The following story was submitted in the Olive Ann Beech “Factual Kansas Story” Essay contest and placed second.
Today we are fortunate to have ample warning when a severe Kansas storm is heading our way, sometimes even days in advance of a system. Nearly anyone can pull up the weather radar on their computer or receive an alert by phone. In 1892, however, there was little to no warning, and it was often too late to seek shelter. Such was the case on the evening of March 31st that year.
Way out on the high, undulating prairie of the Kansas Flint Hills in a remote part of Chase County was a place known as Homestead. If you take the long, dusty drive out that way today where the view goes on for miles and the houses few and neighbors far between, it certainly feels like the middle of nowhere. But a hundred years ago it was somewhere, to someone. It was home. Established in 1876, Homestead Post Office was the center for a small, scattered, rural community. The little village of Wonsevu was nearby to the west, and the town of Cedar Point was roughly two hours by wagon to the northwest. About all that remains today, a mute testimony to Homestead, is the Cemetery.
A little west of Homestead Post Office, my wife’s great-great-granduncle John Holdeman owned 240 acres. The Holdeman family had moved there from McPherson County in the 1880s. John’s oldest daughter, Saloma, had married. She and her husband, Theodore Blosser, built their house not far from her father’s on the same land. The Blossers’ young marriage was blessed with little Conrad in October of 1890. I can’t help but wonder if they pronounced his name ‘Conard’ as the family was known to with another by that name.
Some time between ten and eleven o’clock that Thursday evening the storm rolled across the county. No doubt many had gone to bed and were asleep when the cyclone struck. It is supposed that was the case with the Blosser family. Whether Saloma’s father slept through the storm is unknown, but he certainly had not comprehended the severity of it until the next morning. Looking in the direction of his daughter’s home beyond the hill, John failed to see their chimney peaking above the rise as usual. Hurrying over to see what the matter may be, a most astonishing and heartrending scene met him. His daughter’s home was gone. Only the stones of the foundation remained, the wreckage of splintered lumber and broken furniture littered the countryside, and the bodies of his family were found amid the rubble.
According to the Chase County Leader of April 7th, this storm was part of an enormous system that “extended from Texas to the Canadian border and the list of casualties includes hundreds of lives, while the damages will run into the millions.” This very storm is mentioned in the following year’s Report of the Chief of the Weather Bureau. It noted the discrepancy in numbers of dead that often occurred following a fatal storm. Those numbers tended to be greatly inflated by newspaper reports. To remedy this, the Bureau sent out a circular to the postmaster in the area where a fatal storm had occurred and through them obtain an accurate list of the names of the deceased. As it turns out, the Great Storm of 1892 had claimed 37 lives across the state of Kansas — nearly four times as many as the previous two years combined.
One may get a better idea yet of the extent and terrific power of that terrible storm by the fact that the mattress from the Blossers’ bed was afterward found at Elk School along Middle Creek in the northern part of the county some 15 miles away. This remarkable detail of the story was passed along by John’s granddaughter Opal who, four decades after this tragic event, married into the Koegeboehn family that lived near Elk where she learned of it.
The final morsel of oral history tells how John Holdeman went into town the day after the storm and purchased a barometer so he would not be caught unaware again. That very barometer still hangs on the wall in the home of John’s great-grandson Loren Ratzloff. The story, along with this relic, has been passed down over the years. And now I pass it on to you.