Kane County History: Elgin Remembers Devastating 1920 Palm Sunday Tornadoes

Kane County History: Elgin Remembers Devastating 1920 Palm Sunday Tornadoes

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Elgin History Museum Volunteer Laurel Garza. Research credit to “Elgin: An American History” by E. C. Alft.

One hundred years ago on Palm Sunday, March 28, 1920, there was a series of tornadoes in the Midwest and Deep South with at least 38 significant tornadoes in Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.

Loss of life and damage to property was extensive. One community in Georgia recorded more than 50 deaths.

Thomas P. Grazulis’ book, Significant Tornadoes 1880-1989: A Chronology of Events, lists the times, locations, strengths, and damage for each tornado that fateful Palm Sunday.

Severe thunderstorms began forming in Missouri and moved quickly through Chicago with four significant events across northern Illinois. The storms crossed Lake Michigan, causing considerable destruction in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio with 14 confirmed tornadoes in Michigan alone, some classified F3 and F4, continuing on through the evening.

The “F” refers to the Fujita scale which “a scale for rating tornado intensity, based primarily on the damage tornadoes inflict on human-built structures and vegetation.”

At noon on March 28, 1920, an F2 tornado which damaged several barns touched down near DeKalb south of Cortland. The second tornado, estimated to be F3, touched down around 12:05 p.m. 1 1/2 miles east of LaFox, moving norh-northeast toward Elgin.

The third tornado was deemed F4. It started near Channahon and moved northeast through Melrose Park, killing at least 10, through the Dunning neighborhood of Chicago, killing six, on to Wilmette and moving out over the lake.

The fourth tornado was in the Bridgeview area near Midway Airport. There was no loss of life recorded for that tornado.

Descending on Elgin

First home hit by tornado in Elgin. Van G. Wyrick lost his life, but saved his wife and daughter.

Preceded by a heavy rain, violent hail, and then sudden darkness, the funnel cloud first descended on Elgin’s southwest neighborhood hitting Adams Street. It destroyed the home of Van and Goldie Wyrick and their infant daughter, killing Van Wyrick.

As reported in a “Special to the New York Times” on March 29, Goldie Wyrick said her husband “had just put our little girl in her high chair when there was a mighty roar and the roof came crashing in. My husband pushed me and my baby out of the dining room and then he was caught.”

Wyrick and her infant daughter survived and moved back to her hometown of Jefferson, IL.

Racing along Elm Street, wrecking houses and uprooting trees, the tornado turned onto Walnut Avenue, where three blocks from Billings to Perry were laid waste.

A Mortician’s Story

Damage to Elgin Business District.

Clarence Reber was a local mortician who lived on South Grove Avenue.

In a remembrance posted in the September 1980 edition of The Crackerbarrel, a publication of the Elgin History Museum, Reber watched out his front window as the storm approached. As the tornado crossed the Fox River at Prairie Street heading toward Fountain Square, “it scooped up the water revealing the river bottom.”

Reber tells that when he heard the George Peck Store, Grand Theatre, and Landborg Shoe Store had been demolished and that a man was buried in the rubble, he headed to the mortuary, which was located between the Congregational and Baptist churches.

Both churches had suffered serious damage with injuries and deaths but the mortuary was not damaged.

One lady remarked to Reber that “the Lord knew you would be needed, so spared your building.”

Rich Renner, in an August 2018 article, Kane County History: 1917-18 — When Elgin Artists Went To War, wrote about Reber that “many in Elgin most warmly remember him for his extraordinary efforts — including artwork — on behalf of the Elgin Area Historical Society and its museum.”

The research library at the Elgin History Museum is named in his memory.

Beyond The Downtown

Rafters from Coliseum Garage in street photo.

Beyond demolishing downtown stores, the roof was torn away at Ackemann’s Department Store, and the entire second floor of the Wait and Ross furniture store was ruined. The City Hall and the First Methodist Church were structurally weakened.

In the Daily Courier News on May 22, 1963, Michael Reidy recalled his memory of the storm.

“Specifically, he remembers seeing 12-by-12-inch timbers — rafters from the roof of the old Coliseum garage  –  ‘flying through the air as if they were matchsticks.’”

Reidy recalls being awestruck by the damage in the downtown business district, and he heard Miland Gieske screaming for help from under the rubble of Peck’s Department Store.

Gieske had stepped into the doorway of the Landborg Shoe Company seeking shelter from the downpour. Gieske was rescued several hours later suffering three fractured ribs. He survived the tornado to live to be 87 years old. He is buried in Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery.

Most of the worshippers had left the Congregational Church, but two women and a girl were buried in the debris when the storm forced open the main doors and knocked the brick tower into the main auditorium, sending debris from the ceiling and balcony through the floor and into the basement.

One woman was crushed to death at the Baptist Church when part of the brick front fell inward and down through the balcony to the main floor. Had the tornado arrived during the services at these two large churches, the loss of life would have been much greater.

Leaving downtown, the F3 storm blew along Dundee Avenue, destroying or damaging residences and shredding the roof and second floor of the Selz-Schwab shoe factory. Barns and 30 head of cattle on two farms along the road to Dundee were destroyed. Light and power were cut off.

The National Guard was called out to patrol the streets and prevent looting, and the business district was roped off by 5 p.m.

The scenes left behind were awe-inspiring. About 25 houses were destroyed. Some were completely leveled and others lay intact on their sides. Several had entire roofs or sides ripped away.

Freak Occurrences

Witnesses marveled at the freak occurrences. One man was lifted off the ground, twirled around 20 feet in the air and then pitched through a plate glass window, emerging with only a few cuts.

Six members of one family were sitting in the parlor of their home at Mosely and Orange streets when the storm picked the house off its base and carried it down the block, revealing the family still seated.

An automobile parked in front of Ackemann’s was stripped of its top and body, leaving only the bar chassis standing. A kitchen knife, blown 200 yards from a residence, was driven 4 inches into a tree.

The steeple of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church was snapped off at the base, did a somersault on the way down, and was deposited on the ground in one piece.

Clara Kimball, wife of local businessman William D. Kimball, was killed when a section of wall at the Baptist Church collapsed. She is buried in Bluff City Cemetery.

Samuel and Ada Stach (Beverly) were killed while preparing for a performance at the Grand Theatre when the tornado hit.

Lulu M. Foote, 64; Elizabeth M. Mowat, 22; and Isabel McConnachie, 11, were killed at the First Congregational Church.

Additional tornado images may be viewed at the Illinois Digital Archives. Recently Elgin History Museum’s postcard collection and tornado photographs were digitized and are available online at http://www.idaillinois.org/digital/collection/p16614coll40/search/searchterm/tornado

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