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.

Many spectators view the wreckage at the Benson farm, May 1929

Many spectators view the wreckage at the Benson farm, May 1929

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 Haight home, May 1929

The Haight home, May 1929

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.

Two unidentified children pose in front of the Burroughs home, May 1929

Two unidentified children pose in front of the Burroughs home, May 1929

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.”

An intrepid child on top of the remains of William Royer's barn, May 1929

An intrepid person on top of the remains of William Royer’s barn, May 1929

“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.


It’s October 31st, and A Fine Collection is spoiled for choice, topic-wise.  Halloween! Elections! Superstorm!  As you’ve guessed from today’s title, I decided to go with the weather theme.  But first: here’s a photo of election day in Barnesville, 1944, to remind you to vote on or before November 6.

On to hurricanes.  This photo in our collections was donated by Albert Bouic, and is thought to show damage to the Bouic house in downtown Rockville after “the 1896 storm.”  Thanks to weather fans, who have detailed the 1896 hurricane season on sites like Weather Underground and Wikipedia, we can guess that this refers to Hurricane Number 4 (the National Hurricane Center didn’t start assigning official names until 1953), which hit the DC area at the end of September.












It’s kind of a cute picture, with the boys perched in the toppled tree and probably enjoying the excitement.  The hurricane was no joke, however.  The Montgomery County Sentinel reported on the storm on October 2nd, under the headline “A Tremendous Hurricane Does Great Damage in the County”:

“The great storm, which visited this locality on Tuesday night last, was the most destructive in the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and did damage that will take thousands of dollars to repair.” 

Several people around the county were killed by falling trees; one gentleman suffered heart failure “brought on by the excitement of the storm;” and others suffered near misses, like the young son of Mary Cook of Lincoln Park who, after the family’s house was crushed by a tree, was “found in the woods in a state of hysterical fright.”

Property damage was considerable, and communications were cut thanks to fallen telephone and telegraph wires and streets “blockaded” with “debris of trees, tin roofs, telephone poles and wires.”  Roofs were blown off, barns and windmills were blown down, harvested crops were scattered and lost, and trees fell on houses and businesses.  “The waiting shed at the Baltimore & Ohio [Railroad] depot was lifted up bodily and deposited upside down in the adjoining field.”  The Sentinel offices themselves were “unroofed,” and I was somewhat startled to learn that “the residence of Miss Margaret Beall [i.e., our museum] was much damaged, leaving the brick walls in a rather unsafe condition.”  (So much for my belief that the House has weathered nearly 200 years without major damage.)

Several churches in the county were severely damaged, including two in Rockville: the “African M.E. Church [which] was fully wrecked” (probably refering to Jerusalem-Mt. Pleasant UMC, which lost its steeple in 1896), and Christ Episcopal Church, shown below shortly after the storm, in a photo from Charles Brewer.

Again from the Sentinel: “The spire of Christ Episcopal Church, which was subjected to the full force of the gale, was blown down, and the heavy brick base broke through the roof of the edifice.  The stained glass window in front was shattered.  It will require about $2,000 to repair the damage.  The interior was uninjured.”  The building was repaired and today looks much the same as it did before the storm.

A survey of the Washington Post headlines from late September-early October 1896 shows that the entire DC area was affected by the storm.  In some ways the newspaper coverage is reminiscent of this past week’s during Hurricane Sandy: details of damage, fatalities, injuries, lost communication, and anticipated costs.  On the other hand, the 1896 storm hit on September 29th, but the Sentinel was a weekly paper; residents had to wait until Friday for their local news.

Dr. Elisha Cornelius Etchison (1848-1916), who practiced in Gaithersburg, made himself this traveling medical case in the late 19th century.  It is lined with lambswool, designed to keep his medicines from freezing when he was out making housecalls in the winter.

Dr. Etchison was born in Claggetsville (one of those Montgomery County towns that most people haven’t heard of nowadays).  He taught in the public schools for a few years before attending the University of Maryland medical school; after graduating in 1874 he moved to Gaithersburg, where he was one of the first (possibly the first, although I have not confirmed that) doctors to live and practice in that city.  In addition to his medical career, he was also elected to three terms as the Mayor.  One of his sons, Dr. Neal Etchison, also practiced in Gaithersburg, and another son, Garnett Waters Etchison, was a long-time pharmacist in that city. 

The nice little painted box (I love people who paint or engrave their names on their things!) was donated by Dr. Etchison’s granddaughter, who added some details about her grandfather’s winter work.  “Inasmuch as there was no snow removal in the early days of Gaithersburg, Dr. Etchison drove a horse and sleigh at least six weeks in the winter.  [As he drove,] over his legs was a heavy bear rug and underneath was a hot soapstone to keep the medicines in the box warm and himself warm.”   I have a feeling a lot of people in the DC area are wishing they had a horse and sleigh right about now.

…An early post this week, partly to make up for last week’s delay and partly to cover my bases in case our power goes out tonight in Snowpocalypse 3: This Time It’s Personal.   (For more info on some historic storms in the DC area – including a great anecdote about the 1899 storm, when Montgomery County refused to do any snow removal because it had drifted into the county from Frederick (!) – check out our website.) I hope Dr. Etchison’s insulated box helps you think warm thoughts as we all weather the storm!

Toasty warm lambswool!