This article could begin with Snoopy’s favorite opening line: “It was a dark and stormy night,” although “It was a dark and stormy midday” would be more accurate.
One hundred and six years ago on Sunday, June 16, 1912 downtown Plain City was devastated by a tornado or “cyclone” as it was then called. The quick-moving storm struck between noon and one o’clock, moving east along Main Street, angling slightly south to the creek and continuing east, causing more damage in Kileville and Dublin. There was little or no rain associated with the storm, but considerable lightning. Many buildings lost roofs and upper stories, electric and telephone poles were downed, and one ubiquitous photograph shows a calf that was carried 200 yards through the air unharmed.
In 1912, Henry Wenzel had been Plain City’s resident photographer for 17 years. His studio was on the second floor of the Kahler & Justice Building (later Uhlman’s and now the Route 42 Grub House) at 138-140 W. Main St. Wenzel was working in his darkroom when the storm struck, damaging the roof. A telephone pole fell into the building, just missing him. Undeterred, he was soon busy photographing the damage.
The town clock, not quite 10 years old, was damaged, as was the municipal power plant, where a large smokestack was demolished. The roof of the three-story Opera House on Gay Street was town off, and much of it ended up in the middle of South Chillicothe Street. It is possible that the flying debris contributed to the extensive damage to the Universalist Church on South Chillicothe (now the Christian Life Church). That building was close to being a total loss, with the roof and a substantial portion of the front destroyed, and a new organ ruined. There was considerable debate in the congregation over whether to repair the structure or tear it down and start over, but the decision was finally made to repair it.
Nearly every building on the north side of West Main Street from the Leonard-Haner Block east was damaged. Both walls of the Roby & Andrews Livery Stable on East Main Street were blown out. Today the building is the Plain City Auction, and it is still possible to see on the sides of the building where the repairs were made.
The Presbyterian Church on East Main Street lost both of its round rose windows. It was not until repairs were made in the 1990s that the congregation realized that during the storm the roof over the parlor had lifted and dropped down again, but was no longer attached to the outer wall of the building. (“All night, all day, angels watching over me, my Lord!”)
The Farmers National Bank and Barto & Keiser’s were also damaged, and the elevator at Kileville was demolished.
The oddities that such a storm generates were noted in the Advocate report of June 20. “Many families were eating dinner and just as Sel Heffley reached for a piece of meat, the table and contents were blown away.” “Mr. and Mrs. Pearl Warner’s two oldest children were in a little shed playing with their rabbits at the time of the storm. The shed was whirled around and the children crawled out without a scratch.” “Lee Horn’s barn damaged. Flying board pierced a window and was driven into a bed.”
It was estimated that the total loss was as much as $100,000 or approximately $2,325,000 in today’s dollars. Because the storm occurred on a Sunday after church and when the downtown businesses were closed there were very few injuries and no loss of life.
The newspaper article noted: “Words are inadequate to describe the appearance of our beautiful little village after the wind had subsided. Many are lamenting the destruction of beautiful shade and fruit trees, as it will take many years to produce as many beautiful trees as were destroyed in a few seconds Sunday.”
The Plain City Historical Society has available for sale a CD with Henry Wenzel’s photographs of the damage and clean-up and a reprint of contemporary news accounts.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.