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‘Terrific’ tornado hit Newton a century ago

The July 19 tornadoes that so ravaged the cities of Pella and Marshalltown threatened the Jasper County towns of Colfax, Monroe, Prairie City, Reasnor and Valeria, as well. As Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty observed, “We were lucky, obviously.”

John L. Stanford, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Iowa State University, in the second (1987) edition of his book, “Tornado: Accounts of Tornadoes in Iowa,” lists six famous and less well-known tornadoes in Iowa’s past that occurred in Jasper County during a 100-year period.

One of those he only briefly mentions is the May 21, 1918 tornado that struck Newton more than 100 years ago.

Anna Shaw Grant, who was teaching country school just east of the county home, or poor farm as it was called at that time, recalled years later when “I did see that cyclone form, the beginning, and till it disappeared.” Mrs. Grant was 90 years old when she wrote her memories of that day.

“... (A)s I was driving home from school, the sun (was) shining, a clear blue sky. When all at once I saw a monster black cloud the shape of an ice cream cone. It looked like it was coming straight to me.

“I whipped up the horse, had to make three turns on corners in the road, drove about one- and-(a)-half miles of the corner where K-Mart is now (3020 First Ave. E.) and drove into this place where two bachelors live. They were standing against the fence watching the cloud. I got out of the buggy, (and) walked over to the fence to watch. The cloud had dipped down twice before as I was going along. As I got to the fence the cloud dipped down on Newton. You could see chairs, carpets, and things going through [sic] the air as it went over Newton. It raised and dipped down two more times. By that time, these men told me to drive into their machine shed as all at once the sky was clouded over and it had started to rain real hard.

“It stopped raining so I got on the road. I drove up to the alley north of where the Newton Daily News is now to water the horse, as there was a watering trough to water horses with running water so that I wouldn’t have to water the horse at home.

“As I was watering the horse, up drove Mother, Dad, and the girls (Mrs. Grant’s three younger sisters) coming trying to see if I was all right. Was I ever glad to see them? I did not know if maybe they could have been killed by the cyclone. They and the house (at 832 [now 900] W. Fourth St. S.) were OK.

“One man was killed at the Automatic Factory. Instead of going when all the others went out, he went back to get his coat.”

Mrs. Grant remembered her future father-in-law, Edward P. Grant, was working at the freight depot at the time the tornado hit, “and the girls (female employees) ran out and climbed on the boxcars standing there.” Grant, she reported, kept his head, and “told them to get off of the cars and lie down in the ditch.”

According to Prof. Stanford, the storm was one of multiple tornadoes that day (from Denison to Stanhope) that left 14 people dead and more than 50 injured.

“A terrific tornado traveling about 30 miles an hour swept over the city of Newton last evening at 5:15 o’clock,” The Newton Daily News reported on May 22. “It struck the city at Elm Park — the extreme southwest corner – and whirled in a northeasterly direction across the city — finishing its deadly work at the L. M. Bigelow home just north of the Rock Island passenger depot. The path of the storm lies directly through the heart of the factory district and the life of George M. Reid, an employee of the Automatic Electric Washer Co., was a part of the horrible toll exacted by the storm.”

Also injured was Ed Newquist, who was with Reid. He suffered a broken nose, an eye injury, and some body bruises. His injuries were not regarded as serious.

Property losses were estimated at about $200,000. According to the Daily News, the funnel-shaped cloud plowed through the city, hurling factory buildings into the air and demolishing residences.

Besides the Automatic factory, One Minute Mfg. Co., The Maytag Company, Denniston & Partridge Co., Advertising Novelty Mfg. Co. (Vernon), D. J. Eberhart’s grain elevator, M. Gralnek, The Parsons Company, and the Fred Stines Building were also wrecked.

The Catholic Church and Rectory sustained damage. Father McCann’s residence was reported to be “in a deplorable state,” while Sacred Heart Church “escaped serious hurt.” The local priest was in Des Moines at the time.

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