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· Sheriff Fay F. Brown’s Badge:
“We Lost Our Home”
At 11 o’clock, the evening of May 7, 1927, many citizens of Hutchinson, Kansas, heard the sound of a freight train approaching their homes.
If Cora and Fay Brown hadn’t scheduled a couple of hours off work, away for their residence at the county jail, they would have never found time to see a movie at Hutchinson’s Midland Theater.
On Friday night, May 6, 1927, they were entertained by Buster Keaton starring in The General. Cora and Fay, both fans of Keaton who was born in Kansas, had previously learned his latest film was action, adventure, and comedy. It was based on an actual 1862 Union raid behind Confederate lines. At the movie’s conclusion, Johnnie Gray, played by Keaton, was rewarded for his courage by a Confederate general and by his fiancée who, at the beginning of the story, had doubted his patriotism.
Fay and Cora had heard the film cost a fortune to produce, and no wonder. It seemed there were enough actors dressed as soldiers to fight another prolonged war. The scenes involving trains, especially the engine named The General, were superb, ending with a spectacular crash when a bridge over a river collapsed, sending an enemy train to its demise.
For Fay, the following night, May 7, wasn’t as entertaining as the movie, but there was adventure. The sheriff’s office had been receiving complaints about an ex-convict continuing his habit of being drunk and disorderly. The sheriff expected trouble. He assembled enough officers for a poker game. They made their liquor raid east of town, and arrested William Van Volkenburg in possession of a half-empty jug.
Around 11 o’clock, after the deputies had returned home, and Fay and Cora had turned off the lights, the phone rang. It was George “Came” Duckworth, Hutchinson chief of police. Disaster had struck east Hutchinson. Homes in the districts of Careyville and Grandview had been torn up by a twister. Businesses, especially the Carey Salt Company and the soda ash plant, were severely damaged.
Sheriff Fay Brown responded after calling his undersheriff. “Ed,” said Fay, “be careful, watch for downed wires and roofing nails.”
On Fay’s drive eastward, as the rain poured, he thought of Rocksprings, Texas, where a week earlier a third of its population, 72 residents, had died due to an unexpected tornado. He also considered the Tri-State tornado two years earlier, when Murphysboro, Illinois, buried 234 people. How bad were we hit tonight? he wondered.
On the southeast side of the city, the degree of darkness was due to the electricity-light poles being torn up and tossed around like match sticks. The streets and yards, littered with downed trees, parts of roofs, two by fours, signs, shingles, bricks from chimneys, furniture, and clothing were nearly impassable.
People slowly stirred, trying to understand the severity of Mother Nature’s wrath, the extent of their injuries, checking on family, neighbors, and pets, considering their economic loss, and, for most, counting their blessings.
And through it all the rain drenched the people, whether they were outside surveying the damage to their house and automobile, or remaining inside a roofless dwelling.
Sheriff Brown learned that Henry Strouse, 35, the night fireman at Carey Salt, was dead, the result of debris collapsing on him.
Using his motor car’s headlights, the sheriff surveyed the damage, talked with people, and quickly understood that a few ambulances were insufficient to meet the emergency. The Red Cross would respond and the Kansas National Guard would be requested. Their first aid men were well-trained.
The silence continued as people assessed their injuries, the damage, and their lives.
Citizens approached the sheriff and asked him what had happened. They treated the lawman as the expert when, in fact, they were the victims who had survived the storm and had scars to prove it. Others shared their experience, explaining how they were awake when they thought they heard a freight train approaching their home.
Sheriff Brown learned that, fortunately, the reformatory had not been destroyed, only losing shingles, not roofs or walls. He didn’t want to imagine 900 inmates loose, injured, and dead.
With the telephone lines down in the Careyville area, the sheriff understood that accurate information of the destruction both in and out-of-town was vital. Visual inspection was required. That’s why he had asked Ed Cunningham, former motorcycle policeman for the city, to survey the damage from the top of his two-wheeler.
The nearly one-mile width of destruction from east Hutchinson traveling northward, was jaw-dropping to Cunningham. Massive cottonwood trees older than the county were pulled up by their roots like weeds from a garden. They blocked the Medora pavement.
As Cunningham drove around these obstacles, he worried that the town of Medora, or Inman, further up the road, might have taken a direct hit. He soon learned that the communities had been spared but that three people, including an infant and a young child, had not.
Through Ed, Fay learned of the three deaths, two of them in Reno County, all three outside of Medora.
Buford Johnson, 55, pastor of the Colored Nazarene Church on Fifth Ave., and his grandson Aaron Johnson, Jr., 4, both died at Buford’s rural home. Also dead was the six-month-old child of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Goertzen. The baby was found in a wheat field just north of the county line after he had been blown from their rural home when it was demolished.
“You know . . . I’ve got to say it,” said Ed to his long-time pal, having worked together in their early days on the city police force, “the worst part of this job is when babies and children die. By the time I was thirteen, my parents had lost five of us.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Fay. “Sorry. I appreciate you coming out, getting soaked to the bone, and taking the worst cases.”
“After visiting with the parents and family members of the dead children, I don’t need to go to church tomorrow, I mean today,” said Ed. “I could almost quote scripture from the book of Matthew, ‘But Jesus said, Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them . . .’”
Fay continued the verse, “For to such belongs the Kingdom of heaven.”
“How’s it going here?” asked Ed.
“Henry Strause, night fireman at Carey Salt, died from collapsing debris,” said Fay.
“Too bad,” Ed commented. “Good man.”
“The Guard will be working in shifts in the area,” said Fay, “Captain Elmer Lentz had his house on East Third badly damaged, but he’s out commanding a detachment from Battery A to guard the property of others. He understands, duty comes first.”
“I saw a boy with a feather and straw embedded in his hip,” Ed commented.
“I talked with a man who got rolled up in his sitting room rug as the rest of the furniture disappeared through his roofless house,” said Fay.
I met a family who lost the east-side wall of their house,” said Ed, “but all their belongings were untouched. When the man left the house, out of habit, he locked the front door with his key.”
Cora understood Fay’s job. He would be home when he got home.
Fay knew he was a lucky man. Cora was a patient woman, especially with him.
Fay told Cora, “The worst thing I heard last night was, ‘We lost our home.’ But Ed had a rough night. What he heard was, ‘We lost our child.’
“It was extra hard on Ed,” continued Fay. “Soaked from the rain, chilled to the bone, he worked the deaths of two children, one a baby. Ed told me that his parents had to watch five of their children die. Only he and Paul survived.”
Until next time, happy writing and reading.
And through it all the rain drenched the people,
Jim Potter says
Thank you, Jim. I had not been aware of that event–just dreadful.
Jim Potter says
Thanks for reading and commenting.
Pat Bussen says
There were no tornado warnings, no radar, no nothing back in those days and that’s why death tolls were so terribly high from tornadoes. Great story, I enjoyed that one very much.
Jim Potter says
Pat, thanks for your comment. You’re exactly right. What a different world it was. I kept asking myself if someone from one county would call someone from the next county and warn them. Complicating things was the phone system.
The six month old baby, found in the field just outside the county line. My heart stopped.
Great writing Jim! Enjoyed and appreciated the history of your writing.
Jim Potter says
Thanks for your comment, Mandie.