At about 9 p.m. on Thursday, May 2, 1929, northeastern Montgomery County was struck by a tornado, part of a large storm system that caused devastation from Florida to Ohio. The weekly Montgomery County Sentinel reported on May 10th that the “wind storm of cyclonic power . . . was of limited width and serpentine on its course. Everything in its path met with destruction.”
The damage in the county was limited to the rural Unity area, north of Brookeville. The Sentinel article detailed each affected farm in turn, noting that “thousands of persons from far and near visited the scene for several days to look upon the indescribable wreckage.” One of those visitors was Gladys Benson (1905-2000); her father’s farm was the first one hit. Miss Benson donated several photos taken “after the tornado of May 2, 1929,” providing us with visual evidence to accompany the newspaper’s written descriptions.
From the Sentinel: “The storm showed its first violence upon the farm of Mr. J. William Benson. There it destroyed every building – the dwelling house, large barn, 117 feet long, including an attached shed, and all other outbuildings.” The farm was unoccupied, but furniture belonging to “a prospective tenant” was destroyed. Mr. Benson’s apple orchard was also significantly damaged, and the article claimed that “many [trees] were lifted into the air, carried over woods and landed several miles away.”
The next farm belonged to the Childs family; here “every building was blown down, except the barn,” and three members of the family were killed. The fire departments of Rockville, Gaithersburg and Sandy Spring responded to the call made by farm worker James Leizear, who “extricated himself from the wreckage” and ran half a mile to a neighbor’s house to summon help. Miss Benson did not include any photos of the Childs home in her donation.
The tornado next struck the 200 year old Haight house. “The force of the wind broke windows, blew down doors . . . . A large hole was made in the side of the building as if by a dynamite blast.” Mr. and Mrs. Charles Haight were “on the first floor reading, when the storm struck,” but Mrs. Haight’s mother, Amelia Knapp, was elsewhere in the house. Mr. Haight “rode a mile and a half through the storm” to find neighbors who could help him extricate his mother-in-law, who did not survive.
The “still furious” storm “swept the roof off the dwelling of Mr. George Burroughs.” The family escaped uninjured, but “the furniture inside the house was broken into small pieces by the force of the wind, which beat it about like paddles of a churn keep in motion the cream.”
“The last in the county to be assailed by the violence of the storm was the property of Mr. William Royer, whose barn and other outbuildings were destroyed.” No mention of casualties at the Royer farm are found in the Sentinel or the Washington Post.
The Post reported on May 4th that 28 people in Maryland and Virginia had been killed by tornadoes during the storm; most of the casualties were in Virginia, where an elementary school was struck full-force and at least 18 children died. In Montgomery County, the local Red Cross Chapter formed a citizen committee to raise funds “for relief of the sufferers.”
And now for the Public Service Announcement portion of today’s post. I’ve been working on updating and improving the Historical Society’s emergency response plan, but as often happens, everyday concerns can take precedence and “what if” plans get pushed a little ways down the to-do list. It sometimes takes an example of real-life disaster to remind us that preparation should stay high on that priority list. I chose today’s historical-storm post not to compare it to the devastation from the gigantic tornado that hit Moore, OK earlier this week, but to remind readers – and myself – that “what if” can quickly become “here and now.” People, get ready!
There are lots of places to look for advice on creating family emergency plans – and remember, I can tell if anyone’s clicked on these links, so click away! The Red Cross, FEMA, and the CDC have advice for you, as do many state and local agencies (including the Maryland Emergency Management Agency and the Montgomery County government). Don’t forget your pets! The Red Cross and FEMA links above include advice on pet disaster planning, as do the HSUS and the ASPCA. And, though the living should take precedence, this curator asks you to spare a thought for important/irreplaceable documents and belongings, whether it’s a passport, baby album, great-grandmother’s wedding dress, or files of genealogical research/your novel/what have you. The Library of Congress and the National Archives, among others, have advice on both pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery of papers and things.