60 Years Ago the Ruskin Heights Tornado Ravaged Martin City
By Diane Euston
The afternoon felt different, as if looking through a yellow filter. Quiet. Something strange and eerie about the feelings hiding in the clouds.
It was a Monday afternoon in southern Jackson County, the school year coming to a swift close. At the Methodist Church in Martin City, the Boy Scouts had their weekly meeting scheduled, and Kindergarten graduation was crowding the newly-built school.
In Ruskin Heights, baby boomers played in the streets, gathered for meetings, and settled in for new episodes of I Love Lucy and the $64,000 Question.
May 20, 1957 will forever go down in the history books as one of the most pivotal weather-related events in the Kansas City metro area. Sixty years ago, the comfortable residents in the tornado’s northeasterly path would forever be changed.
The before and after pictures of the K and K Motor Service. The Mobil Gas Station in Martin City before the tornado hit. The building was made of brick. Courtesy of Dan Keister. A view of the extensive tornado damage looking southwest on 135th St. The current Jess and Jim’s can be seen on the left. Courtesy of Roy Hopkins
The Building of the Storm
At about 6 p.m., the Weather Bureau picked up funnels and pinpointed the Kansas City area as a possible target.
The three primary networks on television would air their normal programming. No weather alerts would dare interrupt television at the time.
At 6:15 p.m., the skies opened up and formed a swirling tornado 63 miles southwest of the little community of Martin City.
As the tornado grew in strength, it traveled at about 42 mph. It took its first two victims 2.5 miles from Ottawa, KS.
By 7:23 p.m., the twister had torn through just south of Olathe and northwest of Spring Hill, KS, and killed a young family of four. Less than 15 minutes later, it became clear in Martin City the storm approaching was an F-5 tornado.
Martin City in the Eye of the Storm
Helen McKinney, a first-grade teacher at Martin City, had noticed that the sky to the southwest seemed green, which was far from normal.
McKinney recalled, “Just then, Superintendent Taylor hurried to the platform and raised his hands. ‘Take your children and go quickly to the central hall,’ he said. ‘Go to the hall and get down on the floor!’”
McKinney and countless others took cover in the school. The lights went out, sending a dark shadow over everyone inside. “That roaring chug, chug, chug, chug as of a huge, laboring, straining engine coming closer. . . each frightful moment filled our ears,” McKinney wrote to a letter to her family.
The Martin City School was spared, but not before the sucking power of the tornado threw some, including 14-year-old Jay Roberts, far down the hallway, broken glass and shaking foundations below them.
Just down the road at 610 E. 135th St., the Keister brothers at their Mobil Station rushed for central coverage under a tractor they were repairing and held on as the tornado crushed the building into unrecognizable pieces. A beam over 40 feet wide ripped off and crashed nearby.
At 135th and Oak St., 12 homes had stood prior to the tornado. After it passed through at unimaginable strength, eight of the houses were stripped down to their foundations.
Before the twister hit the eastern portion of Martin City, people seeking shelter in the basement at the Methodist Church screamed to butcher Lowell Atkinson to come with them and take cover.
He said he would just “ride it out.”
Jess and Jim’s Steakhouse at 135th and Holmes (where Jack Stack is today) was caught in its fury. One of the only remains left of Jess and Jim’s was a pet parakeet that had miraculously survived. The grocery store leveled just south of the restaurant was where Lowell Atkinson had decided to stay.
Atkinson’s body was discovered underneath a meat case and canned goods by a group of Boy Scouts, including Jay Roberts.
At 13401 Charlotte, Lena Smith and daughter Margaret were thrown over 100 yards and into a field. Margaret died instantly, but Lena held on for several months. She was the last victim to die from her injuries in August 1957.
Ruskin Heights and Hickman Mills Get Hit
Nearby in the newly-built tract housing development of Ruskin Heights, 14-year-old Don Flora had plans with twin brother Ronnie to attend a Boy Scout meeting at a neighbor’s house. Seven-year old brother Hill had informal plans at home.
Carolyn Glenn Brewer, author of two books on the Ruskin Heights tornado stated, “Ruskin Heights was the first tract housing development in the Kansas City area. Most of them didn’t have basements.”
Don and twin brother Ronnie were rushed during their Boy Scout meeting into a basement. As the tornado advanced toward Ruskin Heights, Don recalled, “I remember hearing a loud noise. I came to remember it as the sound of a train.”
Hill was home with the family at 11509 Sunnyside Dr. Hill and his three younger sisters had settled in front of the television set to watch I Love Lucy. His mom started to make peanut butter fudge when the power went out around 7:15 p.m..
Minutes later, the massive F-5 tornado had scathed the side of Truman Corners shopping center and was heading toward its deadliest intersections. At some points, the tornado was ½ mile wide.
Hill had joined his dad, Mr. Flora, in the garage where he was surveying the skies. Just a short time later, there was a loud noise off to the south. The tornado was destroying the Hickman Mills Bank just a few blocks away.
There was little time to react. Mr. Flora hastily pulled his car out of the garage and loaded the kids inside. He became enraged when his wife, according to Hill, “went around the house closing windows and the front door.”
The tornado was on their heels and time was running short. As they raced away, Hill was watching through the back window of their car. At the corner of 115th and 71 Hwy., an image of the destruction was burned in Hill’s memory.
“I watched as our house was picked up and turned over and broken apart on the houses due east of our house,” Hill recalled. “It was in slow motion. . . the back of the car felt like it was being lifted off the ground.”
The twins meanwhile returned to their street shaken but anxious to see their family. The first two houses on either side of the street were still there. “Our house was the third from the left. There was nothing there. Nothing.” As Don and Ron gazed around the destruction of their neighborhood, the house across the street was still whole, but the house next to it was partially gone.
Damage in Hickman Mills
Fifteen stores in the Ruskin Heights shopping center were completely demolished. Over 900 businesses, homes and schools were destroyed. The most severe of the damage was in the tract housing development, Ruskin Heights. The path carved out by the tornado left 25 dead in the community.
Once the tornado headed up on the outskirts of Lee’s Summit and hit Knobtown, it lifted and vanished into the stirring skies above, taking four more victims.
The tornado had been on the ground for 71 miles and one hour 38 minutes.
What is an F-5 Tornado? “Everything is leveled down to concrete slabs and foundations. Nothing is left standing. Trees that are still upright are debarked and road surfaces are stripped off the streets.” KMBC Channel 9 Meteorologist Bryan Busby.
A Community Rebuilds
Forty people were dead and 531 were injured from the F-5 tornado. The injured all crowded two area hospitals, some being brought in on top of doors since stretchers were limited.
In Martin City, many lives were spared since so many people were gathered at events at the church and the school. The National Guard set up throughout the area to protect it from looters and to illuminate the area so search and rescue could continue.
One week after the tornado, the Methodist Church in Martin City held their last services in the original historic church building. The damage to the church was too much; they would have to rebuild.
The Ruskin area rebuilt structures, the largest being Ruskin High School. All that remained of the building were the arched beams that once supported the gym.
The nation watched from a distance at the aftermath of the tornado. “The Ruskin Heights tornado was one of the first weather-related events to make national news on television,” Carolyn Glenn Brewer said. Cleanup would be ongoing in the area, but many were left wondering if something could be put in place to give people advanced warning for when this happened again.
Sirens had already been installed in Kansas City to warn of an attack due to the Cold War. It wasn’t until after this event that more sirens were installed in the area to be used also for advanced warning of a tornado.
After this horrific event, it wasn’t certain Martin City would recover. Only four businesses still remained on 135th St. Today’s landscape that we know as Martin City is incredibly different than it was in 1957. Many businesses were not rebuilt and a lot of families left. But businesses such as Jess and Jim’s powered through and reopened in August at one of the remaining buildings on 135th St. They continue to operate there today.
Today, longtime residents of Martin City, Ruskin, and Hickman Mills remember this event as if it just happened yesterday. A monument to the tornado at Ruskin Heights lists all 40 of the victims and stands as a reminder of what wrecked a community 60 years ago.
To read a more detailed story and see more photos about the Ruskin Heights Tornado, go www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com