Mother Nature hits Morse

“Cyclone Kills Grandmother, Son and Grandson” the headlines cried from the Olathe Mirror of June 7, 1917. On this day tragedy struck the small town of Morse and several other Kansas and Oklahoma towns.

Tornado damage in Morse, ca 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Tornado damage in Morse, ca 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

The tornado’s path was sprawling, first dropping down in the south central Oklahoma town of Marietta, killing three. It continued on to the small area of Drake, killing five. Hardest hit was Coalgate, known for its coal mining, with a loss of eight lives. When it finally reached Kansas the tornado struck Coffeyville, killing three. McCune and Montana were next, but no lives were lost and there was no recorded activity again until it reached just outside of Morse.

People of Morse, Kansas survey the damage caused by the tornado, ca. 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

People of Morse, Kansas survey the damage caused by the tornado, ca. 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Although many miles separated these towns it is believed to be a continuation of the same storm. The tornado was described as possessing abnormal conditions even bringing snow to western Kansas, with a possible four inches at the Colorado line.

A damaged home after Morse tornado, ca. 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

A damaged home after Morse tornado, ca. 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Morse, located five miles southeast of Olathe, got its name from the superintendent of the Kansas City, Clinton and Springfield railway, which arrived in 1872. According to the History of Johnson County Kansas by Ed Blair published in 1915, Morse had a population of 61 with a general store, lumberyard, blacksmith shop, creamery, bank, and a grain elevator with a post office on the premises. The Morse Church, established in 1884 as a Methodist church is still standing after 120 years.

Morse Grain Company built in 1908. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Morse Grain Company built in 1908. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Prominent businessman J.W. Toynbee served as president of the Morse State Bank. J.W.’s older brother Miles had passed away years before but left a wife Mary and two children, Florence and Albert. Mary, Albert and Florence’s son Clarence were those lost to the tornado. Their home was in the next quarter section over from J.W.

Woman in front of State Bank of Morse. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Woman in front of State Bank of Morse. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Albert was found cradling Clarence with Mary not too far away, possibly wrenched away during the storm. Clarence had only just arrived at his grandmother’s for a visit.  His sister had just spent her time with grandma and Clarence now felt it was his turn.

The Toynbee family was a well-liked and respected family of the Morse area. “Mrs. Toynbee was one of the biggest chicken raisers in the country having fine barred rock stock.  Scores and scores were found dead on the farm and the feathers plucked cleanly from many of them, while a half dozen were wandering aimlessly about in their nude condition,” a resident stated in the Olathe Mirror. The twister took barns, chicken houses, and the garage, leaving a Ford roaster perfectly intact minus a head lamp.

Horse drawn buggies lined the perimeter of the Pleasant Valley Cemetery during the service for the tornado victims, ca. 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Horse drawn buggies lined the perimeter of the Pleasant Valley Cemetery during the service for the tornado victims, ca. 1917. Source: JoCoHistory.org.

Over 1400 people attended the funeral with 175 vehicles and 160 horse-drawn rigs. Three hearses from Olathe, Paola and Kansas City were hired for the somber occasion.

Attendees of the funeral gather near the grave site of the victims, ca. 1917. JoCoHistory.org.

Attendees of the funeral gather near the grave site of the victims, ca. 1917. JoCoHistory.org

-Terri Bostic, Johnson County Library

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