bradford, could speak both English and Spanish and was known for orneriness. After her owner perished in the tornado, she went to live with his daughter in West Plains and survived to 53 years of age.
Locals commemorated the disaster in various ways as well. Shortly after the cyclone, the town’s cornet band decided to rebrand as the Marshfield Cyclone Band. Another notable change tied to the Methodist Episcopal Church, which took a new name after it rebuilt. It became known as the Condo Memorial M.E. Church in memory of its minister, the Rev. E.E. Condo, who was killed in the storm.
Not all in the church, however, was new. On its wall hung a clock: A clock that survived the storm in the previous church house, continuing to tick even when nearly the entire town was destroyed around it.
A few walls were all that remained of the Methodist Episcopal Church — yet the clock inside continued to tick. In the background, one can see the school, which became a hospital. (Courtesy of Randy Clair)
Despite the devastation, it didn’t take Marshfield long to rebound and rebuild. Around a year after the cyclone went through, the town was looking pretty much back to normal. However, its people needed more time to move on.
One example was local man Lafayette Jason, who decided to never leave his farm again after the tornado. He recounted his steadfast decision to a reporter 31 years later, his story featured in the Palmyra Spectator:
“I was sowing a particularly large crop of wild oats and the day of the tornado I was in Marshfield. With three friends we were what might be called ‘painting the town.’ The storm came up without warning. We saw the people running and were just addled enough to believe that they were trying to get out of our way.
“The next day I was found with a fractured skull; my three friends and nearly a hundred other persons were killed outright. I was for three weeks in a critical condition. I was engaged to be married at the time, and as I lay ill, I made a vow that I would marry, if the girl I had chosen was agreeable, and that I would not leave my farm, which my father gave me, from the day of my marriage until the day of my death. Nor do I expect to.”
Jason’s decision left him unaware — other than from what he read in the newspaper — of the development of Marshfield and Springfield, as well as the start of several communities started after his self-imposed exile. However, he wasn’t the only one who suffered post-traumatic stress.
“Many people built storm cellars or dugouts following the storm, and for several years it was customary for many of them to live for days and nights in them during periods of storm weather,” recounted Chitty, the cyclone survivor.
Chitty also noted that, at the time, there was debate over why the storm came through town. Some, he said, believed it was as punishment for the “invariable Saturday drunkenness” at the town’s saloons.
“By many of the ultra religious the storm was for long years help up as a visitation in punishment for wickedness, but as so many of the good people were taken while so many of the sinful got off free, there was much skepticism about the visitation,” he said.
Even decades after the fact, the cyclone’s magnitude lived on far from town. Newspaper reporters used it repeatedly as a reference point in stories: For example, in Lebo, Kan., a story noted that “nothing but a Marshfield cyclone, exceedingly close, excites us.” Another mention appeared in 1923 — 43 years after the cyclone — when an article in the Springfield Republican talked of “a cloud like a Marshfield cyclone.”
Blind Boone and “The Marshfield Cyclone”
One of the cyclone’s biggest publicity pushes, however, came because of pianist John William “Blind” Boone. Inspired by a newspaper account of the storm, Boone wrote “The Marshfield Cyclone,” which was performed at venues across the country and around the world. A description of the song appeared in a Missouri Life magazine article in 1979:
“According to contemporary accounts, the piece began with chime-like sounds, as if calling the people to church; then followed a soft strain of sacred music, imitating the congregation singing an opening hymn. Then came a loud imitation of thunder, and fire bells giving the danger signal as lightning flashed across the imaginary sky. Next were the awful crashing, roaring chords depicting the destruction wrought by the whirlwind. Finally the storm died away, and Boone played softly, imitating water dripping from the eaves of the houses left standing.”
Apparently his inspiration translated into emotion.
“The realism of this number was overwhelming and when first played in Marshfield, the audience was so agitated that it was reported many of them rushed outside, assuming another storm had hit,” printed the magazine.
Today, however, no one knows just what the piece sounded like.
“It is reported that during his lifetime Blind Boone was offered large sums to reproduce ‘The Marshfield Cyclone’ on piano rolls, phonograph records and sheet music, but he always refused,” noted “The History of Webster County.” “He insisted the composition was a part of him and asked that it be allowed to die with him.”
For Marshfield, the cyclone also translated into a period of economic opportunity. The storm was believed to have changed the path of a small spring branch, uncovering a water supply which was said to be medicinal after a man claimed it healed his sore eyes.
“Others tried its medical virtues, and benefited after using it for sore eyes, rheumatism, dyspepsia, general debility, for corns and even young ladies tried it as a cosmetic for the hands and face,” reported “The History of Webster County.” A few years later, the book recounts, that the land was developed into a resort.
“There was a steady stream of people coming in for several years to take advantage of the medicinal properties of the water, and hotels and rooming houses were crowded for a time with the ‘carriage trade,'” the book’s author noted. Eventually, the resort closed and the building became a creamery.
Remembering in passing
Cyclone survivors reunited several times in the 1930s. It’s believed that the reunions ended by 1938. (Courtesy of the Webster County Historical Museum)
Even decades after the cyclone, locals didn’t forget its devastation. In 1931, survivors gathered for the first of several reunions. The events were held for a number of years — peaking at 200 attendees in 1934 — but ultimately ceased as the survivors died out.
Other remnants, however, tie the past’s significance to the present.
The town’s mineral springs are still part of its legacy. The spring that started it all is at Marshfield’s North Park, where Cyclone Spring is located.
They’re also the centerpiece of Hidden Waters Nature Park, a secluded oasis in the center of town. The park features four full-time springs, as well as numerous others that run when wet weather hits. (Hidden Waters is also home to the Callaway Cabin, one of Webster County’s oldest structures, which was built in 1853 and was relocated to the park in 2009.)
Another monument to the tornado stands on the corner of Jackson and Clay streets. Today, it’s referred to as the Condo building — but way back when, it was the aforementioned Condo Memorial M.E. Church.
The Condo Memorial M.E. Church — later used as an antique store — is shown circa 2007.
The building continued with the Methodist congregation, even though name changes and mergers, until the 1980s. The clock — the one that survived the cyclone — also resolutely remained there through those years.
And today, although in a different location, the treasured clock still ticks.
Nowadays, it lives at the Marshfield United Methodist Church. It was given a spot of honor on the fellowship hall’s wall after the congregation relocated years ago.
With every second, it tells of the past while marking the present. It reminds of another place and time, and — as one of the church’s former ministers put it — that “the knowledge of our past is a source of inspiration as we look into the future.”
Want to know more?
The Webster County Historical Museum is a great resource for information about the cyclone, and is currently open 1 to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is free.
“500 sticks of dynamite used by road engineers,” Springfield Republican, Dec. 22, 1923
“Blind Boone’s Ragtime,” Dr. William Parrish, Missouri Life, November/December 1979
“Famous parrot is dead,” Daily Capital News, May 22, 1920
“The History of Webster County,” Floy Watters George, 1955
“The Marshfield Cyclone,” Kaitlyn McConnell, Marshfield Mail, April 18, 2007
“The Marshfield Cyclone,” Aitchison Daily Patriot, April 21, 1880
“The Marshfield Cyclone,” Martha McGrath, Webster County Historical Society Journal
“The Marshfield Tornado,” C.E. Boulson/William Chitty, Webster County Historical Society Journal
“Marshfield,” Kaitlyn McConnell, 2011
No headline, Fort Scott Weekly Monitor, May 20, 1880
No headline, Lebo Courier, June 20, 1884
“Never out of nights,” Palmyra Spectator, May 3, 1911
“The son of a cyclone,” Rolla Herald, June 14, 1894