“So Suddenly Did the Twister Come”: The Sedgwick Tornado of May 25, 1917

“So Suddenly Did the Twister Come”: The Sedgwick Tornado of May 25, 1917

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator
Previously posted May 23, 2013.

Earlier this week, on Monday, May 20, we again witnessed the tremendous power of wind and how, in a instant, the landscape of a community can be changed forever by a tornado as it did in Moore, OK and surrounding areas.  Harvey County residents well know the challenges ahead for the people affected by this most recent storm.  If you would like to help the people of Oklahoma during this time, please contact the Red CrossMennonite Disaster Service or relief organization of your choice.

May 25, 1917

In the late afternoon of May 25, 1917 one of the deadliest tornadoes in US history tore through Harvey County.  At 4:20 in the afternoon, the Kansan received an Associated Press bulletin “stating that a tornado had struck Andale, 19 miles northwest of Wichita where six people were reported dead. . . . The wires were all down but a special train was made up at Wichita and started to the scene.” Power was out in Newton, and the editor pointed out that “the Kansan is handicapped on that account as the linotype machines were helpless.” The tornado “ground its way across this county” traveling in a northeasterly direction destroying homes and farms. Initial reports indicated damage and at least two fatalities. Obtaining accurate information was difficult.  The Kansan noted; “there are rumors that it had continued on up as far as Peabody, but definite news of damage done could not be learned.”

The May 25, 1917 Newton Evening Kansan Republican:
Newton Evening Kansan Republican, 25 May 1917, p.1
The tornado  was followed by a “terrific downpour of rain, even here in Newton. . . trash  and debris fell in large quantities in the streets.”  The Kansan also reported that several automobile loads of men left Newton almost immediately for Sedgwick to help with rescue efforts.
Devastation at Sedgwick, Ks

The Aftermath

 The next day, the full tragedy was reported in the Newton Evening Kansan Republican.  At about 3:00 in the afternoon “a terrific tornado struck the southeast part of the town of Sedgwick . . . sweeping away more than a mile of telephone and telegraph lines and the A.V.I. power lines and the Kansas Gas & Electric high line.”
Official tornado warnings were non-existent before 1948 and the residents of Andale and Sedgwick had no warning. “The twister rose in the southwest, roared down upon Andale with a suddenness that prevented any organized escape. . . it swept through what is known as one of the richest farming districts in the state, leveling standing grain and powdering farm houses and outbuildings.”

The Tragedies

The Norris Farm
Many rural families were caught in the open. The Norris family saw the storm coming and Mrs. Norris, along with the children were able to make it to a hedge row for shelter. William Norris, the husband and father, was “caught and thrown to the north where he was found with his body crushed” killed instantly.
The Coble Farm
Several members of the Coble family were able to make it into a cellar.  A nephew, Dewey Faw, however, did not make it and was killed. Even those that made it to safety suffered broken bones and bruising.
Coble Farm
HCHM Photo Archives
The Fife Farm
The L. E. Fife Farm was “one of the finest country homes in the county” and was “equipped in the most modern and up-to-date manner” with heat and a “water plant.”  Mr. Fife and a hired hand took shelter in a small shed, which was not touched.  Mr. Fife described his experience for the Kansan.

“So suddenly did the twister come that he first saw debris flying and heard the roar and crash of the buildings as the mighty whirl wrenched them from their foundations and crushed them into kindling wood, hurling them with spiteful viciousness in every direction . . . he saw his beautiful home lifted, first the roof, then the entire structure hurled from it foundation and crushed like a house of cards. Imagine his impotent grief  when he saw Mrs Fife lifted and hurled  through the air then picked up again and thrown against the fence.” 

Mrs. Fife was caught in the house.  When she heard the roar of the storm, she went to the door, but could not open it.  She turned back to the room;

 “and the next she knew was when she found herself hung across the front fence.  One of her shoes had been torn off and her ankle severely wrenched and a bad gash had been cut across her right temple.  the house and all buildings . . . a complete wreck. Seven of Mr. Fife’s purebred horses . . . killed.”

Fife Farm
HCHM Photo Archives

Mrs. Fife, although badly injured, survived the tornado.

The Danner Farm
The Danner farm was hit especially hard. S.T. Danner had purchased his Harvey County homestead from the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1870s. Married to Anna Harryman, the Danners had three sons, William S., Albert E.S. and Samuel E. (who died at age nine).
Danner Farm, ca 1910
HCHM Photo Archives

His wife, Anna Harryman Danner, worked along side him to create a beautiful home.    Active in public life as well, Danner served in the Kansas Senate in 1893 and 1895.

Danner Farm, ca. 1916
HCHM Photo Archives
That fateful day, the Danner  family was at home.  Son, Albert (A.E.S.) and his wife took shelter in the cellar, but for some reason his parents did not.  Anna Danner was “killed outright, her head being crushed and her arm twisted and broken in a frightful manner.”  Mr. Danner was injured so badly many doubted that he would survive.
Samuel T. Danner Farm
HCHM Photo Archives
He did survive, but friends noted that “he never fully recovered [from the death of Anna], and put his worldly affairs in order.” Danner died two years later on March 20, 1919.
The Tornado
Although the Fuji scale had not yet been developed, it is estimated that the tornado that went through Sedgwick and rural Harvey County on May 25 was at an F5 strength.  There were 23 deaths and 118 buildings completely destroyed in the communities of Andale, Sedgwick, and Florence.  The tornado was over one mile wide at one point and traveled 65 miles
The same storm continued to wreak havoc across the United States.
Newton Kansan Evening Republican, May 28, 1917, p. 1

Included in the top ten Weather Events.

The May 25, 1917 tornado is listed as one of the top ten Weather Events of the 20th Century for South Central Kansas by the National Weather Service Forecast Office. The tornado that roared through Harvey County was part of a larger outbreak of storms across twelve Midwestern states.  Between May 25 and June 1, 1917 at least 382 people were killed in the eight day tornado outbreak sequence that made it the third deadliest tornado season since records were kept; a total of 551 people lost their lives to tornadoes.  For fatalities related to tornadoes 1925 season was the highest with 794 fatalities; followed by 1936 with 552 fatalities.
May 25 was also the date of the 1955 tornado that devastated Udall, Kansas where over half of the population with either killed or severely injured.

Newton Evening Kansan Republican, 25 May 1917, p.1
Newton Evening Kansan Republican,  26 May 1917, p. 1
Newton Kansan Evening Republican, 28 May 1917, p. 1

Harvey County Historical Museum & Archives Photograph Archives
Online Sources:

Additional information from the original post’s comment section.

  1. Dewey Faw was the 18 year old boy who was killed. He and his brother Floyd Faw were raised by their Aunt Caroline Coble after their mother died in 1902. Dewey was in the house and he opened the door when he heard the noise. He couldn’t escape. Floyd was one of the lucky ones who made it to the cellar. Four years after the tornado Floyd married his nurse Ivalee Harvey who cared for him while he was recovering from his injuries in the hospital. They were my grandparents.


  2. Link to the original post, May 23, 2013. 


A Useful, Busy Life: Miss Challender

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

This post was originally posted on our old blog site on December 13, 2012.

The next Harvey County community that will be featured at HCHM is the oldest city in the county – Sedgwick. The exhibit featuring Sedgwick will open January 11, 2013. The next series of blog posts will feature people and events from Sedgwick’s history.

Some people are able to extend their influence across city boundaries—Miss Olive May Challender may have been one such woman. Her fourteen year teaching career included two Harvey County towns, Burrton and Sedgwick.  Her involvement in her church extended her influence beyond the county to include the state.

Miss Olive May Challender
Photo courtesy Chris Child
Find A Grave

“A useful, busy life. . .”

Olive May Challender was born in Neponset, Illinois, October 25, 1877 to Josiah S. and Alice Challender.  Two years later a brother, Alton, was born.  The family came to Kansas in 1892 and settled in rural Harvey County near Burrton.

Wheat Harvest, Challeder Farm near Burrton, 1899
A.R. Challender, R.T. Challender and Mr. Billings
HCHM Photo Archives

Olive graduated from Burrton High School and taught for three years before attending the State Normal School in Emporia, Ks. After her graduation in 1900, she returned to Burrton to teach in the Primary School.

Burrton’s First Primary Teacher, Olive May Challender
HCHM Photo Archives

The Burrton Graphic  noted that Miss Challender “endeared herself to the children whom she taught by her kinds and loving actions toward them.” (Burrton Graphic, February 10, 1911)

Burrton Primary School, April 23, 1903
Olive May Challender & pupils
HCHM Photo Archives

In 1907, she and her mother moved to Sedgwick and Miss Challender began teaching the children of Sedgwick.

Sedgwick School
HCHM Photo Archives

“A noble, Christian life”

Miss Challender was described as a “talented and loveable” person. While living in Burrton, she joined the  Methodist Episcopal Church. When she moved to Sedgwick, she transferred her membership the M.E. Church there.

Methodist Episcopal Church, 1903
Sedgwick, Ks
HCHM Photo Archives

During this time, she served at the state level as County Sunday School Association Superintendent of Primary Work.  Through this work she became known county wide and her “influence extended beyond the circles of her immediate community.”

“The unexpected death . . . caused universal sorrow”

At the age of 33, Miss Challender suddenly died.  The Newton Weekly Kansan Republican reported that she had left school on Thursday complaining of a sore throat, but no other “alarming symptoms.”  On Sunday morning, her family was felt some concern “because her lower extremities were cold.”  At noon, she tried to get out of bed, but she could not walk.  Her family helped her back to bed, “and death came quickly.”  The paper goes on to report that the physicians were puzzled because there were no indications of acute disease.  They finally concluded that her heart was weakened for some reason and simply gave out without warning.

“The unexpected death of Miss Ollie Challender at Sedgwick last Sunday caused universal sorrow . . . She was greatly loved . . . A useful, busy life.” (Sedgwick Pantagraph, undated clipping, HCHM Archives)

Burrton Graphic Feb. 10, 1911; Newton Weekly Kansan Republican 9 February 1911; Sedgwick Pantagraph,February 9, 1911; HCHM Archives – Olive Challender’s Memorial Service; Combined Kansas Reports (Google Books) p. 127; The Development of the Sunday School, 1780-1905, (Google Books) p. 518-519; Report by Kansas Department of Public Instructions, 1910 17th Biennial Report, (Google Books) p. 293;Yearbook by Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia, 1904 (Google Books) p. 120 Elementary Courses

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Posted by hvcurator at 12:07 PM

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Labels: BurrtonM.E. ChurchOlive May ChallenderSedgwickState Normal SchoolSunday School Associationteacher