CODELL — For Codell native Sharolyn Lamb-Gramm, 77, May 20 will always be known as “Cyclone Day.”
“When you hear stories about what happened in Codell, it really changes your mindset,” said Lamb-Gramm, who now lives in Mountain Home, Ark.
In fact, they’re so unbelievable, they’ve appeared in the publication “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
For three consecutive years, on the exact same day — May 20 of the years 1916, 1917 and 1918 — Lamb-Gramm’s hometown of Codell was struck by a tornado.
The first two merely damaged properties outside town. The third, however, killed 10 people and injured dozens in and around the unincorporated Rooks County community.
“As a kid, I was always afraid when May the 20th came around,” Lamb-Gramm said.
To commemorate the triple tragedies, the town today will host a dedication ceremony for a steel sculpture of a tornado that sits on a foundation. On the foundation is a plaque with the words “CYCLONE DAY MAY 20.”
The ceremony will kick off at 12:30 p.m. at the Codell Community Center, 304 Fourth.
Joel Russell, of Codell, organizer of the event, said 103-year-old Lee Smith and his 105-year-old sister Ellen Hockett, who lived through the three tornadoes, plan to attend the ceremony.
Russell said Codell currently has a population of less than 100, but many former residents are expected to be in town on Sunday.
The sculpture will be erected at the former high school building. The original high school was devastated by the 1918 tornado.
Tobias Flores, an associate professor of sculpture at Fort Hays State University, and Danielle Robinson, an adjunct professor at Fort Hays State, designed and constructed the sculpture.
The duo has completed many sculptures in Hays, including the tiger that sits in front of the university’s Memorial Union.
Flores said it took about a year to design and just three months to construct the sculpture.
“The story is just almost unbelievable. In towns like Palco and other areas near Codell, many people don’t know the story,” he said. “To be a part of bringing that back to life is kind of cool and was the highlight for me being a part of this project.”
Prior to the tornadoes, Russell said many would have described Codell as a thriving rural community.
“When the first two tornadoes hit in the early evening, no one was injured,” he said.
The 1916 tornado, an F2, with winds of 113 to 157 miles an hour, hit east of town. The second, in 1917, was classified as an F3, with winds of 158 to 206 miles an hour. It hit west of town.
“When the last tornado struck, it hit right down the middle of the town, and wiped out most of our buildings,” Russell said. “It hit our schoolhouse, houses and a lot of the larger businesses. After that, many businesses left and many businesses were hesitant to move to town.”
The third tornado was classified as an F4, with winds of 207 to 260 miles an hour.
Russell said the town currently doesn’t have many businesses.
“There are families that have recently moved to Codell,” he said. “A sense of revitalization has occurred in the past few years.”
A survivor’s story
Russell’s great-grandmother, Celesta Adams Glendening, who survived the three tornadoes, wrote an essay in 1976 entitled “Cyclone Day,” describing her experience.
She wrote that she and her husband waited too long before trying to get to the storm shelter just outside their house with their two small children the night of the 1918 tornado, so they had to huddle in the kitchen as the cyclone struck. She wrote that she wrapped Max, 18 months old, in a quilt and was holding him tightly, while her husband held toddler Worden. She could see lightning between the ceiling and the wall and knew the house was being torn apart.
“We smelled wet plaster, heard nails pulling out of the wood and heard wood breaking. ... The house had an upstairs in it, and they told us afterward that the floor of the house was completely covered with debris, all except the small area where we stood. ... The house was gone all except the floor, and we had stood up all the time.
″... Max was still wrapped in the quilt and I was still holding him tight, when all of a sudden he was gone. ... Grandpa says I went berserk and tore his shirt completely off of him, as he tried to hold me and, of course, he was holding Worden, and I tried to get away to go find my baby. Grandpa says he finally just pushed me down on the floor, and in a flash of lightning, we saw Max sitting up just a few feet off the floor.”